GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The middle-infield mix was one of the biggest questions entering Spring Training this year, but now that one of the candidates is off the table, the picture may be a little clearer.
Gabriel Arias was one of three players who were sent to the Minor League camp on Monday morning. The 22-year-old has separated himself as one of the best prospects in the Guardians' organization (and was recently ranked No. 3 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 prospects list for Cleveland) after taking last spring by storm and thriving in Triple-A. And when he continued to prove that offensive consistency this spring, he became impossible to ignore.
In a limited spring campaign, Arias went 8-for-14 (.571) with a double, three RBIs and just one strikeout. He’s slick in the field and has an above-average arm. He’s displayed everything that the club has needed to see to have confidence in his future, but the timing isn’t right just yet.
“He was terrific,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “We tried, and hopefully were successful, to explain to him how much we love him. Because on a day when a kid's going down, sometimes that message isn't readily accepted. I think he understood. I'm hopeful.”
It’s easy for the first thing that comes to mind in a situation like this to be service time. That tends to play at least some part in decisions like this, but that’s far from the driving force for someone like Francona. The Guardians' skipper is genuine in his beliefs of setting up his players – especially young prospects – on the best path for success. And sometimes, that isn’t in Cleveland in April.
Arias skipped Double-A entirely when he transitioned from the Padres' organization to Cleveland’s through the COVID-cancelled 2020 Minor League season, as the Guardians started him in Triple-A at the beginning of '21. He struggled through the first month or so, hitting just .217 through his first 34 games. But once he settled in, he thrived, ending the year with a .284 average, an .802 OPS, 29 doubles, 13 homers and 55 RBIs despite a rocky start. So the hope is that having some time to settle in and build that confidence in Triple-A while getting consistent playing time to start the season will help him be in a more successful position when he inevitably gets his first callup to the big leagues.
“This kid, we think his future is so bright,” Francona said. “We don't always maybe agree on the timetable, and we fess up to that. But we just think that if he can go to Triple-A and knock the door down, then he has a much better chance of coming to Cleveland not only ready to maybe stay there and not go back, but help us win. And that's the hope. I hope we conveyed that to him.”
Patience is going to be key to the Guardians' 2022 season. Not only will they have to grind through some growing pains with an inexperienced roster, but sometimes they’ll need to wait to see the next up-and-coming prospect to evaluate other Major League-ready players like Andrés Giménez, Amed Rosario and Yu Chang.
Now, the middle-infield picture is a little clearer, but it’s still hazy. Giménez will either man second or shortstop, but it’s still not certain which one. They valued him very highly in the Francisco Lindor trade with the Mets last offseason, and this will be the time to learn what he could grow into. But so much could depend on whether Rosario is able to handle a transition to left field.
Rosario attempted to tackle center field last year, and he struggled mightily both in the field and at the plate. But after he became a permanent fixture at shortstop, he settled in at the plate and became one of the most consistent bats in the lineup. So if he’s able to make a move out to left field more seamlessly than last year, that could be a big benefit for the club. Not only do the Guardians have limited outfielders, but it will allow them to see Giménez at shortstop and play Chang (who is out of options) at second base.
From there, the domino effect continues. It’s been reported that clubs will open the year with a 28-man roster, though it has not been announced by MLB or the MLB Players Association just yet). Assuming that one of the extra two spots will go to a reliever, the team could use the other vacancy to carry Ernie Clement, who could play up the middle, at third or even try left field, or outfielder Steven Kwan, who the organization has raved about all spring. But these options would’ve been more difficult to try to learn about if Arias would’ve made the Opening Day roster.