CLEVELAND -- The Guardians knew that setting their 40-man roster was going to be more challenging than it has been over the past few offseasons. On Friday, the team’s plethora of moves demonstrated why.
Cleveland selected 10 of its prospects' contracts, but entered the day with just four vacancies on the 40-man roster. Here’s a breakdown of the shuffling the club had to do to protect its young talent from the Rule 5 Draft prior to Friday’s 6 p.m. ET deadline:
Who was added to the 40-man
From Triple-A: Outfielder Steven Kwan, righty Cody Morris and infielder Richie Palacios
From Double-A: Infielder Tyler Freeman, catcher Bryan Lavastida, lefty Konnor Pilkington, infielder Brayan Rocchio, infielder Jose Tena and outfielder George Valera
From High-A: Infielder Jhonkensy Noel
“Not only is it a lot of players for us, it’s among the highest total that’s ever been added at least in the recent history -- the last 10 or 15 years," Guardians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said. "If anything, we view it as a sign of organizational health."
Added by trade
The Guardians picked up another righty in Tobias Myers from the Rays in exchange for Minor League infielder Junior Caminero. Myers owned a 3.90 ERA in 25 games (22 starts) for the Rays’ Double-A and Triple-A squads. Myers was also added to Cleveland’s 40-man roster.
“He’s a guy we’ve talked about for quite a while,” Antonetti said. “Tried to acquire him, had a few conversations to raise about him this past deadline. He’s an athletic right-handed pitcher with a good four-pitch mix. Changeup is currently his best secondary pitch, but he also has a curveball and cutter.”
Who was released
In order to clear space for the 11 new faces, the Guardians had to part ways with seven players: outfielders Daniel Johnson and Harold Ramirez and hurlers J.C. Mejía, Scott Moss, Kyle Nelson, Justin Garza and Alex Young.
The meaning behind the moves
There was no doubt that middle-infielder Freeman (the club’s No. 1 prospect according to MLB Pipeline), outfielder Valera (No. 2) and middle infielder Rocchio (No. 7) would be protected from the Rule 5 Draft. The trio has been on Cleveland’s radar since each joined the farm system, and with the club's constant need for outfielders, Valera certainly becomes a valuable piece on the 40-man roster.
Even though Freeman's 2021 season ended early after left shoulder surgery, Cleveland remains optimistic about his future. The only question mark when it comes to Freeman is the abundance of middle infielders the Guardians have in their system (and now on their 40-man roster), including Rocchio, Gabriel Arias, Andrés Giménez, Amed Rosario, Ernie Clement, Yu Chang and Owen Miller. Cleveland may have to get creative in using some guys as trade pieces, while figuring out who the best options to lock down second and shortstop will be for the future.
"I do think you’ll probably see us, with a few of those guys, continue to give them opportunities at other positions to increase the flexibility and opportunities to contribute at the Major League level for us," Antonetti said. "We view that as a good problem to have. You won’t find [us] complaining about having too many good players at any position, especially positions as demanding as the middle-infield positions.”
Rocchio is an intriguing candidate, though he may need a little more time than the rest of the names on this list before cracking the big league roster. The 20-year-old infielder split the 2021 season between High-A Lake County and Double-A Akron, leading the organization in runs scored (79) and posting a combined .277 average with 26 doubles, five triples, 15 homers and 63 RBIs.
Palacios (No. 14) was the next most likely name to be added to the 40-man roster. While he spent the majority of the season at second base, he might end up finding a home in Cleveland’s outfield. This past season, he led the Guardians’ farm system in average (.297) and doubles (33).
After these four top prospects, there were no true guarantees of who could be added to Cleveland’s roster. But it's no secret the team desperately needs outfield help, which is why adding Kwan – who batted a combined .328 between Double-A and Triple-A this year, striking out just 31 times in 341 plate appearances -- was important. And with just as much shortage of depth behind the plate as there is in the outfield, Lavastida (No. 13) was another crucial addition.
"Kwan and Palacios have the most upper-level experience," Antonetti said. "Both have contributed in Triple-A. Palacios got additional experience in the Arizona Fall League, where he played well. They're probably a little bit further on their developmental path than George Valera. But George has made great strides, finished the year in Double-A and was not only one of the youngest players there but among the more productive. So we're really excited about the future of that group."
The constant outfield troubles the team has endured over the past few years is also what led to the release of Johnson and Ramirez. Johnson had a few brief stints in the big leagues but was never able to find his footing. Ramirez made solid contact offensively for Cleveland throughout the season, but his bat and his defense were consistent enough to land a permanent job.
“Daniel put in a tremendous amount of effort, worked really hard, but we had a really difficult time unlocking that at the Major League level,” Antonetti said. “Harold contributed so much to our team last year and at times hit in the middle of the order for us. … We had to make some difficult decisions. We took off some players that we think are going to continue to contribute at the Major League level and be productive.”
The roster crunch forced the team to part ways with a handful of other players, including hurlers who had very little impact on the big league team (or none at all in the case of Moss). Now, the club has the option to turn to new arms like Morris (No. 22) -- who had a breakout season, posting a 1.62 ERA in 15 games (14 starts) between Double-A and Triple-A -- and Pilkington, who was acquired from the White Sox at the Trade Deadline.
And while Tena and Noel (No. 25) might be younger, more inexperienced options, the organization clearly values what they’ve brought to the table. Tena jumped from Rookie ball to High-A last season, hitting .281 with 25 doubles and 58 RBIs in 107 games, and Noel batted a combined .340 with 19 homers and 66 RBIs in 70 contests but was limited in playing time due to hand and ankle injuries.