With no moves at the deadline, the roster deadlock is at critical mass
I can’t count how many times I’ve read about the Guardians 40-man roster logjam and the need to consolidate prospects. It’s certainly a high number, dating back to the end of the 2021 season before the lockout spared the team any Rule 5-related pain. Obviously, that congestion has not eased after the Aug. 2 trade deadline, as Cleveland still has a bloated roster, full of talented players.
This is a champagne problem, to be sure. Woe is the club with too many promising young players, right? But if the whole point of not making any trades was not to “muddy the waters” by, presumably, adding new players that would take developmental at-bats away from the promising young players who need them at the big league level.
Except that the 40-man roster gridlock is now a 26-man active roster bottleneck, and the Guardians have too many players in Cleveland to give everyone meaningful playing time. With just 4 starting pitchers right now (with Aaron Civale on the injured list), the position player portion of the roster is bloated with too many deserving candidates for playing time.
Cleveland did not add a catcher, so the balance between Austin Hedges and Luke Maile remains the same — but Bo Naylor is slashing .295/.424/.558 with a 161 wRC+ at Columbus, meaning roster decisions at catcher are only steady for so long.
The ease of decision-making ends there, however. Second base belongs to Andrés Giménez, who has started 69 games there, oh, and also earned an All-Star berth for his outstanding play; third base is the GOAT’s, and good luck to anyone who thinks they can displace José Ramírez; and shortstop seems pretty solidly Amed Rosario’s, with the club choosing not to trade him after starting him in 89 games at short sending a pretty clear signal of their intentions. At first base, Cleveland has split time nearly evenly between Owen Miller (50 games) and Josh Naylor (47 games), which makes it less of the revolving door it might seem like when considering roster flexibility.
Each of the regular guys needs a day off occasionally, but splitting four starts a week between Miller (assuming Naylor has ascended to first-choice after his hot July) and Tyler Freeman, the 12th player to make their MLB debut with the Guardians this year, seems likely to underutilize both players. Miller might only be a super utility player, but even those players require regular at-bats to maintain their rhythm and remain useful; likewise, Freeman is considered a “high-probability everyday player” and Cleveland will likely not be able to make a decision about whether that forecast is accurate without, ya know, giving him everyday playing time. And that doesn’t consider the possibility of time at first base for Will Benson, which brings us to the …
Steven Kwan has been as advertised and more for Cleveland, with a .298/.371/.384 slash and 119 wRC+ so far this year. He has locked down the left field spot as well as the leadoff spot, where his split is even more impressive (131 wRC+). Myles Straw has been less impressive offensively, but he’s showing signs of rebounding from a godawful June (21 wRC+) with a decent July (94 wRC+) that is in line with his career output. Since he signed a five-year contract prior to this season, it would surely be foolish to think of anyone but Straw playing the vast majority of centerfield innings.
Right field has and will continue to be the most rotated position for Cleveland. Oscar Gonzalez has the most games started there this season, but even he’s just logged 30 starts in right. Gonzalez is healthy again and inline for time there, but he has Nolan Jones and Benson to contend with for a spot in the lineup. Benson seems like the likeliest to make way for a fifth starter when the Guardians require one again, but if he keeps playing well at Columbus he will require big league playing time somewhere. And it’s not like removing Benson from the equation makes it easier. Consider the numbers below:
- Player A: .267/.353/.450, 127 wRC+, .347 wOBA, 29.4% K%, 11.8% BB, 87.9 mph avg EV, 17.5% Barrel%
- Player B: .281/.311/.422, .108 wRC+, 320 wOBA, 22.4 K%, 3.7 BB%, 90.5 mph avg EV, 5.1 Barrel%
A is Jones and B is Gonzalez. Neither player has a large sample size to draw from (68 and 134 PA for Jones and Gonzalez, respectively), but the numbers at this stage are fairly similar with small nits to pick between individual strengths and weaknesses. If the team can ride with only those two, perhaps in some kind of a platoon (Jones has done much better versus right-handed pitchers in his small sample, although Gonzalez has shown no platoon splits), you could see this kind of arrangement being okay for their development at least for this season. But Benson is a complicating factor, as is Richie Palacios, who was not completely overmatched in his time in Cleveland and could be knocking on the door soon; Will Brennan, whose solid hitting and Kwan-like swinging strike rate are turning heads; and George Valera, who looks ready for Triple-A right now and soon enough will be practically demanding time in Cleveland.
Having the DH available is a nice luxury now, even though it means Franmil Reyes is still lost in the woods. But regular defensive reps are a pretty important developmental tool as much as at-bats are. Oscar Gonzalez seems like he could be in line for more DH time than any other player, given that his scouting report has him as a below-average defender, but he’s had a positive impact in the field thus far (per FanGraphs’ metrics) so an easy answer doesn’t seem to be present here either.
I do not have the answers for how the roster should be constructed or playing time divided. But something about the current cluster of players on the Guardians’ active roster just feels untenable. Two things I believe are true about this situation — (1) that the front office very highly values its prospects and (2) there’s not enough room to find out how those prospects translate to the big leagues — completely contradict each other.
On Twitter, Jim Pete introduced an idea that calling players up to Cleveland could be a way to provide them with low-stakes first looks at what life is like in MLB. This is an idea that makes sense, but in the booth Wednesday afternoon Chris Antonetti said “we’re not looking just to give guys major league opportunities, we’re looking for guys who can help us win.” It’s entirely possible Antonetti was saying something that does not match the team’s actions, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time this front office used misdirection in public statements.
However, it seems like the team will have to start making sense of its roster moves soon or else risk losing a lot of talent simply because it did not solve a roster jam problem that everyone saw coming. I’m willing to continue to give the front office the benefit of doubt, as things have worked out pretty well thus far, but after nearly complete inactivity over the offseason and at the trade deadline, something has to give soon. Right?