Typically, teams might only add between four or sometimes as many as six players in a good year to its 40 man roster ahead of the Rule 5 draft protection deadline.
Perhaps for the first time due to the sign of a healthy system, the 2020 pandemic causing harder decisions, and the landscape of other rosters in baseball, the Cleveland Guardians are one of a few teams in baseball that have that jam you’ve been hearing about for the last eight months. While all year Cleveland hasn’t been ranked among the best 10 or so farm systems by national outlets, though their depth has been touted heavily. Being a “top” farm system and having depth shouldn’t be confused, but that’s a discussion for another day.
In 2021, at least several of these prospects had a chance to play and make a case for being protected or create intrigue for other teams to draft by their performance.
Here is a link to the list of all the Rule 5 eligible players known in the organization.
Additionally, here are all the players that are in this conversation to be added or some risk to be drafted if not protected.
(Note that there is a minor-league portion of the Rule 5 draft where 38 players in addition to the ones protected from the Major League portion are protected from this portion as well. Those lists aren’t really made public but you can usually check this by looking at the Columbus Clippers roster).
We’re also assuming there will be a Rule 5 draft as normally scheduled in December, or whenever the new CBA is signed and in effect.
Names to know
LHP Joey Cantillo: A core muscle injury wiped out the majority of his 2021 season after the canceled 2020 minor league season, which could allow for Cleveland to float him through the draft. However, he’s left-handed, is tall and projectable, has a plus changeup and left-handers are the easiest targets in the draft, and easy to stash on a roster all year. If the Pirates were able to hide Luis Oviedo all of 2021, someone could easily hide Cantillo all of 2022, who has more experience and is left-handed. We’re on the fence here but Cantillo has been on the radar of a lot of teams before Cleveland traded for him in 2020 and that probably hasn’t changed. If he’s not protected, he’s a big risk to be taken.
INF Tyler Freeman: Another shoulder surgery limited Freeman to 41 games in 2021, but he was off to a strong start and has some of the best bat to ball skills in all of baseball, something that is starting to trend widely throughout the sport. Though he is probably not ready to play in the bigs in 2022, middle infielders with the strong fundamental skills and makeup of someone like Freeman are also easy targets, so there’s next to no doubt Cleveland adds him.
OF/DH Oscar Gonzalez: Yes, Gonzalez hit 31 homers in 2021 and was among the top 10 in minor league baseball among that category. And yes, Cleveland hasn’t developed any real great outfielders the last several years, power hitters chief among the ones lacking. However, the track record in the organization of power hitters the last several years isn’t a good one. That doesn’t always translate to the majors and Gonzalez has a below average approach at the plate when it comes to working the count. That can work at the major league level, but the margin for error is lower. In addition, Gonzalez is something of a liability defensively. Cleveland just re-signed him to a minor league deal after he became a minor league free agent a few weeks ago. If they were going to add him to the 40 man roster, they would have done it already instead of signing him to a minor league deal. Still, if the DH is coming to the NL, someone should take Gonzalez and give him a shot. Despite their issues developing position players/outfielders, Cleveland has higher priority players to make room for now. That’s a good thing.
OF Steven Kwan: Kwan had the lowest swinging strike rate of anyone in baseball in 2021, minors or majors (2.6%) and added some pop to his game (12 homers in 296 PAs). He can play all three outfield positions, has speed even though he hasn’t used it a ton, and puts the bat on the ball. If Cleveland doesn’t protect him, he’ll likely be taken as he can play as soon as 2022 even if he could use a few more months in Triple-A. If they don’t protect him, look for a possible trade involving Kwan so they don’t lose him for nothing.
C Bryan Lavastida: After only catching his final JUCO season before Cleveland drafted him, Lavastida has come a long way as a backstop. He still has some consistencies to work on in terms of throwing mechanics and blocking, but pitchers praised his game calling and his framing was rated highly by Baseball Prospectus’ framing rate stats. His bat also took off between High-A and Double-A, so there’s very little reason for Cleveland not to roster him. He can play as soon as 2023 or in a pinch, in 2022.
RHP Cody Morris: A shoulder issue knocked Morris out half the year in 2021 but he came back stronger and better than ever. He was up to 99 early on as a starter with a new slider/cutter, his same good curveball and an improved changeup. There are durability questions despite his frame, but 29 other teams would love to give Morris a shot in 2022 in their rotation or at least the bullpen, so he’s safe as a lock right now unless there’s some sort of trade in the works.
1B/3B Jhonkensy Noel: There are a lot of people concerned that a 20 year old corner infielder with massive power that’s already showing in games could be taken. Yes, there are several organizations out there with room to add several Rule 5 players to their weak system and rosters. Oakland, Washington or Baltimore may all have some room for this kind of player. However, Noel is 20 and has never played above High-A, only spending a ⅓ of his 2021 season there. He’s also mostly a first basemen who can play some third for now, or will at least keep getting shots. That’s not the kind of player that is easy to hide for a full season. Noel needs to play a lot to continue developing as he still is susceptible to breaking pitches. He’s a good hitter but is still raw in many ways, which is scary and good. If a team takes him looking at his upside, they risk rushing his development by exposing him to major league pitching before he’s ready, or sitting him on the bench for a large portion of the season and stunting his development because he needs to play. It’s unlikely a team takes this chance and Cleveland probably will dare a team to try.
LHP Konnor Pilkington: After coming over from the White Sox in the Cesar Hernandez trade, Pilkington had a strong showing. He can miss bats and though his control wasn’t as good as they’d like, Pilkington is someone you can count on for pitching depth in 2022 as he should start the year in Columbus and be something like second or third in the pecking order for starting pitching depth next year should a need arise. Other teams would be ready to give him the same shot in 2022 so he’s someone who likely finds his way on the 40.
OF/INF Richie Palacios: He started out hot in the AFL and cooled off, but still, Palacios had a very strong 2021 campaign and is now more of a fit in Cleveland as an outfielder than an infielder due to depth. But he reached Triple-A with strong numbers. He’s emerging as a leadoff type hitter and should be protected at this point. If not, he’ll have to be involved in some sort of trade because he would be a lock to be selected if left off.
SS Brayan Rocchio: The 20 year old started a little slowly in High-A after a year away from the game being stuck in Venezuela due to the pandemic, but picked it up quickly and then got even hotter with the bat in Double-A. He’s a gifted shortstop who has pop, can run, hit for average and has more upside left, still. He’s a lock.
LHP Adam Scott: Another Rule 5 eligible arm and lefty that saw an injury wipe out a majority of his 2021 season. Scott has about an average fastball, a plus slider and a good semblance of command, save for his rustiness in 2021. Some team could give him a shot because he’s left-handed and has two pitches that should play in the bullpen in 2022. If Cleveland can create enough room to keep him, they should, or work out a trade in order not to lose him for nothing.
INF Jose Tena: Coming into the year some were in on Tena as a prospect and he hit well in High-A at age 20 without much pro or stateside experience. He’s swing happy but it worked for him. He has bat to ball skills though his approach could be better. But not everyone can change that and he can hit, so let him hit. He plays Gold Glove defense at short but can play second or third base. At the beginning of the offseason I was in the camp saying leave him unprotected because the risk of him being taken is low, but I’ve changed my stance because it’s not a stretch to see him have a chance to survive in 2022 at the major league level if someone is creative. It might be 50/50 at best that anyone takes Tena, who has only three games of experience at Double-A, but he hasn’t even reached his potential yet and he could be valuable for them in a trade in 2022, and that might be enough to not risk losing him.
OF George Valera: Valera should be ready by the second half of 2022 to play in the majors. Will Cleveland play him then? Probably not. But he’s their best prospect right now and the best position player prospect they’ve had since Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, so we don’t need to waste time talking about this.
On the bubble
At 36 players on the 40, Cleveland has room to add four players right now, and they’ll obviously need to create more room to do so. Through either straight designating some of them for assignment or trading some for cash, a comp pick, PTBNL that doesn’t need to be added to the 40, they will clear some spots to add more than four.
LHP Logan S. Allen: He struggled to hang onto the rotation spot he earned in spring training, had health issues and never claimed a roster spot. Being out of options puts him in jeopardy.
RHP Justin Garza: Filled some innings for Cleveland when they were a little desperate, but didn’t really take off as a reliever. He’s got options left but he’s 27 and expendable if Cleveland needs an additional spot to clear. Probably not the first guy they would look to move off, but would be an option if they want to create more room.
LHP Sam Hentges: He wasn’t ready for a major league role in 2021 but was thrust into one anyone and he was going to be out of options regardless. He couldn’t shake it as a starter and never found much control, though his stuff looks enticing out of the bullpen. It’s hard to see Cleveland giving up on a tall lefty who throws hard this soon, but maybe they clear his spot using him in a trade if needed.
RHP JC Mejia: He may get a 4th option year so Cleveland may opt to hold onto him as depth for that reason, but there’s more pitching depth coming and he didn’t show much this year. He probably wasn’t ready for big league action in 2021 with how much time in the minors he missed previously, but he was running out of time.
LHP Scott Moss: Moss should have been an option to start for Cleveland in 2021 as he was major league ready in 2020 even. But injuries wiped that out and it’s hard to see him hanging onto a spot on the 40 when there are others they need the space for now. All of Pilkington, Cantillo and Scott might be better options than Moss in 2022.
LHP Kyle Nelson: Was a solid relief candidate in 2020 with high spin stuff and command but dealt with injuries and never did find that level. Anthony Gose’s emergence and the need to create space should make this somewhat of an easy decision.
LHP Alex Young: A waiver claim late in the year because the team needed pitching bodies. He wasn’t good for Arizona or Cleveland. Expect him to be off the 40 man roster to clear a spot.
INF Yu Chang: Cleveland has a ton of middle infielders on the roster now and then will have to add at least two more in Freeman and Rocchio, and possibly Tena. They can’t keep them all and Chang is out of options. He played more late in the year but he lacks the upside of others on the roster already and could be used in a trade to clear a spot.
OF Daniel Johnson: Despite his tools and minor league performance, Cleveland has never given Johnson a real major league opportunity. He’s ready and deserves one. Maybe 2022 is that year. He’s definitely on the bubble with the way they’ve handled his career to this point, because I think it says they’re not as sure about his future given his age by now. But he has an option for 2022 and that depth could be valuable to them so I think he sticks around.
OF Oscar Mercado: He has never regained what made him look like the CF of the next few years in 2019. He struggled all of 2020 and then never really was able to crack the roster in 2021. He’s out of options now and doesn’t quite seem to fit. He has a chance to stick around for spring training maybe, but it’s going to be a battle. They might be able to find a trade partner for him to clear a spot.
OF Harold Ramirez: Cleveland sure gave him a lot of run in 2021 and he hit early on, but he’s not a great defender and has a poor approach at the plate. He’s also out of options and there’s not much chance both he and Mercado can or should be here going into the winter.
OF Bradley Zimmer: He hit some mammoth homers in 2021, ran the bases well like normal and played good defense. But he’s approaching 30, heading to arbitration and is out of options himself. They’ll need to keep someone from this group with experience and some production, so I’d bet he hangs on another year.
In order of confidence that they’ll be protected:
OF George Valera
SS Brayan Rocchio
SS Tyler Freeman
C Bryan Lavastida
RHP Cody Morris
INF/OF Richie Palacios
OF Steven Kwan
LHP Konnor Pilkington
LHP Joey Cantillo
SS Jose Tena
That’s 10, so they’d need to create six additional spots to add them all right now.
Removals via DFA or trade
LHP Alex Young
LHP Kyle Nelson
LHP Scott Moss
RHP Justin Garza
OF Oscar Mercado
INF Yu Chang
OF Harold Ramirez
That’s seven spots cleared. I think they could choose to keep one of Chang or Garza for now. I don’t think they’ll DFA Chang and lose him for nothing if they go that route. If they don’t have a trade worked out for him, they can DFA Garza for the additional spot, but that’s where I’m at right now.