Baseball is back after a tumultuous offseason that started with a lockout and seems to be ending for Guardians fans with. . .a Bryan Shaw signing and question marks all over the field. The Triple-A season starts on Tuesday, April 5, and Clippers fans are in for an interesting and exciting season in Columbus. The fact that things remain so unsettled with Cleveland’s roster means that the Clippers’ roster will be fluid to start the season. This means that fans in Columbus will be treated to a glimpse of multiple players who could be key parts of Cleveland’s future. Time will tell how long the Guardians’ confusing roster structure lasts.
The 28-man roster (rosters have been expanded to account for the short spring training) has allowed for several players to start the season in Cleveland instead of Columbus. The team’s 40-man roster structure, which is full of players who have no major league experience, has also led the team to make some surprising moves and non-moves this spring. Cleveland is heavy on unproven utility infielders and ineffective outfielders (“Zim-cado” has been the ire of many a Cleveland fan throughout spring training, and it appears that combo will start the season as two-fifths of the Guardians’ outfield). It has been confusing to say the least about what Cleveland is doing with its bullpen, and it has the potential to be a real disaster. Yet, the major league team still has a very promising starting rotation and Jose Ramirez and Franmil Reyes batting in the middle of its order. Which means Cleveland, despite the most frustrating offseason in recent memory, still has a chance to compete in the AL Central.
If they do, watch for the Clippers’ roster to turn over early and often, because it is hard to imagine that the supporting cast currently surrounding Ramirez, Reyes and the starting rotation will remain the same for long. And that makes the Clippers’ roster more important than ever because many of these players could be called on to help the big league club compete this season.
The Clippers’ coaching staff returns intact from last season. Manager Andy Tracy returns to Columbus for his second season managing Cleveland’s Triple-A affiliate. Jason Esposito returns as hitting coach and Rigo Beltran resumes his role as pitching coach. Both hitters and pitchers up and down the roster will be called upon to help the Guardians throughout the season, so the coaching staff’s role in helping these players to continue to develop and be ready at a moment’s notice will be key to the 2022 season.
Let’s take a look at the Clipper’s projected roster heading into their opening series starting Tuesday at the LeHigh Valley IronPigs, the Triple-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Gabriel Arias – SS
Trenton Brooks – 1B
Jonathan Engelman – 1B/OF
Jose Fermin – 2B/SS/3B
Tyler Freeman – INF (Injured)
Nolan Jones – 3B/OF (injured)
Richie Palacios – 2B/OF
Mitchell Tolman – IF
The star of this group is shortstop Gabriel Arias. Guardians’ fans who have followed spring training know that Arias had a spectacular pre-season. This followed an excellent season for the Clippers in 2021 where Arias, at 21-years old, hit .284/.348/.470 with 13 HR and 55 RBI. This spring, fans were clamoring for Arias to make the Guardians’ opening day roster until he was optioned to Triple-A last week. But it is important to remember that Arias, who turned 22 in February, skipped Double-A altogether after the pandemic-cancelled 2020 season. And Terry Francona has made clear that April in Cleveland can be brutal on rookies with no major league experience. As Cleveland sorts through the glut of middle infielders on its roster to start the season, look for Arias to rise to the top by June. Until then, Columbus fans should enjoy watching him electrify the infield at Huntington Park.
The other big name to watch is Richie Palacios, who also had a great spring and was in the running for an outfield roster spot. Palacios is a natural second baseman, but he has played more outfield during the spring and at times last season for the Clippers. Palacios is athletic enough to make the switch, and his bat-to-ball skills make him an alluring candidate for the Guardians’ outfield. Palacios does not offer much by way of power, but he is a contact hitter with good speed. Last season, between Double-A and Triple-A, Palacios hit .297/.404/.471 with 33 doubles and 20 stolen bases. He is a career .317 hitter in the minors. Palacios’ arm strength makes him best suited for left field. How much Palacios plays there versus second base will indicate how serious of a candidate he is for the Guardians’ outfield in 2022 and 2023.
Speaking of position switches, where will former top prospect Nolan Jones play this season? Jones is coming off an ankle injury and will likely start the season on the injured list. But he should be healthy soon, and time will tell if the Clippers play him anywhere besides third base, his natural position. Andy Tracy may have no choice but to play him there once healthy, since there are no other third basemen on the projected roster. But last I checked Jose Ramirez is still the Guardians’ third baseman and that makes Jones’ best path to the majors through the outfield or first base. Last season, the Clippers rarely played Jones in the outfield, and he saw virtually no time at first base. Perhaps the Guardians’ belief in Bobby Bradley at first base is unwavering, but Jones really deserves a chance to show he can play another position and help the big league club. His arm is strong enough for right field. And it would be very interesting to see how he would fare with substantial playing time at first base. First Jones needs to get healthy and back on the field. After a rough start to his first Triple-A season last year, he really started to heat up in the second half of the season before getting derailed by injury. Jones finished the season hitting .238, with 13 HR, 25 doubles, 59 walks and 10 SB. If he can pick up where he left off, the Guardians should find him another position because he needs to be a part of the youth movement that is taking over the major league roster.
Trenton Brooks returns to play first base for the Clippers, a position he took over for Bradley when the latter was promoted to Cleveland last year. Brooks is a reliable player with some pop, who tends to hit in the clutch. Jonathan Engelman, likely up this season from Double-A Akron, could also push for innings at first base or the outfield. Jose Fermin is a fine middle infielder who could be the starting second baseman if Palacios plays more games in the outfield. Fermin played a few games for the Clippers last year, but this should be his first full season of Triple-A action. Last year, mostly with Double-A Akron, Fermin hit .261/.332/.395, with 16 2B and seven HR. Daniel Schneeman, also a possible Double-A promotion, could see time in the middle infield. Mitchell Tolman is a utility infielder who the Guardians signed this offseason, because apparently there is no such thing as too many utility infielders.
The most interesting thing about the Clippers’ catchers is who will not be on the roster to start the season. It appears up-and-coming catching prospect Bryan Lavastida will make the big league club as Austin Hedges’ backup. Lavastida spent most of last season with the Double-A Akron RubberDucks, logging only a few games in Triple-A. There is concern that Lavastida would be better off logging everyday at-bats in Columbus instead of sitting behind Hedges. But the complicated makeup of the 40-man roster may be dictating this decision. The Guardians catcher Luke Maile in the offseason, presumably to be Hedges’ backup. Maile got hurt during spring training and will miss at least a few weeks. Instead of creating room on the 40-man roster for someone like Sandy Leon, the Guardians will give Lavastida (already on the 40-man roster) his first taste of big league ball. Assuming Maile returns quickly, we’ll likely see Lavastida in Columbus before long. The Guardians lack depth at catcher, so the continued development of Lavastida is really important. It would be great if he could find success early in Cleveland, but if not Andy Tracy should be able to give him plenty of innings behind the plate in Columbus.
David Fry was signed in the offseason for depth behind the plate, and he can also play the infield. Collins, Lopez and Rivera all played for the Clippers last season. None offer much offensively, but each make for solid backstops behind the plate. My favorite of the three is Rivera, who at 26 years old knows how to handle the pitching staff and is solid defensively.
Like Arias and Palacios, Oscar Gonzalez turned heads this spring. Gonzalez is a big man with a big bat, who has rarely met a pitch he does not like to swing at. Gonzalez is a natural DH but can manage a corner outfield spot if he hits. The story on Gonzalez has not changed since he first joined Cleveland’s system as an international free agent in 2016: he is a free swinger with power who hardly walks. But he has hit everywhere he has played, and there should be a genuine debate about whether he would be more productive than Bradley Zimmer or Oscar Mercado on the big league roster. Last season in 49 games with Double-A Akron, Gonzalez hit .330/.367/.601, with 13 HR, 36 SO and 11 BB. After being promoted to Triple-A, Gonzalez continued to hit. In 72 games he hit .269/.305/.503, with 18 HR, 76 SO and 11 BB. The Guardians had nothing but nice things to say about Gonzalez this spring. But last winter the team did not add him to the 40-man roster and let him walk as a free agent before bringing him back on a minor league deal. That would indicate the team does not see him as a part of their future, but with the DH going live in the National League this year, another team could be interested if he plays well in Columbus to start the season.
Will Benson was the Guardians’ first round pick in 2016, and he is an extremely athletic, toolsy outfielder who, like Gonzalez, strikes out too much. When Benson hits the ball it goes a really long way, he knows how to draw a walk and he has incredible speed in his 6’5″ 230-pound frame. The key for Benson is whether he can cut down on his strikeouts and make more contact. Benson was promoted to Triple-A in the middle of last season, so he should have a whole season against Triple-A pitching to improve his approach at the plate. Last season, between Akron and Columbus, Benson hit .206/.349/.434 with 17 HR, 146 SO, 74 BB and 14 SB. Everyone would love to see Benson succeed, as he is an exciting player and by all accounts a good guy. He also has an outstanding arm that plays well in center or right field.
Rounding out the Clippers’ outfield should be Alex Call and Daniel Johnson, who were both with the team last season. Call is a 27-year-old minor league veteran. Call plays a nice center field and has good pop in his bat. It seemed the Guardians were done with Daniel Johnson, after shipping him back and forth between Cleveland and Columbus time and again last year. It seemed that whenever he was called up he mostly sat the bench, and the Guardians let him walk in the offseason before bringing him back on a minor league deal. I like Johnson, better than both Zimmer and Mercado, but I wish he would have caught on with another team. He’s a great athlete who deserves a chance to log every day at bats with another team, and the change of scenery might be the best thing for him.
LHP Logan T. Allen
RHP Peyton Battenfield
LHP Kirk McCarty
LHP Adam Scott
LHP Tanner Tully
The names to watch here are Logan T. Allen and Peyton Battenfield. Allen was a star in High-A Lake County last season, and looked just as sharp after his promotion to Double-A Akron. In 21 games on the season, Allen went 9-0, with a 2.26 ERA and a 0.93 WHIP over 111.1 IP. He struck out 143 batters and issued only 26 walks. He is a fast riser in Cleveland’s system. If he continues to find success, Cleveland could come calling for him as soon as this season. Battenfield was acquired in a July 30 trade with Tampa Bay last season and is another promising arm. Over 21 games between Tampa and Cleveland’s High -A and Double-A affiliates last year, Battenfield went 7-1 with a 2.53 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 131 SO and 19 BB in 103.0 IP. Make no mistake, both Allen and Battenfield are major players in Cleveland’s continued effort to deepen its pitching staff.
Adam Scott is also a promising arm who should be fun to watch in Columbus this summer. Last year Scott battled injury, but once healthy made 11 starts for Akron and three for Columbus. He struck out 72 and walked 28 in those starts, going 3-5 with a 4.52 ERA in 61 IP. Kirk McCarty was arguably the Clippers’ best starter last season, on a team full of mostly underwhelming starters. McCarty won’t blow batters away, but he has good control and will eat innings for the team. Tully is a soft-throwing lefty who played his college ball at Ohio State. All three provide depth while other potential Clippers’ starters like Konnor Pilkington and Eli Morgan fill out Cleveland’s bullpen to start the season.
Cody Morris’ injury during spring training was a knock to both the Clippers’ roster and the Guardians’ depth. He looked electric in eight starts (nine appearances) for the Clippers last season, posting a 1.72 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 52 SO and 12 BB over 36.2 IP. Morris has the stuff of a starter, but injury concerns may push him to the bullpen. Either way, the big leagues should be in his near future if he can return healthy. Here’s hoping that happens sooner rather than later.
RHP Manuel Alvarez
LHP Skylar Arias
RHP Robert Broom
RHP Enyel De Los Santos
LHP Zach Draper
RHP Nic Enright
RHP Justin Garza
RHP Ian Gibaut
RHP Jake Jewell
RHP Nick Mikolajchak
RHP Tobias Myers
RHP Aaron Pinto
RHP Juan Mota
LHP Alex Young
Nick Mikolajchak, Nic Enright and Tobias Myers are the names to keep an eye on in the Clippers bullpen to start the season. With the Guardians’ bullpen in seeming disarray, each of these players could be fast-tracked for the majors this season. Mikolajchak, a 2019 11th round draft pick out of Sam Houston State, is the latest reliever shooting through the Guardians’ system at a rapid pace. Last year, in 30 appearances for Double-A Akron, Mikolajchak put together a 2-5 record with a 3.18 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP in 39.2 IP. He had 57 SO to only nine BB on the season. Enright pitched in both High-A and Double-A last season, where he posted a 4-4 record with a 3.41 ERA in 34 appearances. He recorded 88 strikeouts, 13 walks and a 0.95 WHIP in 58 IP. Both pitchers’ ability to control the strike zone and limit baserunners make them realistic candidates for the Cleveland bullpen as soon as this season.
Cleveland traded for Tobias Myers, from Tampa Bay’s system, over the offseason. Myers was a starter for the Rays, and therefore could provide depth to Cleveland’s starting rotation or bullpen. Last year, between Double-A and Triple-A for the Rays, Myers went 8-7 with a 3.90 ERA, with 146 SO and 28 BB in 117.2 IP. Myers started 22 games and made three relief appearances. It will be interesting to see what role he serves for the Clippers, and possibly the Guardians, this season.
The other names of interest on this list are Ben Krauth and Skylar Arias. Krauth played most of last season with the RubberDucks and made five appearances for the Clippers. In 25 games and 38 IP, he posted a 4.26 ERA, 46 strikeouts, 18 walks and a 1.26 WHIP. Krauth should continue to develop against Triple-A hitters this season. Arias spent all of last season with Akron, where he had his ups and downs. He had a 7-2 record out of the bullpen but pitched to a 6.92 ERA. In 40.1 IP, he recorded 53 strikeouts, 35 walks and a 1.74 WHIP. He will need to keep runners off the bases to find success at Triple-A. The rest of the candidates for the Clippers’ bullpen are mostly holdovers from last year (Alvarez, Broom, Garza, Mota, Young) or offseason minor league free agent signings (De Los Santos, Gibaut, Jewell). Most of these arms are auditioning for the Guardians’ bullpen which has few proven arms heading into the season. Rosters are being expanded to start the season primarily because pitchers will not be fully stretched out, and injuries may be more rampant than usual, all thanks to the lockout. Simply put, if any of these guys pitch well in Columbus, they will likely seize a shot in the big leagues thanks to the peculiar circumstances of this offseason, and the Guardians decision to not add to their bullpen through free agency or trades (Bryan Shaw notwithstanding).
Overall, this is shaping up to be an odd year for the Guardians, but it is a year that presents opportunities galore to players all across Cleveland’s farm system. It seems, based on the front office’s actions, and their few statements on the matter, that the goal this year is to “let the kids play” and see what they can do. This is especially true for Clippers players, many of whom are knocking on the door to the big leagues. The time is now, so carpe diem Clippers – starting this Tuesday it is time to show Cleveland’s fans and front office who makes up the future of this organization.
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