The 40-man roster deadline ahead of the Rule 5 draft is always a chaotic day and has been especially so for the last couple of years for the Guardians. Things went pretty much as expected for the Guardians at Tuesday’s deadline, minus the two trades.

The Nolan Jones trade

The writing might have been on the wall for Nolan Jones when Oscar Gonzalez came back from his abdominal injury late in the summer when Jones was playing OK, but Gonzalez came back and reclaimed his playing time almost immediately. And the day Gonzalez returned from the injured list was the same day the Guadians decided to move on from Franmil Reyes, so Jones remained on the roster but his performance and playing time jointly decreased at that point from his strong debut in July. More swing of the swing and miss issues started to pop up for him. Jones finished the 2022 season with a 71.1% contract rate, 5.5% below the league average of 76.6%, which goes against the direction Cleveland has been going towards. (Although one could make the argument that with the Guardians finishing first in contact rate in 2022, and last in hard hit rate, that does every hitter on the roster need to have a contact first approach?)

There was some question about his platoon split issues vs. LHP, but the Guardians never played him much against left handers in the majors, and the minor league data is probably too small and unreliable to draw much of a conclusion. For what it’s worth, Jones’ OPS left handed pitching in 2022 was .799 (and .791 in 2021). A portion of that is buoyed by working walks

Guardians President of Baseball Operations stated to reporters the day after the trade that positional fit and playing time were part of the factors that led to the trade. Once Jose Ramirez signed his extension, third base was no longer an option for Jones. The comment that position and playing time were factors seem to suggest that Gonzalez continues to have the grasp on the at bats in right field or at DH right now. That is the curious thing, that Cleveland’s DH spot is sort of unsettled and leaves them a level of flexibility on the roster (that feels intentional, and seems like a good decision right now) that could have seen at bats rotate between Gonzalez, Jones or Brennan in right field and DH. With Brennan’s callup in September, rather than calling Jones back up, also painted a picture of how Cleveland felt about the depth chart in this area. 

As far as value is concerned, Cleveland traded for Juan Brito knowing full well that he was Rule 5 eligible and planned to add him to the 40 once the trade was completed. So this was an intentional acquisition, feeling like they got a player they wanted for Jones, rather than just taking the best offer to move him. Clearly, Cleveland had decided that it wanted to give Gonzalez, Brennan, Valera, or maybe another outside acquisition, a chance at those right field/DH spots. So it’s possible they had discussions with multiple teams about Jones, or they might have talked to the Rockies about Brito and this was what it was going to take, so it was a match on team value. The Guardians could have waited until later in the offseason to move Jones as part of a bigger trade that helped the major league team right now, but a one-for-one swap of Brito showed where Jones’ current value likely was. He wasn’t in a spot to be a headliner in a larger trade. But don’t assume Cleveland didn’t call around to assess Jones’ value before landing on this deal. That’s why they say they talk about all of their players. All good teams do.

The other part of the equation of the trade is Antonetti saying that prospects like Jhonkensy Noel, Jose Tena and Brayan Rocchio, who had been occupying 40 man spots during their development and wouldn’t contribute to the team in 2022, have ascended far enough in their development that they felt comfortable carrying a player as young and inexperienced as Brito.

Making a long term play for Juan Brito

Cleveland’s interest in Brito can probably be easiest connected to his bat-to-ball skills. He ran just a 7.9% Swinging Strike Rate as a 20-year old at Low-A in 2022, and he walked more than he struck out. He posted a contact rate of 80.5%, although his average exit velocities were below Steven Kwan’s at the major league level this year, and his were among the lowest percentile in all of baseball, which gives you a good example of the ability of that profile to work at the major league level, but also that it takes a special talent, like Kwan, to make it work. Brito, however, is bigger than Kwan is stature and appears to have some room to fill out his frame a little more. Some weighted bat training, like Kwan did, as pointed out by Eno Sarris of The Athletic, and some added strength to his frame could boost that a little bit. His max exit velocity last season would have been slightly above average in the majors last year. Of course, contact quality at this age is also dictated by the pitching hitters face. Low-A quality pitching is far off from the majors, obviously and a lot of this data translates poorly to the majors. There’s a lot more reps and experience against upper level pitching before you can feel confident in any data point translating as he moves up levels. 

The one thing you can see in Brito’s at bats last year is that has had a good understanding of the strike zone and cleared it well. It appears as if he can discern what a strike is and what isn’t, pretty well. He did show some issues handling breaking and offspeed stuff in the zone in some games, so quality offspeed pitches will be something to watch in Brito’s performance as he moves up. 

While it looks like Brito has feel for the barrel, there seemed to be some examples where the swing is a little grooved and VBA (vertical bat angle) appeared the same on a lot of swings at balls in different location. Perhaps it was his ‘A’ swing and I didn’t see as many examples of his ‘B’ or ‘C’ swing, but I didn’t see a ton of bath path adjustability for all of his contact skills.

Besides the ability to discern balls and strikes and getting the bat on the ball, Brito has no shortage of ability to pull and lift the ball. His batted ball data skewed hard towards pull side (48.1%) last year and in the air (42.2%), which suggests that if his contact ability holds up against more advanced pitching, he’ll get to whatever power he grows into given that approach. (A lot of this doesn’t sound unlike the bat of Jose Ramirez as he developed. That’s not to suggest Brito will turn into Ramirez, but that this profile has the potential to outperform expectations in some outcomes.)

Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen’s 2022 report on Brito suggested that he was an average athlete at best and posted 30 grade (near bottom grade) run times.

“The compact, switch-hitting Brito is a bat-driven prospect with terrific feel for contact from both sides of the plate. He’s only a 30-grade runner but is an average overall athlete with enough control to contort his body and make timely, accurate throws to first base even though he lacks defensive range.”

It’s hard to get a real feel for athleticism through minor league video online, so it’s better to go off of what others have seen in person or heard from those that have. Antonetti did suggest to reporters that they liked Brito’s athleticism, but of course, he’s not going to suggest he’s not a good athlete. But he could have just avoided bringing that up at all if that was an area where they didn’t grade him highly.

As for run times, on video, I clocked at best 4.25 seconds from home to first, which is about a 40 grade (below average), but there are some examples where below average run times aren’t an indicator or lack of athleticism. He was 17-for-26 on steals last year, so even with less than ideal run times, he still takes chances on the bases. There aren’t many examples of runners who are average, at best, who excel in stealing bases. Arizona’s Josh Rojas was in the 50th percentile in sprint speed in 2022 (though sprint speed and home-to-first times aren’t often a 1-to-1 translation of accurate speed) but stole 23 bases. 

Most everyone expects to see Brito end up at second base, though if he lacks athleticism and speed, his range and ability will be tested at the position with the lack of shifting. There wasn’t a lot of video of him at shortop, but his arm at second didn’t suggest that it would hold up moving to shortstop. But this can also change with weighted balls and added strength.

Baseball Prosectus’ Fields Runs Above Average had Brito at 1.3, so not a negative on defense, by that metric. It also gave him a 128 DRC+, which measures batters contributions and not just results, so it held close to his 130 wRC+ (100 is also average for DRC+).

I would expect Brito to see time at second base in High-A Lake County in 2022 with only Jake Fox,Dayan Frias, Milan Tolentino, and Yordys Valdes as the real obvious infielders heading there. It’s a rarity to see players skip High-A (Jose Ramirez famously did this in 2013 after tearing up Low-A in 2012, but a rare case). There’s no reason he couldn’t push his way to Double-A, with just Angel Martinez and Raynel Delgado in Double-A on the infield so far.

Guardians move on from Carlos Vargas’ risky upside, add long term pitching option in Ross Carver

Cleveland decided to clear up a spot at the end of its 40 man roster with Vargas. The development of younger arms in the pen this year maybe played into this a little bit and made it easier to move on from Vargas’ spot on the 40. It was a little surprising considering how early on they decided to roster Vargas,out of necessity, then spending time on his Tommy John rehab. It was pretty clear he was headed towards a relief role and the time missed only accentuated that.The Guardians appeared to feel it was more important to clear the 40 man spot and grab some pitching depth from Arizona in Ross Carver than wait on Vargas’ development and see if he can help in the bullpen. The lack of quality shape and movement on his fastball, despite throwing triple-digits, lacked the ability to miss bats. His below average control didn’t help with that either, although just a year removed from Tommy John and two years missed, it could be argued that he’ll make some gains there with regular reps. His slider was easily a 70 grad sweeper that could miss bats. In a vacuum is a major bat missing pitch, but the lack of being able to tunnel a quality fastball off of it and hitters who could eventually eliminate the fastball if the shape and control didn’t improve can make the slider play down. There is still an outcome where Vargas is a seventh inning type arm, but the risk and range of outcomes are large.

As for Carver, he’s not Rule 5 eligible until winter of 2024, though he made it to Double-A quickly for a 20th round pick. 

Reports are that he is low 90s with the fastball (92-94). He’s got pretty classic, average starter size with a clean drop-and-drive delivery. Even with a fastball that looks average for the most part, it has some utility perhaps with the some vertical ride to it. But missing bats with an extra deception on the fastball at High-A and is a lot different than doing it at the upper levels of the minors, and the majors.

Based on the damage done against it, he doesn’t have enough velocity right now or deception to make mistakes at High-A, let alone higher levels. So Cleveland might be hoping he can add a tick or two to his fastball. His frame appears it could handle some extra muscle.

Carver’s best pitch looks like his knuckle curve, that he can throw for strikes and gets chases on with plenty of depth.

His slider looks like it could be a fringe-average or average offering with some tight break but not a ton of sweep or drop. It almost looks like more of a soft cutter.

I saw three changeups from Carver in a start I watched and two were below average, where it lacked tumble and just had some brief armside run to it. The other one I saw did have some splitter like drop to it that dove under a left handers bat, so it’s possible that it could be a fringe offering with more reps and work and he could use it against left handers to keep them off of the pitch.

I’d need to see more of him at the upper levels before really putting any sort of determination on his future. A move to the bullpen could help the fastball velocity wise and his curveball would be a great weapon out there, and the ability to use the slider, and not really need the changeup. But he’ll be 23 all of 2023 and should be in Double-A with under 140 pro innings under his belt, so there’s some time to see development here, which is part of the value of a trade for Cleveland. They opened up a 40 man spot on a player they weren’t sure about the impact on over the next couple of years for a pitcher with some intrigue and development ceiling to gain that they don’t need to make a decision on for two season.

Internal 40 man protections

Meanwhile, there were no surprises among the Guardians 40 man protection outside of Brito. Angel Martinez, Joey Cantillo and Tim Herrin all made sense. Herrin was probably the only name that wasn’t a sure thing, but out of all the relief options they could have added, he was the one that stood out thanks to his high 90s fastball, slider, cutter and improved control. 

Unprotected prospects

Without knowing everyone’s 40 man situation, I’ve mentioned before that Nick Mikolajchak had his stuff back up this year and he was down to 91-94 vs. 93-95 last year with better stuff. Some of that could have been getting used to the ball at Triple-A (supposedly they were different between Double-A and Triple-A, which potentially could explain some issues with other ams), but if someone thinks he can get back to his 2021 stuff, they could take him. Had he been as good in 2022 as he was in 2021, he probably would have been a choice above Herrin. 

RHP Peyton Battenfield could be an attractive target as well as teams could see him as coming from three pitching/data savvy organizations in his history (Houston, Tampa Bay, Cleveland), but people may also think twice about why Cleveland allowed him to be exposed. Cleveland wouldn’t give up on an arm they think could help them in 2023. That’s not to say Battenfield still can’t help them, but as far as Rule 5 goes, if I’m another team who’s thinking about snagging Battenfield, I’m at least asking myself why Cleveland wouldn’t roster him with all their pitching development success.

Other relievers like LHP Andrew Misiaszek had his fans in the org to roster him and has deception, RHP Nic Enright should get consideration based on his track record of success, RHP Kyle Marman is a data special for teams who look at his pitch data and might see something.

OF Johnthan Rodriguez might receive some consideration but right now he’s mostly power only/arm only corner profile who barely only scratched Double-A, and High-A stats are hard to take too seriously. 

Some team who values C David Fry’s versatility might be interesting in popping him in the Rule 5, but the defensive grades at catcher are pretty uncertain at best right now, so he’d really be more of a corner bat who can be an emergency catcher. That’s still useful if you’re a team that wants to DH your catcher or pinch hit for your catcher (like Cleveland last year).

Ethan Hankins and Lenny Torres Jr. have been injured and Torres has been uneffective in two seasons back from his Tommy John, too far away and unable to stick on a major league roster in 2023 to really be considered a serious loss, even if someone picked them, which feels unlikely.

Offseason situation

Cleveland used the non-tender deadline to make a decision on C Luke Maile, its only non-tender of the offseason. So they’re going to address catcher one way or another with only Bo Naylor and Bryan Lavastida on the 40 man roster. Catching depth is not a strength of the system right now. I would expect some minor league signings to backfull rosters in the minors, maybe some minor trades, and a big one could be on the table. Either way, they need options because they are unlike to start the season with two catchers on the 40 and both in the majors. 

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