Seven players off. Eleven players on. In one night, the Guardians’ 40-man roster was overhauled.
The Guardians on Friday night announced a flurry of roster moves, including one trade and a series of additions and subtractions, ahead of the 6 p.m. deadline to add players to the 40-man roster and thus protect them from the Rule 5 Draft.
When the dust settled, seven players were designated for assignment, one was traded and 11 were added to the 40-man roster for the first time. In effect, Friday’s moves transformed the back end of the 40-man roster.
The Guardians started the day with 36 players on the 40-man roster. The first element: clearing enough space in order to add the needed prospects. Outfielders Daniel Johnson and Harold Ramirez, right-handed-pitchers Justin Garza and J.C. Mejia and left-handed-pitchers Scott Moss, Kyle Nelson and Alex Young were all designated for assignment, momentarily dropping that number to 29.
Ten players from within the system were then added to the 40-man roster, a group that included the organization’s top two prospects and eight of the top 25. The Guardians selected the contracts of infielder Tyler Freeman (No. 1-ranked prospect according to MLB Pipeline), outfielder George Valera (No. 2), infielder Brayan Rocchio (No. 7), infielder Jose Tena (No. 12), catcher Bryan Lavastida (No. 13), second baseman/outfielder Richie Palacios (No. 14), right-handed pitcher Cody Morris (No. 22), corner infielder Jhonkensy Noel (No. 25), right-handed pitcher Konnor Pilkington (from the Cesar Hernandez trade) and outfielder Steven Kwan.
It was also announced that right-handed pitcher Tobias Myers was acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for Junior Caminero. Myers, who was ranked as the No. 29 prospect in the Rays’ system, was then added to the 40-man roster, bringing it to a full 40, meaning the Guardians won’t be eligible to take any players in the Rule 5 Draft. Though, it has been clear for months that protecting as many highly-valued players within the organization as possible was the sole objective.
“In fact, not only is it a lot of players for us, it’s among the highest total that’s ever been added, at least in recent history, the last 10 or 15 years,” said president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti on a Zoom call. “More than anything, we view it as a sign of organizational health. The cool part for us, when you look up and down the types of players we added, they’re players who joined the organization from all different places, from our international group, Latin America.”
“So, really, all of our acquisition channels contributed to this group. I think it’s a sign of the organizational health we have and how strongly we feel about the talent base within the organization.”
It leaves the Guardians, who had the youngest major league roster in baseball last season, with an even more youthful 40-man roster, now brimming with a higher number of prospects with bright futures but no major-league experience or service time. In an effort to protect many of the organization’s top prospects, the front office is now tasked with balancing readiness to contribute in the majors with long-term value, development and service time. The Guardians are young and built for sustainability, but with that comes the unpredictable balance of youth.
“Yeah, that was one of the things we spent a lot of time working through,” Antonetti said. “You can make a case individually for each of, not only the 11 players we added, but a handful of other players we could have potentially added to the roster based on the individual assessments. But one of the things we did have to weigh was, how do we construct a major-league team and look at where each player is in his developmental process and the likelihood that he can contribute to our major-league team in the near future? We do recognize we can’t just have a 40-man roster that’s filled with players contributing in the minor leagues. We need those players to contribute for us in the major leagues as well.”
The Rays were also looking to clear space. But while they had similar goals, the Guardians took the opportunity to add Myers to the organization.
“[Myers] is a guy we’ve talked about for quite a while. We tried to acquire him. We had a few conversations with the Rays about him this past deadline,” Antonetti said. “He’s an athletic, right-handed pitcher with a good, four-pitch mix. His fastball is up to 96 with really good life. His changeup is currently his best secondary pitch, but he also has a curveball and cutter. He performed really well, continues to make great progress. … He’ll join the organization and provide another upper-level starter for us, which is one of the areas we set out to build depth.”
Those 11 additions to the 40-man roster led to some difficult decisions, namely with Johnson, Moss and others. Among the players designated for assignment, some never unlocked their potential in the majors. Others never really progressed enough due to injuries. Johnson, for example, was on the bubble along with Oscar Mercado in the outfield. Mercado, at least, had the sample season of 2019 when he performed well as a rookie.
“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. “He put together some really successful seasons in the minor leagues but just hasn’t yet been able to transition that to major league performance. In an ideal world, we would have continued down that path with Daniel, but obviously when we’re adding 11 players, we had to make some difficult decisions with the players we took off, and Daniel was one of those. I still believe he’s going go on and be a productive offensive player at the major league level.”
Designating Johnson and Ramirez leaves the Guardians with five outfielders with major league experience on the 40-man roster: Myles Straw, Bradley Zimmer, Mercado, Josh Naylor and Franmil Reyes. Valera, Palacios and Kwan are also now on the 40-man roster as prospects. But the number of available outfielders can change based on positional need and health.
For example, it remains to be seen how much Reyes can play right field in 2022, but that does remain a goal of his and the team as he looks to expand his defensive flexibility. If not, Reyes can slide in as the everyday designated hitter again. Amed Rosario could also possibly factor into that group, though the team seems more intent on leaving him at shortstop for now. And Nolan Jones remains a candidate to possibly join that group should the Guardians choose to go that route to get him to the majors at some point in 2022. That looked likely in 2021, but Jones’ season never got off the ground at Triple-A.
Then there’s Naylor, who is recovering from the brutal ankle injury and resulting surgery that ended his 2021 season. The team still doesn’t have a timeline for his return due to the extensiveness of the procedure, but there is hope he can partake in some form of baseball activities this spring. When he can return to major league games is another question.
“He continues to progress well,” Antonetti said. “[Head athletic trainer] James Quinlan went out not this past week but the week before to visit with Josh and visit with him personally and came back with really good reports. … So, we continue to remain optimistic he’ll come to spring training and be able to certainly be in baseball activities. Exactly when he’ll be game ready is still a little difficult to predict.”
But in addition to those contingency plans, the outfield figures to be a prime target spot for the Guardians in free agency. Eddie Rosario was the marquee free-agent signing for the club last winter but didn’t return much on that investment before being dealt to the Atlanta Braves and helping them win the World Series.
Friday’s series of roster moves also highlighted the team’s influx of talented middle infielders within the minor league system, which has become one of the strong points of the organization. It has led to some playing other positions in order to find enough on-field time.
“At least in the near term, we think we will continue to have opportunities for each of them based upon where they are and where we expect them to contribute next year,” Antonetti said. “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. But as I said at the beginning, we view that as a good problem to have. You won’t find Mike [Chernoff] and I complaining about having too many good players at any position, especially positions as demanding as the middle-infield positions.”
Ryan Lewis can be reached at [email protected] Read more about the Indians at www.beaconjournal.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Guardians make flurry of moves to fill 40-man roster; Johnson, others DFA