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The Guardians’ Shortstop Competition

The Guardians are set to turn shortstop to a young infielder who hasn’t established himself at the MLB level. Last year’s Opening Day starter, Amed Rosario, was shipped off at the deadline. While he’s available in free agency, Cleveland isn’t likely to bring him back. They should have a competition between at least two fairly well-regarded young infielders in camp and during the early part of the upcoming season.

Let’s take a look at the possibilities:

Among returnees, no one played shortstop more frequently last season. He worked as the primary starter after Rosario was traded. Arias picked up 46 starts and logged 402 innings at the position overall. Defensive Runs Saved graded him as a neutral defender, while Statcast felt he was slightly better than average. Arias had a strong reputation as a defender during his time as a prospect, showcasing plus arm strength with the hands and lateral agility to stick at the position.

Arias would be a clear defensive upgrade on Rosario. The question is how much of an offensive impact he’d make. He hit just .210/.275/.352 over 345 plate appearances last season. MLB pitching exploited longstanding questions about his strike zone feel. Arias struck out nearly a third of the time. He chased pitches off the plate with regularity and swung through 19.5% of the offerings he saw. Of the 293 hitters who logged at least 300 plate appearances, only four swung and missed more frequently.

Despite the middling offensive output, Arias enters camp as the presumptive favorite. In a reader mailbag this week, MLB.com’s Mandy Bell suggested the Guardians were likely to give him the first opportunity to seize the job. Arias’ 2023 season was cut short by a non-displaced fracture in his right wrist when he was hit by a pitch in the final week of September. There’s no indication that he won’t be fully healthy for his age-24 season. Arias still has a minor league option, so the Guardians can send him to Triple-A, but it’d be a surprise if he isn’t on the Opening Day roster.

Rocchio, a switch-hitter, has been on the prospect radar for some time. Baseball America has included him among their Top 100 minor league talents four years running. Having recently turned 23, he seems likely to exhaust his rookie eligibility this year.

Cleveland gave Rocchio a brief MLB look last season. He was first promoted in April and bounced on and off the club on five separate occasions. Rocchio didn’t much make of an impact in his first 86 plate appearances. He didn’t hit a home run and limped to a .247/.279/.321 batting line. It wasn’t the most impressive showing, but it’s also probably not worth making a judgment off a limited sample spread across scattered views at big league pitching.

In 537 plate appearances for Triple-A Columbus, Rocchio turned in a solid .280/.367/.421 showing. He walked nearly as often as he struck out. Rocchio took free passes at an 11.2% clip while punching out just 12.3% of the time. The Guardians prioritize bat-to-ball skills, perhaps more than any other team. It’s fair to question how much power upside he possesses in a slight frame — he hit just seven homers in Triple-A — but he’s more of a prototypical Cleveland hitter than Arias is.

Baseball America remains bullish on his chances of carving out a productive career. He ranked as the #2 prospect in the Cleveland system and in the back half of their overall Top 100 this offseason. The outlet credits his advanced feel for hitting from both sides of the plate and gap power. He’s regarded as a solid defender with excellent baseball instincts. Rocchio has one option remaining.

Freeman also falls into the archetypal “Guardians hitter” mold. He makes a ton of contact with minimal power. The right-handed hitter appeared in 64 big league contests last season, posting a modest .242/.295/.366 batting line. He was far better in a 24-game look in Triple-A, where he hit .319/.457/.462 with almost as many walks (12.9%) as strikeouts (13.8%).

While he has a broadly similar offensive profile to Rocchio, he’s not as highly-regarded defensively. The Guardians used him more frequently at third base than shortstop last season, but he doesn’t have a path to consistent playing time at the hot corner unless José Ramírez suffers an injury. Freeman turns 25 in May and is entering his final option year, so this could be something of a make-or-break year for him to establish himself as a long-term piece in Cleveland.

It’d be a surprise if Tena’s in the mix for everyday shortstop work, at least early in the year. The left-handed hitter could play a multi-positional role off the bench and rotate through the position at times. Tena was called to the big leagues for the first time in early August. He only received 34 MLB plate appearances and struggled in that minuscule sample (.226/.294/.290). The 22-year-old (23 in March) spent most of last season at Double-A Akron. He posted a .260/.353/.370 line over 362 trips to the plate. Tena walked at a strong 11.3% clip but struck out in an alarming 28.7% of his plate appearances. He still has an option remaining and will probably start the year in Columbus.

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Cleveland also has a pair of upper minors middle infield prospects on the 40-man roster. Juan Brito, whom they acquired from Colorado in last year’s Nolan Jones trade, briefly reached Triple-A after posting an impressive .276/.373/.444 slash over 87 Double-A contests. Switch-hitting Angel Martínez combined for a .251/.321/.394 line between the top two minor league levels as a 21-year-old.

Brito and Martínez are probably each better suited for second base. It’s unlikely either breaks camp with Cleveland, but they’re both in close enough proximity to potentially factor into the middle infield competition during the ’24 season. If either plays his way to the second base job, the Guardians could consider sliding Andrés Giménez back to shortstop. Giménez played exclusively at the keystone last year but posted solid defensive metrics in his early-career work on the left side of the diamond.

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