The Guardians, owners of the youngest roster in baseball and a 26-man club younger than the average Triple-A team, have been pushing to contend in 2022. But along the way, Cleveland has continued to make roster decisions with one eye on today and the other trained on tomorrow.
One aspect of having such a young roster, along with the team slicing payroll by tens of millions of dollars over the last few years, is that the Guardians wanted to make sure they found out what they had in a few players before cutting ties with them and allowing them to go elsewhere. It was something manager Terry Francona echoed this spring, saying the team had to find some answers in several spots, and the only way to do that is to play them.
Lewis: Young, energetic Guardians are pushing to contend, threaten AL Central
The Guardians entered Opening Day with five players on the bubble who were out of minor league options: outfielder Bradley Zimmer, first baseman Bobby Bradley, utility infielder Yu Chang, left-handed pitcher Logan Allen and outfielder Oscar Mercado.
In all five cases, the Guardians had younger talent that could be ready at some point in 2022 to replace them. And with Mercado being designated for assignment ahead of Tuesday’s game in Minnesota to make room for Franmil Reyes’ return from the injured list, all five are no longer on the major league roster.
Zimmer (29 years old) was almost instantly pushed out of a spot by Steven Kwan (24) this spring. Zimmer was dealt after the Guardians’ Opening Day game against the Kansas City Royals in exchange for reliever Anthony Castro (25).
Bradley (26) lost his path to at-bats at first base once Owen Miller (25) warranted everyday at-bats and Josh Naylor (who turned 25 years old on Wednesday) returned from ankle surgery. Bradley was designated for assignment, cleared waivers and was outrighted to Triple-A.
Allen (25) was designated for assignment due to the Guardians having several options ready to contribute. He was then claimed by the Baltimore Orioles.
With Miller and Naylor handling first base, Andres Gimenez (23) playing well at second base and Ernie Clement (26) handling a super utility role, Chang (26) was left without a role of his own. After being designated for assignment, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Mercado was the last of the on-the-bubble hold-outs from the beginning of the season. The last in a group of players to which the team wanted to give a little extra time. And in all five cases, the team has moved on to players with less major league experience and additional long-term control.
In the outfield, Kwan and Oscar Gonzalez (24) have commanded larger roles in the lineup, along with Richie Palacios (25) to a lesser extent. Pitchers like Enyel De Los Santos (26), Sam Hentges (25), Eli Morgan (26), Trevor Stephan (26) and others have come together to form one of the best bullpens in 2022. In the infield, Gimenez, Miller and Clement have filled needs.
Mercado, for example, is 27 years and 188 days old as of Wednesday. And yet, he was the seventh-oldest player on the Guardians major league roster. The Guardians were already young. Now they’re younger.
But this youth movement is having results in the short term as well. With the Guardians ’6-5 win in 11 innings in Minnesota Tuesday night, they moved into a first-place tie with the Minnesota Twins in the American League Central. The Guardians actually hold a slight winning percentage advantage, but it’s one that would be evened out once the Guardians catch up in the total number of games – until that happens, the Guardians and Twins are effectively tied for the division lead.
All around the roster, 27-year-olds that represent some of the more veteran voices in the clubhouse are being replaced with 24- or 25-year-olds. The roster continues to be churned up in the name of a youth movement, the result of a series of trades (Francisco Lindor, Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber and several more) that led to a healthier minor league system.
In Zimmer, Bradley (who remains in the organization), Allen, Chang and now Mercado, the Guardians allotted some extra leash to find out what they had. And even in a series of players left with several years of control, those five have given way to an even younger wave of players ready to contribute.
The Guardians had the youngest roster in the majors on Opening Day, and it has only added additional youth along the way to set up the organization for 2023 and beyond. With that, though, has come a first-place tie and a chance to make a run to October sooner than most expected.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at email@example.com. Read more about the Guardians at www.beaconjournal.com/sports/cleveland-guardians. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Guardians in tie for first place, continue to set up roster for future