Last Friday, pitchers and catchers reported to Cleveland Guardians training camp and that means two things: spring training and Guardians baseball are almost here! Position players will report tomorrow, February 21 and the 2023 iteration of Cleveland baseball will have its first full-squad workout out in Goodyear, Arizona. A few days later, preseason play begins as the Guardians face the spring-time Cincinnati Reds on Saturday, February 25. Nearly a month later, meanwhile, Cleveland officially opens their regular season on the road on Thursday, March 30 in Seattle against the Mariners. The Guardians will have the home opener soon after on Friday, April 7 against the very same Mariners squad.
Okay. That was a lot to take in all at once, right? Sure, Cleveland still has over a month until the baseball actually matters but there’s still plenty to be excited about for the Guardians heading into this season. Even though they’re still one of the youngest teams in baseball, Cleveland is expected to win another AL Central title after adding Josh Bell in the offseason. It’ll be interesting to see how he fits within how the Guardians function on offense, especially is superstar slugger Jose Ramirez elects to participate in the World Baseball Classic for the Dominican Republic if he’s given the green light by the Guardians’ medical staff (Ramirez had offseason thumb surgery in November).
There are also a lot of young up-and-coming prospects that could break through the minors and stick with the main club at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario as well. Sure, there isn’t a lot of stock to take from spring training play but between now and March 30, the Guardians will be trying to get a lot of experience, and some possible answers, during the lead up to the opener in the Emerald City. Today, Right Down Euclid will break down three important things to watch for as Cleveland gears up for their 2023 campaign.
Who will step up as catcher for the Guardians?
There are still plenty of questions about one spot on the roster for Cleveland: catcher. Mike Zunino was brought in this offseason after spending several seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays as a possible option. But, he had his 2022 campaign with Tampa Bay cut short due to a shoulder injury. When healthy, Zunino could give a pop to the Guardians’ offensive lineup since he has a 30-homer season in the majors under his belt. But, even if Zunino doesn’t return to full form due to his health, Terry Francona said during winter meetings that the club is more than comfortable playing him due to Zunino’s defensive strengths.
With Zunino, it’s more of a temporary placeholder for Cleveland as the job will likely be Bo Naylor’s down the line. The question, of course, is when will that exactly happen? Sure, Naylor is the club’s top-catching prospect who last year put together a 20-homer, 20-steals season in the minor leagues, a rare feat for his position. But, with Zunino here, it’s entirely possible Naylor spends the first several weeks in Columbus with the Triple-A Clippers before being called up and potentially taking over a large role in Cleveland.
If Naylor does open the season in Columbus, the Guardians have several options in camp who could serve as Zunino’s backup, provided he’s fully recovered from his shoulder injury. Bryan Lavastida, who made his debut last year, is the lone option already on the 40-man roster, so he likely has the inside track. But, Naylor is currently playing for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic, so he’ll be away from camp for a few weeks. When he does return to spring training, perhaps Naylor pushes Zunino or finally stakes his claim that he should start the season in Cleveland rather than Columbus.
Who rounds things out among the starting pitchers, especially with new pitching rules?
The Guardians, again, have a clear top-five group for the starting rotation, unless something goes awry in the desert. After Shane Bieber, Triston McKenzie, Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac, likely in that order, the Guardians have a number of youthful arms to sort through, including Xzavion Curry, Cody Morris, Konnor Pilkington, Logan Allen, Joey Cantillo, Peyton Battenfield, Hunter Gaddis and the newly claimed Jason Bilous.
In addition to starting pitching depth in Triple-A and Double-A, there’s also the question of whether one of those players opens the season in the Guardians bullpen. As it stands, Emmanuel Clase, James Karinchak, Trevor Stephan, Eli Morgan, Enyel De Los Santos, Nick Sandlin and Sam Hentges should have the first seven spots locked down, potentially leaving room for one more arm. As you can tell, there are a lot of names for Francona and Company to choose from. It’s quite the logjam overall but, with spring training implementing new pitching rules, it could make an easier decision before things open in Seattle.
There will now be a pitch clock to speed up the game and that will have a huge impact on things. Basically, the longer the pre-pitch routine someone has, like Karinchak, the more you’re now going to have to adjust things. It’s a silly thought but a thought nonetheless as the Guardians figure out the back end of things during spring training.
Who could force their way onto Cleveland’s opening-day roster?
There are always players who stand out in spring training and effectively force their way into the team’s opening day plans. Although spring stats aren’t the end-all, be-all, there are players who perform well enough to at least make it a difficult decision. Sometimes, like with Logan Allen, it doesn’t translate to the regular season. Sometimes, like with Steven Kwan last year, it leads to one of the best debut weeks in Major League history.
Brayan Rocchio has had a positive showing before as one of the many middle infield prospects in the Guardians system with Angel Martinez, Juan Brito and Jose Tena being names to watch. George Valera, one of the top 35-ranked prospects in baseball, could make a major impact in 2023 and has a chance to move up that timeline a bit with a strong spring. Daniel Espino, Gavin Williams and Tanner Bibee might be a ways from the majors, but the team will surely be intrigued to see what they do this spring.
Of the aforementioned players, it feels like Martinez could be the one who could make a major push to join the Guardians on opening day in Seattle. If he falls short of it, he should absolutely be down in Columbus since he’s showcased a ton of power as a hitter with the Double-A Lake County Captains and is continuously trending upward as a prospect.
Evan Dammarell is a sports journalist covering all things Cleveland right off the shores of Lake Erie. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can also email him at [email protected] He can also be found three to five times weekly on Locked On Cavs, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network.
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