The Guardians announced Tuesday that they’ve optioned infield prospect Tyler Freeman to Triple-A Columbus. The former No. 71 overall pick and top-100 prospect made his big league debut last season but hit just .247/.314/.286 through his first 86 trips to the plate. That came on the heels of solid but still diminished production in his first run at Triple-A, where he slashed .279/.371/.364 on the season.
Freeman fits the Guardians contact-first archetype, drawing praise for a 60- or 70-grade hit tool on most scouting reports and fanning in just 9.3% of his Triple-A plate appearances to date. However, he’s also lacking in power and faced an uphill battle to make a roster where Amed Rosario and Andres Gimenez have the middle infield locked down.
Add in a disappointing .147/.231/.147 showing in 39 plate appearances this spring, and the decision to option Freeman doesn’t come as much of a surprise. He’ll get another run through the Triple-A level and could still factor into the Cleveland infield before long; Rosario is a free agent following the season, though Freeman will have to contend with fellow prospects Gabriel Arias, Brayan Rocchio and Jose Tena for time in the Guards’ infield mix.
For now, with Arias remaining in camp, it appears he has the inside track on winning a utility job to begin the season. The 23-year-old is seen as a true option at shortstop but has more swing-and-miss issues than most Guardians hitters and hasn’t drawn walks at a particularly high clip in the minors. Arias slashed .240/.310/.406 in Triple-A last season but stumbled with a .191/.321/.319 showing in a tiny sample of 57 big league plate appearances during last summer’s debut. He’s had a big spring showing (.350/.395/.425, 43 plate appearances), and given the strength of his glove, he’s a natural candidate to fill a utility role in the infield, where he can sub in at multiple positions.
While sorting out the bench is a key process for Cleveland decision-makers this spring, the amount of emphasis on who breaks camp with the team can often be overstated. In all likelihood, Freeman will get his share of chances this season, as will Arias, Richie Palacios and others. Injuries are inevitable, and being left off the Opening Day roster is no more a signal that a player will spend all season in the minors than making the Opening Day squad is a free ticket to a full year of service time.
A greater priority for the front office could be trying to lock down some long-term deals with key young players. Jason Lloyd of The Athletic asked president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti about this very topic recently, and while Antonetti obviously wouldn’t delve into specifics, he somewhat “coyly” expressed optimism about getting at least one such contract worked out. Antonetti’s comments don’t necessarily mean a deal is likely, but they’re at least an ostensible acknowledgement that the club has been having conversations with some of its young core. Lloyd speculatively suggests that left fielder Steven Kwan, right-hander Triston McKenzie and Gimenez are the likeliest candidates for such a deal, but it’s not clear whether substantive negotiations have occurred with any of those three, specifically.
That said, extensions for the Guardians were a huge point of emphasis this time last season. Beyond locking up superstar Jose Ramirez on a long-term deal that could keep him in Cleveland for the majority of his career, Antonetti & Co. worked out five-year deals with center fielder Myles Straw and closer Emmanuel Clase in the days leading up to Opening Day 2022.
There’s also one unfortunate health update out of Guardians camp this morning. Manager Terry Francona revealed this morning that right-handed relief prospect Nick Mikolajchak has been diagnosed with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow (Twitter link via Mandy Bell of MLB.com). Francona didn’t provide a specific grade of strain or a treatment plan, as the team is still gathering information and determining the next steps for the 25-year-old righty.
Mikolajchak had a huge 2021 season in Double-A, where he pitched to a 3.18 ERA with a gaudy 35.8% strikeout rate against a 5.7% walk rate. FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen noted this spring that a late-2021 shoulder injury might’ve impacted Mikolajchak in 2022, when his velocity was down and his walk rate was up — though he still pitched to a sharp 3.04 ERA in his first stint at the Triple-A level. Francona offered praise for the 2019 eleventh-rounder’s spring performance, when he posted 4 2/3 innings of one-run ball with six hits, one walk and four strikeouts.