An early look at the Guardians’ corner-outfield competition

March 21st, 2022

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — An answer from Guardians manager Terry Francona about a positional battle made perfect sense. It also revealed something else.

Francona was asked Sunday if Bradley Zimmer and Oscar Mercado had a leg up to be the starting corner outfielders based on their Major League experience.

“Two games into camp?” Francona said before Cleveland’s 9-9 tie against the A’s in Cactus League play. “I don’t think we feel any need to name a lineup two days into Spring Training.”

It’s the logical answer, but it also speaks to the uncertainty at those positions with the regular-season opener only 18 days away. The Guardians can’t be sure who will start in left or right field or even if those players are on their 40-man roster.

Zimmer and Mercado figure into the picture for a couple of reasons. First, they’re both out of options. Second, they’re established Major Leaguers, albeit with middling offensive numbers. Zimmer hit .227 with eight homers, 35 RBIs and 15 steals in 348 plate appearances last season. Mercado, in his third season, hit .224 with six homers, 19 RBIs and seven steals in 214 at-bats.

Those numbers, however, don’t secure places in the Opening Day lineup, which is why other options are on the table, including a trade or free agent signing. If the Guardians don’t go outside the organization, options internally could include Franmil Reyes, Josh Naylor, Amed Rosario and Steven Kwan, who hit .311 at Triple-A Columbus last season but had only 103 at-bats. He’s likely ticketed to the Minors to start the season.

Reyes can slug. He had 30 homers and 85 RBIs while batting .254 in 2021, but he played 11 games in the outfield compared to 103 games as the designated hitter. He’s expected to be Cleveland’s DH again this year, but Francona has said he’d like to see Reyes in right field during Spring Training.

“We definitely want to get a look at that to see how much that can be an option,” Francona said. “If it is, it probably helps us as far as our platoon advantages when we make our lineup out.”

Knowing he might have an opportunity to play the outfield, Reyes said he spent more time in the offseason preparing for the move.

“I didn’t have that many drills where somebody is hitting me baseballs off the fungo,” he said. “Mostly, it was reading balls off the bat in batting practice that was getting me more set in right field.”

Naylor, 24, is an intriguing candidate. His natural position is first base, but if Bobby Bradley is penciled in there, Naylor, who hit .253 last season, could move to the outfield. The question is whether he’ll be ready for the start of the regular season. Naylor underwent surgery in July to repair multiple fractures and a ligament in his right ankle. Naylor ran the bases Saturday and Francona said he will have a “fairly physical” week ahead, after which Cleveland will assess his health.

The Guardians also have told Rosario, a natural shortstop, that he’ll probably see some time in left field this spring. But that move likely would be dependent on Cleveland acquiring another shortstop.

“Right now, he’s playing short,” Francona said of Rosario. “He understands that we could move him to left. We asked him if he thought he could handle the back and forth. He says he’s fine with it. As long as he plays, he doesn’t care where. … We just want to make sure we have our direction to him more solidified so he can concentrate on what he needs to.”

All those options indicate one thing: Cleveland still has much to decide when it comes to the corner-outfield spots.

Bullpen relief

Francona indicated that Sam Hentges, who is entering his second MLB season, will pitch out of the bullpen to start the year in part because the Guardians could go with a four-man rotation with the bullpen piggybacking their starts.

Hentges made 12 starts and 18 relief appearances last season with a 6.68 ERA.

“He’s just one of them that we’ll make sure we get them stretched out to three innings,” Francona said.

Loving Arizona

Infielder Yu Chang, who hit four homers in Cactus League play last spring, is at it again. He crushed a second-inning solo homer over the center-field wall against Oakland starter Cole Irvin on Sunday.

Chang, who could bounce around the infield in a reserve role, said he worked in the offseason on connecting his lower body with his upper body.

“For that home run pitch, it was what I was expected, in a good location and what I was looking for,” Chang said. “I was swinging aggressively.”