Around this time a year ago, the baseball world was shut down and the Guardians had 14 players on their 40-man roster who hadn’t yet made their major league debut. Once the league was open for business again, nine of those 14 eventually received the call-up to Cleveland, along with eight others who got their first taste of the majors.
Those 17 MLB debuts tied a franchise single-season record that dated back more than 100 years. And yet, it all came together beautifully for the Guardians, who raced to 92 wins and the American League Central title on the back of the youngest roster in baseball.
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Not much has changed on that front. Josh Bell and Mike Zunino were brought in as free agent signees to fill needs at catcher and first base/designated hitter, but the vast majority of the 2022 club returns in 2023. And although it’s unlikely the Guardians match their 17 MLB debuts in 2023, there are a number of prospects on the 40-man roster — and a few not yet added — who could make an impact as Cleveland tries to repeat in the Central in 2023 and make a deeper run into October.
Here’s a look at the next 14 prospects to watch (or younger players primed to carve out more of a role) in 2023. All prospect rankings are via MLB Pipeline.
Bo Naylor (No. 5 Guardians prospect, No. 75 overall)
Naylor was called up right at the end of the 2022 regular season and was a member of the Guardians’ playoff roster, as he offered a much more offense-centric profile compared to that of Austin Hedges and Luke Maile. The club has since moved on from Hedges and Maile and brought in Zunino, who figures to see the bulk of the catching duties — at least to start the season.
President of baseball operations Chris Antonetti recently indicated that Zunino seeing the majority of reps at catcher is the intention. Zunino, a former All-Star, has a 30-plus-homer season under his belt but is returning from thoracic outlet syndrome-related surgery on his non-throwing shoulder.
Long term, the position will be Naylor’s to take eventually. But as for 2023, Naylor’s playing time will depend both on how he and Zunino are performing. If Zunino struggles, either at the plate or in his ability to stay on the field, Naylor could see a much larger role after putting together a rare 20-homer, 20-steals season in the minors last year.
Tyler Freeman and Gabriel Arias (No. 9 Guardians prospect)
Freeman exceeded his rookie status limits last year, so calling him a prospect is taking some liberty, but he’s on this list as a 23-year-old infielder who is likely to see a larger role in 2023. He received 86 plate appearances in 2022, acting as utility infielder, and should easily exceed that number this season with both Owen Miller and Ernie Clement gone. Those two combined for 622 PAs last season.
A former No. 1-ranked prospect in the organization, Freeman doesn’t have a path to regular at-bats as long as Amed Rosario remains as the starting shortstop, but his ability as a hitter will garner him a semi-regular role whenever needed off the bench.
Arias is in a similar position after receiving 57 PAs in 2022. He’s aided by his ability to play first base, which would be a valuable asset should Josh Bell or Josh Naylor go down with an injury, or if Naylor sees more time in right field. Both Arias and Freeman have a clearer path to at least a bench role with the roster somewhat cleaned out, and neither has much to prove in the minors.