The backbone of every Major League Baseball team is their Minor League farm system. Whether for backup when a starter is injured or looking at the bigger picture for how to win a World Series in five years, a Major League club is not operable without its farm. Especially in times like now when Major League players are locked out, but the Minor Leagues are able to continue play. That extra experience time will be vital as the players work their way up to Triple-A and eventually reach the majors.
While having a farm system that will bring you a ring within a short amount of time is important, it is often overlooked how important a consistently good system is. A prime example of this is the new-look Cleveland Guardians. Ranked No. 2 by Keith Law of The Athletic last year, the Guardians have slipped to No. 8 for 2022 as some of their top prospects have tasted the majors or were picked in the Rule 5 Draft. However, they still have an extremely strong core, especially in Double-A, and will continue to be playoff contenders if that core stays intact. Here’s a look into Cleveland’s 2022 Minor League system.
A Competitive Balance pick for Cleveland in 2017, shortstop Tyler Freeman was drafted out of Etiwanda High School in his hometown of Rancho Cucamonga, California. Entering the team’s Rookie League club in Arizona that year, he made an immediate impact in just 144 plate appearances. Finishing with a line of .297/.364/.414, he wasn’t kept in Arizona long. Spending 2018 in the Low-A club at Mahoning Valley, he doubled his plate appearances while raising his slash line to .352/.405/.511.
For the 2019 season, he split his time between High-A Lynchburg and Single-A Lake County where he averaged his numbers from the two previous years. Not seeing action in 2020 due to the cancellation of the Minor League season, he started 2021 in Double-A Akron. Here, he proved the off-year didn’t bother him by hitting .323/.372/.470. These numbers, combined with a career average .982 Fielding Percentage, prove why he has been added to the Major League roster multiple times. I believe we’ll be seeing him tear up the league full-time in no time.
Considered Cleveland’s top prospect for the 2022 season, right fielder George Valera was signed as an international free agent in July of 2017. Making just 22 plate appearances for the team’s Rookie League affiliate in 2018, he made the most of each one. He batted to a line of .333/.409/.556 and was promoted to Low-A Mahoning Valley the following year. Splitting his time there with Single-A Lake County, he had a bit of a slower season, hitting just .217.
Not playing in 2020, he started the 2021 season with Lake County. After being promoted to Double-A Akron later that year, he was able to improve upon his 2019 numbers. He hit to a .260/.405/.505 line between the two teams and maintained a .958 Fielding Percentage. Currently playing for the Estrellas de Oriente of the Dominican Winter League, he is continually working on his craft and preparing for the upcoming Minor League season.
A third baseman at Holy Ghost Prep in Pennsylvania, Nolan Jones was Cleveland’s second-round pick in 2016. Joining the team’s Rookie League club that year, he hit .257/.388/.339. Perhaps just an adjustment fluke, he improved to .317/.430/.482 at Low-A Mahoning Valley the following year. He spent 2018 with Lynchburg and Lake County, hitting similarly to his time at Mahoning Valley. Beginning 2019 in Lynchburg, he was later promoted to Double-A Akron, hitting .272/.409/.442 between the two teams.
That Fall, he played for the Mesa Solar Sox of the Arizona Fall League where he made just 68 plate appearances and hit .200. After having a year off to the pandemic, he was promoted to Triple-A Columbus in 2021 where he hit .238/.356/.431, but posted a .980 Fielding Percentage between four positions. Expected to make the Major League roster in 2022, Jones’ bat and glove will be vital to the young core of the lineup.
One of six players acquired by the Guardians in the 2020 Mike Clevinger trade with the San Diego Padres, Gabriel Arias is a multifaceted shortstop known for his raw power at the plate. An international signee for the Padres in 2016, Arias began his career in the Arizona Rookie League in 2017 where he did not stay long, being promoted to Single-A Fort Wayne halfway through the season. Here, he played only 16 games and hit .242/.266/.258.
Continuing with Fort Wayne in 2018, he hit a nearly identical (albeit very slightly better) line to his prior season. Arias was promoted to the Padres’ High-A affiliate at Lake Elsinore in 2019, finally breaking .300 with a .302/.339/.470 slash line. Having 2020 off (yet still being traded), he opened 2021 with Cleveland’s Triple-A team in Columbus. The time off and big jump didn’t seem to bother Arias as he hit .284/.348/.454 that year. Arias’ steady improvement and ability to adjust to new teams make him the perfect candidate for a backup in case of injury in Cleveland.
Cleveland’s first-round pick in 2019, Daniel Espino impressed scouts by regularly reaching the upper 90s in high school. Espino started his career in the Arizona Rookie League that year, impressing with a 1.98 ERA in 13.2 innings pitched. After moving up to Low-A Mahoning Valley later that year, he had a tough adjustment and raised his ERA to 6.30 in just 10 innings. However, he found his footing in 2021 with Lynchburg and Lake County, averaging a 3.73 ERA in 91.2 innings. Able to reach triple digits, Cleveland sees Espino becoming a frontline starter sooner than most expect.
Brother of Guardians outfielder Josh Naylor, catcher Bo Naylor was Cleveland’s first-round pick in 2018. Like many others, Naylor began his career with Cleveland in the Arizona Rookie League the year he was drafted. Here, he hit .274/.381/.402 across 117 at-bats. Reaching Single-A Lake County in 2019, he saw a slight drop in his line as he tripled his plate appearances. He was also a victim of the 2020 stoppage and found it hard to recover after being promoted to Double-A Akron in 2021. Here, he hit just .188/.280/.332. However, as the Guardians work with him to improve both his power hitting and his throwing mechanics, they see him being an extremely valuable asset in the near future.
Signing with the Guardians at just 16 years old, shortstop Brayan Rocchio has garnered the nickname “The Professor” by his peers because of his high baseball IQ. Although he was signed in 2017, his professional career did not begin until 2019 when he made his first plate appearance with Mahoning Valley. Over that season, he hit .250/.310/.373 and proved his worth in the infield. Splitting his time between Lake County and Akron in 2021, he improved his line to .277/.346/.460. Combining his ability to cover ground with his quickness and smarts on the basepath, he has proven to be an asset to the Cleveland system who expects him to arrive by 2023.
Somewhat of a dark horse pick, Gavin Williams was Clevleand’s first round pick in 2021. A right-handed pitcher out of East Carolina University, Williams impressed scouts by being able to hit 100 miles per hour in his Freshman year. Winner of the American Athletic Conference Pitcher of the Year award in 2021 and ranking in the top-five in Division I strikeout leaders, Williams has proven he has what it takes to someday be a mid-rotation starter for Cleveland. Expected to arrive in 2024, Williams will be a vital piece of the Guardians’ farm system so long as he can stay healthy.
Logan Allen (no, not that Logan Allen) was drafted out of Florida International in the second round of the 2020 draft. Splitting his time in college between the mound and first base, he has proven his all-around baseball ability. Peaking at 93, Allen comfortably pitches at 90 miles per hour and is a strike-thrower. Splitting the 2021 season between Lake County and Akron, Allen averaged a 2.26 ERA and a 0.93 WHIP in 111.1 innings. By increasing his arsenal from the three pitches he has now (fastball, curveball, changeup), the Guardians hope to see both Logan Allens on the mound by 2023.
Known for his ability as a utility outfielder, Jhonkensy Noel has found himself splitting his time between first and third base. Signed in the same international class as George Valera and Brayan Rocchio, it is clear to see that Cleveland knows how to pick ‘em. A quick swing along with his power at the plate has proven that Noel’s abilities extend past his defense. Spending both 2018 and 2019 in the Arizona Rookie League, Noel averaged a .265 average with the League. He started the 2021 season in the ARL, but was quickly promoted to Lynchburg and later to High-A Lake County. Here, he broke out with a .340/.390/.615 line and is expected to become a full-time first baseman and reach the majors in 2024.
Stats and player info from BaseballReference.com and MLB.com. Featured photo from @IBI_Joe on Twitter.