While the MLB lockout was going strong, minor league affiliates were quick to announce they would start on time, despite what was happening at baseball’s highest level. After losing the 2020 season due to Covid-19 and a minor league reduction and realignment for 2021, I know myself, as well as other patrons of the minors, were able to breathe a little easier knowing 2022 might dare I say, be normal. Being a small-market team, the Guardians build and live through their farm system, as well as their amazing development of starting pitchers. In an attempt to protect as many prospects as they could from the Rule 5 Draft, its eventual cancellation post-lockout left them in a bit of a conundrum with the 40-man roster, leading to a bevy of rookies (17!) making their major league debut.
As a result, the Guardians fielded the youngest team in Major League Baseball last year and even had a younger team than most Triple-A baseball teams. This led to a year that most baseball minds pegged Cleveland to finish 3rd or worse in the division. With Jose Ramirez’s trade speculation and a rebranding with a new team name, the casual fan wasn’t overly excited heading into the 2022 season. Alas, some unexpected heroes arrived to make people talk more and more about The Guardians.
Steven Kwan and Oscar Gonzalez, who were ranked in Tier 3 this time last season, hit their way into the 2023 plan, while some higher-ranked and higher-drafted, prospects are still finding their footing. The Guards, in the last few drafts and trades, have gone against the grain of the ideal of the “Three-true-outcome”, stating that most at-bats end in a home run/strikeout/walk, by targeting “high-contact” types of hitters and adopting the “small-ball” approach. As a result, the Guardians had the lowest strikeout rate and whiff percentage, along with the highest chase contact rate and amount of batted balls. Pair that with strong pitching and four gold-glove fielders, it’s not hard to see why the success was there. Tyler Freeman is still “prospect-eligible” in many dynasty leagues (only 77 AB in majors), but I’ve chosen not to include him in this Top 50 as he’s exceeded MLB rookie limits with 64 days on the active roster. Had I included him, he would have slotted in lower Tier 2.
The benefit of hoarding prospects is that you increase your chances of finding that unheralded player, which sometimes makes up for the time the higher draft picks may flop. The bad thing, if there is such a thing, is that you can only put nine players on the field at once. Coming off an AL Central crown, an ALDS appearance, and with a young roster now with MLB and playoff experience, the thoughts surrounding the Guards of Cleveland are, if this team can finally take it through to the end of October, who from their top tier farm system will be there to help?
Finally, here’s one of the best farm systems for the 2023 season and my take on their Top 50 prospects.
Guardians Minor League Affiliates:
Columbus Clippers (@CLBClippers) – Triple-A
Akron RubberDucks (@AkronRubberduck) – Double-A
Lake County Captains (@LCCaptains) – High-A
Lynchburg Hillcats (@LynHillcats) – Single-A
FCL Guardians – Rookie
DSL Guardians – Rookie
Tier 1: Players with high expectations of both making the majors and playing at an All-Star level for a number of years
Tier 2: Players with an above-average expectation of making the majors and being a solid contributor
Tier 3: Players with an average expectation of making the majors and being a solid contributor
Tier 4: Players who have the potential of making the majors, or have a high likelihood of making the majors but provide minimal impact (e.g. middle reliever, low-ceiling UT guys)
Tier 5: Players of interest, worth keeping an eye on, who have an outside chance of making their team’s 40-man roster
Levels listed for each player are the highest levels the player reached in 2022
1. George Valera, OF, 22, Triple-A
Plate discipline and a sweet swing put Valera at the top. He struggled initially with his advancement to AAA, which is his usual progression when moving up a level. If that trend continues, he should start in AAA and excel. RF seems the likely spot for Valera to debut, Expect to see him donning a Guardians uniform by the middle of 2023 if Oscar Gonzalez struggles this season.
2. Daniel Espino, RHP, 22, Double-A
If Espino’s 2022 season wasn’t cut short by injuries, he would likely be the top guy in a Guardians farm system that churns out Major League pitchers. A triple-digit fastball and a plus slider make him the Guards #1 pitching prospect. He had a 35/4 K/BB rate in 18.1 innings in 2022 before the injuries. While 2024 is the most logical debut, but don’t rule out a Guardians bullpen role late in 2023.
3. Gavin Williams, RHP, 23, Double-A
The 2021 1st rounder started with High-A Lake County, but after dominating hitters to a tune of a 1.40 ERA in 9 starts, he was promoted to AA. His 70-grade fastball got touched up a little more with the advanced hitters, but he maintained a WHIP of 1.00 with a 2.31 ERA with Akron. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Williams debut before Espino.
4. Brayan Rocchio, SS/2B, 22, Triple-A
Aptly named “The Professor” for his defensive IQ, Rocchio’s appearance this high is mostly due to that defense, but last season he showed that his bat is not to be thought of as a weakness. With line drive ability and aggressive nature on the base paths, he’ll fit right in on this young Guardians team. Most likely slated to be the Guardians SS of the future, sharing the INF with the gold glover Gimenez will lead to great defensive plays in the coming years.
5. Bo Naylor, C, 22, MLB
The catcher of the future in Cleveland, and the younger brother to Josh. After finding his offensive prowess in AAA, Cleveland gave him his first taste of the majors in October 2022. His defense is ahead of his offense at this stage, which is what Cleveland values. If he can hit .250 with a dozen homers with the MLB team, it would be a boon compared to recent years.
6. Gabriel Arias, SS/3B, 22, MLB
2023 is a make-or-break year for Arias, in Cleveland that is. With several other middle infield prospects in the mix and only SS with an uncertain future, Arias has to break camp this year with roster a spot and prove he belongs. He could be a UTIL INF and spell Jose Ramirez regularly at 3rd as his ticket to playing time.
7. Tanner Bibee, RHP, 23, Double-A
Starting at High-A to make his pro debut, the 2021 5th-round pick Bibee finished at AA Akron and looks to be another in a pattern of Cleveland pitchers who pound the strike zone with exceptional control. The midseason jump from A+ to AA saw Bibee get even better as he finished with a 1.83 ERA, 81/14 K/BB rate in 73.2 innings.
8. Logan Allen, LHP, 24, Triple-A
Currently the only Logan Allen in the Cleveland system, he has steadily made his way up the Cleveland prospects rankings with a solid 3-pitch mix. While he struggled once promoted to AAA last season, he will have the opportunity to better himself while in Columbus as the MLB team is in no rush to get him up.
9. Chase DeLauter, OF, 21, College
The 16th overall pick by Cleveland in 2022 looks to make his pro debut in 2023, likely with High-A Lake County. He walked more times (62) than he struck out (45) in his collegiate career. Something the Guardians already excel at, he will be welcomed to Cleveland in 2-3 years.
10. Angel Martinez, SS/3B, 21, Double-A
Another middle infielder with a high baseball IQ and a knack for making consistent contact, these skill have allowed Angel to play at a level higher than those of the same age. A switch-hitter, though better from the left, they hope to see him develop 20-homer pop as he matures.
11. Cody Morris, RHP, 25, MLB
After a shoulder strain delayed most of his 2022 season, Morris got in 9 appearances (6 starts) in the minors before making his MLB debut. 7 appearances (5 starts) in September for the Guardians gave them the boost they needed. In a crowded starting rotation, Morris could be a long reliever and spot starter until a rotation spot opens due to an injury.
12. Jose Tena, SS/2B, 21, Double-A
Like most infield prospects in the Cleveland system, no one exclusively plays one position, and the same goes for Tena. After winning the AFL batting title as the youngest player there in 2021, he played his age-21 season in AA and even cracked AAA for a few games in 2022. Another high-contact hitter, with strong defense, and hopes of 15-20 homer pop as he fills out, further muddling Cleveland’s deep INF depth.
13. Jhonkensy Noel, OF/3B/1B, 21, Triple-A
After mashing in 2021 and advancing three levels, Noel continued the same to start 2022 and earned a trip to the Futures Game in 2022 where he displayed his prodigious power. He was also one of few MiLB players 20 years old or younger with 20+ HR. His power first, high K rate and limited defensive ability may lead him to 1B long-term.
14. Justin Campbell, RHP, 21, College
Drafted 37th in 2022, Campbell fits what the Guardians like from their pitching prospects in a polished college arm. Not overpowering with their fastball, but throwing with a high-spin rate, and solid secondary pitches. His 6’7’’ frame and delivery allow great deception to give him a high floor.
15. Bryan Lavastida, C, 24, MLB
Due to injuries, Lavastida broke camp with the MLB team despite only playing only seven games in AAA in 2021. Primarily the backup with Cleveland, he struggled in his first taste of the majors. There’s still time for him to develop and will likely be the backup in Cleveland beyond 2023.
16. Xzavion Curry, RHP, 24, MLB
Finally making his pro debut in 2021, Curry wasted no time and blew through minor league hitters to a tune of 257 K’s in just 219.2 IP. He made two spot starts for the Guardians in 2022. His less-than-ideal size and lack of great secondary pitches may limit him to a reliever role in the future.
17. Will Brennan, OF, 24, MLB
Hit over power was Brennan’s calling the last few years. His low K-rate started back in college and continued forth in the pros as a lifetime .296 MiLB hitter with only 158 strikeouts in 1130 at bats. He made his MLB debut in 2022, collecting 15 hits in 44 plate appearances.
18. Jake Fox, 2B/OF, 19, Single-A
Fox made an immediate impression shortly after being drafted in the 3rd round in 2021, tearing up Rookie League pitching to a tune of a .405 average. While still 19 he was sent to Single-A and some of those numbers came back down to earth. Turning 20 by spring training, he’ll likely be sent to High-A Lake County, but a short return trip to Lynchburg isn’t completely out of the question.
19. Parker Messick, LHP, 22, College
A 2nd round pick in the 2022 Draft, Messick projects as a back-of-the-rotation starter. He hides the ball well in his wind-up and throws a devastating change-up. He fills the strike zone while also causing a lot of weak contact. Starting the season at High-A Lake County is most likely.
20. Juan Brito, 2B, 21, Single-A
Brito comes over to the Cleveland farm system from Colorado (acquired in the Nolan Jones trade). He’s put up two solid seasons in the Rockies’ system at Rookie and Single-A, slashing .295/.406/.469/.875, showing some solid hit tool and speed for Fresno in 2022, although that’s more of a hitter-friendly California League.
21. Jaison Chourio, OF, 17, Rookie (DSL)
Chourio received the largest bonus in Cleveland 2021-22 international draft class, hoping for a similar rise to minor league stardom like his older brother Jackson with the Brewers. Already a noted defensive outfielder, he could fill any OF spot.
22. Tanner Burns, RHP, 24, Double-A
Health has limited Burns in the last 2 seasons since being drafted. With the number of quality pitchers in the system, it’s no surprise they’ve been careful with their 2020 36th overall pick, their highest-picked college SP in a decade. Look for Burns to begin again at AA Akron.
23. Petey Halpin, OF, 20, High-A
Through two seasons, Halpin is a .274 hitter and starting to develop some power as he matures. He has decent speed but needs better instincts when on the base paths. Another OF prospect that can fill any position if needed.
24. Joey Cantillo, LHP, 22, Double-A
Another lefty with good deception, was drafted young so he already had 5 pro seasons under his belt as a 22-year-old. A Low-90’s fastball that plays up due to a plus-plus change-up.
25. Milan Tolentino, IF, 21, High-A
A defensive first SS when he was drafted, like other Cleveland INF prospects, he’ll get plenty of exposure at other INF positions. Promoted to A+ at 20 years old, he’ll likely start there to begin 2023.
26. Hunter Gaddis, RHP, 24, MLB
Another pitcher to make their Guardians debut in 2022. Gaddis was called to debut against the impending World Series champs and similar to many veteran pitchers, it did not go too well. A bearded burley 6’6’’ imposing figure on the mound, with a career MiLB 1.08 WHIP, look for him to start at Triple-A and be called up in a pinch.
27. Ross Carver, RHP, 23, Double-A
28. Joe Lampe, OF, 22, College
29. Will Dion, LHP, High-A
30. Wuilfredo Antunez, OF, 20, Single-A
31. Gabriel Rodriguez, 3B/2B, 20, High-A
32. Angel Genao, SS, 18, Single-A
33. Jacob Zibin, RHP, 17, High School
34. Jonathan Rodriguez, OF, 23, Double-A
35. Nick Mikolajchak, RHP, 25, Triple-A
36. Tommy Mace, RHP, 24, High-A
37. Carson Tucker, SS, 21, Single-A
38. Doug Nikhazy, LHP, 23, Double-A
39. Jack Leftwich, RHP, 24, High-A
40. Will Benson, OF, 24, MLB
Lampe could be the next Myles Straw, with gold glove defense and production in the 9-hole to set up the top of the lineup. Dion not only does his best Clayton Kershaw delivery impersonation on the mound but also have a great MiLB stat line to boot (140 IP, 1.93 ERA, 178 K). Tucker and Benson are former high draft picks still trying to find their footing at their respective level. The fact that the Guardians have young, high draft picks so far down really shows the depth they’ve been able to accumulate in recent years. Bracho only has 188 games played in 3 seasons due to injury, even though he’s on 21, a healthy year is pivotal this season.
41. Aaron Bracho, 2B/SS, 21, High-A
42. Alexfri Planez, OF, 21, High-A
43. Isaiah Greene, OF, 21, Single-A
44. Junior Sanquintin, SS, 20, Single-A
45. Cade Smith, RHP, 23, Double-A
46. Ethan Hankins, RHP, 22, DNP (Injured)
47. Mason Hickman, RHP, 24, Double-A
48. Lenny Torres, RHP, 22, High-A
49. Rodney Boone, LHP, 22, High-A
50. Yordys Valdés, SS, 21, Single-A
51. Jose Gomez, OF, 17, Rookie (DSL)
Planez found a power surge in High-A at 20 years old. Hankins is coming back from Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss the last two seasons, the potential is there for a top starter if he can return to full form. Smith finished 2022 with 99 Ks in 61.1 IP and could be a bullpen arm for the Guards in 2023. Hickman, a 5th rounder in 2020, has been slowed by injuries, but attended the Arizona Fall League to make up for lost time. Greene acquired from the Mets in the Lindor trade, despite being a 2nd rounder in his draft, hasn’t shown much since the trade and needs to have a good 2023. Bonus 51st prospect ranked here, Gomez, was a DSL stud in 28 games as a 17-year-old.