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Attempting to guide a prospect along his developmental path, one that for every team hopefully ends with a trip to the major leagues, is already a winding road with a foggy-at-best timeline. Add in the element of having to also be a major league roster fit for a team trying to contend, and all of a sudden a prospect development schedule closer resembles a game of 4-D Chess.
Manager Terry Francona often says the goal is to put a prospect into the best position possible to not only make the leap to the majors, but to have the ability and circumstances to stay there long term. Still, planning for exactly when a prospect is ready to get the call-up to the majors is an inexact science, and fitting them into a major league roster isn't always seamless. At the very least, it takes planning.
It's a balance teams across baseball must consider.
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"That's our primary responsibility. You just don't know what position they’re going to play up here," said James Harris, Guardians assistant general manager and the former director of player development. "Ernie Clement played almost every day at shortstop for us [in the minors], so did [Yu] Chang. And those kids aren't playing shortstop at all [in the majors]. We didn't know [Owen] Miller was going to play first base. [Josh] Naylor played most of his games in left field and now he's playing first base every day. We're even playing Franmil [Reyes] in left field now. We just don't know, so we have to give them exposure at multiple positions to give Tito flexibility to create a lineup to help us win."
Guardians giving prospect Nolan Jones more defensive versatility
Nolan Jones is a primary example of this. Formerly ranked as Cleveland's top prospect (now ranked No. 7 by MLB Pipeline after a down 2021), Jones has primarily played third base in the minors. But the Guardians happen to have that position locked up, barring an injury, through the 2028 season while Jose Ramirez has his name written into the lineup every day. That has led to Jones receiving time at right field and first base, but that isn't enough, either, as the team also plans to find him some more time in left field in Triple-A Columbus.
Strikeouts were the primary issue for Jones last season, as he racked up 122 in 341 at-bats. He maintained a .356 on-base percentage and posted a .787 OPS (13 home runs, 25 doubles, 48 RBIs), but couldn't keep the swing-and-misses down.
Jones had his 2022 season delayed by back and ankle issues. Now healthy, he's hitting .286 with a .397 OBP to go with five doubles and 11 RBIs. He also has zero home runs and has struck out 23 times in 56 at-bats.
Entering spring training prior to the 2021 season, Jones seemed prime to make his major league debut, but that date has remained on the horizon. Lately there has been some progress, and the ever-present need for positional flexibility exists.
"He's doing great. He's played mostly right field," Harris said. "We're trying to keep him to one position because of the back. He was having some soreness earlier. Trying not to move him around too much. He's played third, played mostly right, we're introducing left field. I believe he's played once or twice in left field, he'll continue to play more in left.
"That's where we're starting, but you guys know, we have no idea where those guys are going to play when they're here [in Cleveland]. In 2016 Jose Ramirez played 48 games in left field. So, we have no idea."
Jones' path to the majors, though, isn't nearly as open as it was this time last year. The two corner outfield spots and first base have primarily been handled by Steven Kwan, Oscar Gonzalez, Naylor and Miller. For now, he's one of many of the team's top prospects receiving regular at-bats but at varying positions in the minor leagues.
Guardians infield prospect Gabriel Arias having a tough 2022 physically
That also goes for several of the team's top middle infield prospects, an area in which the team has a surplus. Gabriel Arias, Brayan Rocchio and Tyler Freeman, who make up the Guardians Nos. 3-4-5 prospects, respectively, are all infielders. Arias and Freeman are at Triple-A, while Rocchio (21 years old) remains at Double-A Akron. Jose Tena, the team's No. 9-ranked prospect, is also at Akron.
Arias hasn't exactly had the easiest time as of late. Arias broke his right hand in early May, finally returned on Saturday night and was promptly hit in the elbow with a pitch. He was fine and was in the lineup Sunday, when he fouled a ball off the plate. The ball bounced up and hit him in the face, and he again exited the game. While Arias can't seem to stop being hit by baseballs, the reports on his hand are positive.
"Things were fine with the hand, he was back, he was swinging, he was playing in games in Arizona," Harris said. "We had moved him around, he had played some third base, some shortstop. He was feeling really good, we were really excited, but you know how this game is, it's full of situations that you've got to adjust to and he's getting that opportunity today."
Guardians No. 1 prospect Daniel Espino throws again but still has no timeline to return
The Guardians are being cautious with pitcher Daniel Espino, now ranked as the club's No. 1 prospect by MLB Pipeline.
Espino has been sidelined for more than a month, first with knee soreness and then with shoulder soreness.
"He's basically starting from scratch," Harris said. "[We want to] give him the opportunity to sync everything up."
Espino has posted a 2.45 ERA with 35 strikeouts in 18.1 innings this season with the RubberDucks. Harris noted that Espino has started to throw again, but there still isn't much of a timeline for his return.
"He's a big, physical person of a guy who's performed great, so we're not going to rush him back," Harris said. "It's not like we have a need in that category in Double-A. So we would rather have him be healthy and return to form. When he returns to form, he's special. So, we'd rather take our time."
Ryan Lewis can be reached at email@example.com. Read more about the Guardians at www.beaconjournal.com/sports/cleveland-guardians. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Top Guardians prospect Daniel Espino has no timetable for return