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Cleveland Guardians 2023 opening day roster projection

Cleveland Guardians' Oscar Gonzalez, left, smiles as he slaps hands with Guardians' Josh Naylor during batting practice on the first day of MLB spring training baseball workouts for the Guardians in Goodyear, Ariz., Friday, Feb. 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Cleveland Guardians' Oscar Gonzalez, left, smiles as he slaps hands with Guardians' Josh Naylor during batting practice on the first day of MLB spring training baseball workouts for the Guardians in Goodyear, Ariz., Friday, Feb. 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Coming off of a 92-win season and an American League Central title that few outside of Cleveland's clubhouse saw coming, the Guardians entered spring camp this season with much of the roster already set.

When looking to opening day 2023, it's likely that 22 of those 26 roster spots are already written in Sharpie, barring any injuries. Much of the intrigue around this spring revolves more around some of the club's prospects who could make an impact in 2023, like outfielder George Valera or one of the three top-100 (or top-50, depending on which list you prefer) pitching prospects in their system (Daniel Espino, Gavin Williams, Tyler Bibee).

The roster spots still with some mystery surrounding them: backup catcher, utility infielder, the final bench spot (another infielder or a fifth outfielder) and the last spot in the bullpen.

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Here's a look at a Guardians 2023 opening day roster projection.

Guardians catchers (2): Mike Zunino, Cam Gallagher

Mike Zunino was brought in as one of the two signifiant free agent signings this winter to be the club's primary catcher as long as he's healthy coming off thoracic outlet syndrome surgery that ended his 2022 season.

The leading contenders at the moment for the backup spot are Cam Gallagher and Bryan Lavastida. Gallagher isn't on the 40-man roster and therefore would require a move, but he's also the more veteran option of the two in terms of handling the pitching staff. Lavastida made his MLB debut last season but received only 15 plate appearances.

The real variable at catcher for the Guardians is Bo Naylor, and when he returns to the majors. Naylor was called up shortly before the 2022 postseason but will likely start the 2023 season in Triple-A Columbus. As a catcher who boasts a rare combination of power and speed for the position (he put together a 20-20 season in the minors last year), Naylor could see sizable playing time once he is called up to the majors.

Game 3: Guardians second baseman Andres Gimenez dives for a ball.
Game 3: Guardians second baseman Andres Gimenez dives for a ball.

Guardians infielders (7): Jose Ramirez, Andres Gimenez, Amed Rosario, Josh Bell, Josh Naylor, Gabriel Arias, Tyler Freeman

Jose Ramirez, Andres Gimenez and Amed Rosario return to their everyday roles, with Josh Bell and Josh Naylor handling first base and the designated hitter spots. Naylor could also see time in the outfield this season.

It's entirely possible that only one of Gabriel Arias and Tyler Freeman make the opening day roster, as there already aren't many at-bats up for grabs. Both are receiving additional work in the outfield, so while two utility infielders on this roster could be redundant compared to carrying a fifth outfielder, having Arias, Freeman and Naylor as options would perhaps afford the Guardians enough versatility.

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Arias and Freeman are leading contenders to make the roster as a utility infielder, and it's possible both could make it if the team feels comfortable with four outfielders plus a mix of those two and Naylor as options when necessary. While the team has carried multiple utility infielders in the past (especially if they can play in the outfield at times), there aren't many at-bats up for grabs if needed, so it may be an either/or situation once opening day arrives.

FILE - Cleveland Guardians' Steven Kwan hits an RBI-sacrifice fly during a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds in Cincinnati, Tuesday, April 12, 2022. Kwan was a rookie surprise for the Cleveland Guardians in 2022. He batted .298 with 52 RBIs while helping the team win the AL Central title. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster, File)
FILE - Cleveland Guardians' Steven Kwan hits an RBI-sacrifice fly during a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds in Cincinnati, Tuesday, April 12, 2022. Kwan was a rookie surprise for the Cleveland Guardians in 2022. He batted .298 with 52 RBIs while helping the team win the AL Central title. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster, File)

Guardians outfielders (4): Steven Kwan, Myles Straw, Oscar Gonzalez, Will Brennan

The starting outfield should be set with Steven Kwan, Myles Straw and Oscar Gonzalez.

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Will Brennan then offers manager Terry Francona a left-handed hitter off the bench who can play all three spots in the outfield.

If the club goes with only one utility infielder, that fifth outfielder spot (and the last on the bench) would feature Richie Palacios and Roman Quinn as leading contenders. Quinn isn't on the 40-man roster and would require a corresponding move, but he could arguably offer the Guardians more utility off the bench as a speedster (43 stolen bases in 222 games in the majors, with only 11 times being caught), and the bigger bases coming to MLB in 2023 certainly won't hurt, either. Palacios, though, is already on the 40-man roster and would offer additional flexibility.

The more intriguing question when it comes to the Guardians outfield in 2023, although not as it relates to opening day, involves Valera, the club's No. 3 prospect (MLB Pipeline) and another top-100 prospect. Valera won't be breaking camp with the club in a month, but he could make his mark on the majors later in 2023.

Cleveland Guardians pitcher Triston McKenzie, right, looks in at New York Yankees' Aaron Judge (99) after striking out Judge in the first inning of Game 3 of a baseball AL Division Series, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Cleveland Guardians pitcher Triston McKenzie, right, looks in at New York Yankees' Aaron Judge (99) after striking out Judge in the first inning of Game 3 of a baseball AL Division Series, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Guardians starting pitchers (5): Shane Bieber, Triston McKenzie, Cal Quantrill, Aaron Civale, Zach Plesac

The first five are set in stone as it relates to opening day. The question marks regarding the club's starting pitching leans toward the pecking order of young hurlers behind them, and who might get the call first in the case of an injury or another need.

Xzavion Curry, Konnor Pilkington, Logan Allen (the other one), Joey Cantillo, Peyton Battenfield and Hunter Gaddis are creating a log jam in Triple-A. And that's before getting to Espino (if healthy), Williams and Bibee, who have considerably higher ceilings long term and are working their way up the ladder. There are plenty of options, but it just isn't yet clear how that group will align itself.

Emmanuel Clase posted a stellar 1.36 ERA with a major league-leading 42 saves for the Guardians last season.
Emmanuel Clase posted a stellar 1.36 ERA with a major league-leading 42 saves for the Guardians last season.

Guardians relievers (8): Emmanuel Clase, James Karinchak, Trevor Stephan, Sam Hentges, Eli Morgan, Nick Sandlin, Enyel De Los Santos, Tim Herrin

The first seven spots are locked in.

The eighth and final spot is, most likely, between Tim Herrin and Jason Bilous, both of whom are already on the 40-man roster. Herrin would offer the bullpen a second left-handed pitcher, though Francona has noted before that the staff doesn't want to do that unless it also makes sense from a performance standpoint. Still, it'd offer a bit more balance.

Cody Morris might have been a good fit for that eighth spot to provide some additional length, but injuries (this time his lat) have again set him back. Morris appeared to be making some headway last spring before missing much of the season on the injured list.

Ryan Lewis can be reached at rlewis@thebeaconjournal.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: Cleveland Guardians 2023 opening day roster projection