Try as they might, Cleveland could not finagle a way to fit Oscar Gonzalez on their 40-man roster in November. As it was, Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff made the unorthodox move of adding 11 minor leaguers, including six from Class AA and one from Class High A, to avoid losing them to the vultures of the Rule 5 process. The draft deadline preceded the lockout, and by the time an agreement was reached and baseball went through a fire drill to begin the season, there was no time for the draft.
It would’ve been useful information to have in November before the Guardians badly unbalanced their roster and clogged it up to protect their top prospects. Nevertheless, guys such as Gonzalez and left-hander Joey Cantillo likely would’ve been lost if the draft were held in March.
“I don’t know. Probably,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said when asked if Gonzalez would’ve been lost to the draft. Then he hedged — sort of. “Eh, I don’t know. I shouldn’t say that. But probably.”
Gonzalez is a free swinger with massive power, but contact is a battle and he’s deficient defensively. He did not rank among Keith Law’s top 20 Guardians prospects in the preseason, although he was listed under “others of note.”
“Gonzalez swings very hard with an unorthodox approach, producing plus-plus power without much selectivity,” Law wrote. “When you have more homers (31) than walks drawn (22), that’s less good.”
The Rule 5 draft has become a riddle wrapped in Steven Kwan’s chessboard. Francona doesn’t get too involved with the process. There’s an art to navigating other teams’ protected lists, determining who has space and who has a specific need. Free swinging corner outfielders aren’t exactly a commodity in short supply in baseball, which could be why the Guardians initially risked it. They had to stop adding guys at some point. Gonzalez is the opposite of the contact-heavy/power-developing batters who have become the standard for Cleveland prospects. It’s guys such as Kwan, Owen Miller, Myles Straw and Richie Palacios.
Gonzalez is the antithesis, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, particularly while Franmil Reyes is on the injured list with a strained hamstring. Francona doesn’t believe Reyes’ injury is serious and they’ll go over a rehab program with him when they return to Cleveland on Monday.
Gonzalez is one of the few who reached Cleveland from the team’s academy in the Dominican Republic. The Guardians first arrived in San Antonio de Guerra, Dominican Republic, in 2011. Ownership invested capital repair money through a lease that is paid in multiple years. The academy is now valued at around $20 million and is one of the finest facilities in Latin America. It’s a 22-acre campus that can accommodate more than 120 players, coaches and staff members with dorms that can house up to 88 players.
The Guardians haven’t had much success with the academy to this point, but that should be changing soon. Jose Ramirez is the jewel to come through after he joined the organization when he was 12. Ramirez alone makes the investment worth it. Nevertheless, Ramirez and Danny Salazar are the only players to make any sort of impact on the major-league roster after traveling through the academy. Will Gonzalez join them? It’s too early to say. He laced two hits Saturday at Comerica Park, including a single to right-center, and is batting .500 after two games.
“He had actually swung at a ball up and in, I think that was the first time I’ve seen him swing at a ball yet, which is good,” Francona said. “Then the next pitch, he rifles one to right-center. If he can do that, that’s going to keep him dangerous. That’s going to keep you covering balls on the plate.”
Along with the capital repairs, the Guardians revamped their process of scouting and development in the Dominican and that academy could soon pay more dividends. It has taken three years, but guys such as George Valera, Jose Tena, Jhonkensy Noel and Brayan Rocchio are inching closer to Cleveland. All four spent time at the academy and all four were part of the 11 who were crammed on the 40-man roster in November.
The Guardians aren’t done. There are more difficult decisions ahead next offseason, and more prospects to add. They know at some point, they’re going to have to start making hard decisions and begin bundling some of these minor leaguers in trades or else they will certainly lose them.
For now, Gonzalez is the latest rookie to get a long look in Cleveland — after he almost wasn’t here at all.
(Photo: Rick Osentoski / USA Today)