Guardians designate former first-round pick for assignment

The Guardians have designated right-handers Cal Quantrill and Michael Kelly for assignment, per a team announcement. Their spots on the 40-man roster go to fellow righties Cade Smith and Daniel Espino, whose contracts have been selected in order to protect them from next month’s Rule 5 Draft.

Quantrill is the most notable name designated for assignment so far today — a veteran of four-plus big league seasons who was locked into a rotation spot in Cleveland heading into the 2023 season. He struggled badly in an injury-shortened year, however, and the Guards will designate him for assignment rather than pay him a raise in arbitration. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz had projected a $6.6M salary for the former first-round pick.

Prior to the 2023 season, a DFA of Quantrill would have seemed far-fetched. While it might’ve been easy to envision a scenario where Cleveland ultimately traded the righty — as they frequently do with pitchers late in their arbitration years — a straight jettison from the roster for a righty who pitched 336 innings of 3.16 ERA ball from 2021-22 speaks to the magnitude of his struggles in 2023.

Granted, Quantrill enjoyed that success despite a well below-average 18% strikeout rate, but he at least partially offset that lack of whiffs and punchouts with strong command (6.8% walk rate) and a knack for inducing weak contact (87.6 mph average exit velocity, 35% hard-hit rate).

The 2023 campaign couldn’t have gone much more poorly for Quantrill. Shoulder inflammation wiped out more than two months of the season, and when he was healthy enough to take the mound he limped to a 5.24 ERA with fielding-independent metrics to match. His fastball, which averaged a career-high 95.3 mph back in 2020, was down to 94.1 mph in 2023, and he posted career-worst strikeout, walk and ground-ball rates of 13.1%, 7.9% and 40.8%. Of the 141 pitchers who tossed at least 90 innings in 2023, Quantrill’s strikeout rate ranked 140th, leading only 40-year-old Adam Wainwright, who retired at season’s end.

The Guardians are known for their ability to regularly churn out quality arms, and their second-to-none pitching development was on full display in 2023, with top prospects Tanner Bibee (the AL Rookie of the Year runner-up), Gavin Williams and Logan Allen all not only making their MLB debuts but almost immediately stepping up as MLB-caliber rotation options. That trio, combined with Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie, gives Cleveland a strong starting five even without Quantrill. Of course, since Bieber has just one year of club control remaining, he’s a trade candidate himself this winter, but the Guards could potentially receive a viable rotation replacement in moving him, sign one in free agency or simply turn to their farm system for yet another rotation candidate.

Cleveland will have a week to trade Quantrill or attempt to pass him through outright waivers. Presumably, the Guards explored trade possibilities before making today’s move to DFA him. That doesn’t mean a deal can’t yet be reached, but there’s now a clock on any dealings. Quantrill would certainly be a candidate to be claimed, and he’d have the right to elect free agency if he clears. One way or another, this DFA all but closes the door on his time with the organization. Any team that claims Quantrill could control him for two more years via arbitration, but they’d have to be willing to pay him something in the vicinity of that projected $6.6M salary next year.

The rest of Cleveland’s moves are less surprising. Kelly is a 31-year-old journeyman who pitched a career-high 16 2/3 innings in the Cleveland bullpen this year. He held his own with a 3.78 ERA and average 22.5% strikeout rate, but he also walked more than 12% of his opponents and had similar command issues in Triple-A. Like Quantrill, he’ll be traded or potentially passed through waivers within a week’s time. He can elect free agency if he clears.

Espino entered the season ranked as one of the sport’s five best pitching prospects despite a lengthy list of injuries already on his resume. He wound up missing the entire year due to a shoulder procedure performed in early May. The talent is still there for Espino to be a coveted prospect, but with a mounting number of injuries under his belt, he’s fallen well down (or entirely off) most prospect rankings.

Smith, 24, was a 16th-round pick by the Twins back in 2017 but didn’t sign, instead opting for college. He subsequently went undrafted because of the shortened nature of the 2020 draft and signed as a free agent with the Guardians thereafter. He worked exclusively out of the bullpen in 2023, pitching 62 2/3 innings of 4.02 ERA ball between Double-A and Triple-A. It was a pedestrian-earned run average, but Smith also fanned a sky-high 35.2% of his opponents. Given his ability to miss bats and his proximity to the Majors, he’d quite likely have been selected in the Rule 5 Draft had Cleveland not protected him. He’ll now have a chance to earn his first big-league look this coming season.

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