The Guardians have called up infield prospect Tyler Freeman for his Major League debut and optioned infielder Ernie Clement to Triple-A Columbus in his place, per a team announcement. (Zack Meisel of The Athletic first reported that Freeman was being called up). Freeman is already on the 40-man roster, so the Guardians didn’t need to make any additional transactions to accommodate the move.
Freeman, 23, was the No. 71 overall pick back in 2017 and has long rated as one of the best prospects in the organization — if not the entire league. Baseball America, FanGraphs and MLB.com all ranked him inside the game’s top-100 minor leaguers heading into the season, although Freeman has fallen just off some of those lists on midseason updates. He still ranks seventh in their system at both BA and FanGraphs.
That’s not to say he’s had a poor year in 2022, but Freeman underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder last summer and hasn’t quite picked up where he left off with the bat. After turning in a strong .323/.370/.470 batting line in 180 plate appearances at the Double-A level last year, he’s hitting .279/.372/.364 in 340 Triple-A plate appearances this season. The six home runs he’s hit in 2022 are already a career-high, but he hasn’t been producing the other extra-base hits typically expected (seven doubles, zero triples).
Freeman, similarly to teammate Steven Kwan, was always viewed as a player with a plus hit tool and below-average power, though he’s typically been able to rack up doubles and the occasional triple. That hasn’t been the case this year, but his bat-to-ball skills have been on full display, as he’s punched out in just 9.1% of his plate appearances. Adding Freeman to a lineup that also features Kwan (8.9% strikeout rate), Jose Ramirez (9.5%), Myles Straw (14.7%) and Amed Rosario (14.9%) should only further drop Cleveland’s already MLB-low 18.6% strikeout rate.
It’s an unorthodox approach to lineup construction in today’s brand of three-true-outcome baseball, particularly given that the glut of contact comes at the expense of power. Cleveland has trotted out a mostly punchless lineup for much of the season and ranks 29th in MLB with 82 home runs as a team. Guardians hitters also don’t walk much, landing 22nd with a 7.6% walk rate, and Freeman (7.4% walk rate in Triple-A, 4.4% in Double-A last year) isn’t going to bolster their outlook in that regard. Still, Cleveland ranks 16th in the Majors in runs scored and 17th with a collective 99 wRC+, so the approach of surrounding the superhuman Ramirez with generally high-contact slashers has combined for middle-of-the-pack offensive output.
The question regarding Freeman will be one of where he slots into the lineup. He’s split his time quite evenly between the two middle infield slots this season, but the Guardians have Andres Gimenez in the midst of a breakout year at second base (Freeman’s best position) and Rosario is having a solid year at shortstop. Freeman gives Cleveland a bench upgrade over Clement (particularly with the bat), but it doesn’t appear as though there are regular at-bats to be had, barring an injury that’s yet to come to light.
Freeman could always be mixed in as a utility option, spelling Gimenez, Rosario and Ramirez on occasion while also seeing time at designated hitter in light of Franmil Reyes’ recent demotion to Triple-A Columbus. Cleveland has shielded lefty-swinging rookie Nolan Jones from facing southpaws, and first baseman Josh Naylor has floundered against lefties himself — so Freeman could add a righty bat to the mix against southpaws, giving manager Terry Francona some additional platoon scenarios. Freeman has struggled badly against lefties in Triple-A this season (.241/.339/.278), but that’s a sample of just 62 plate appearances and he’s crushed southpaws in each of his other four minor league campaigns.