As the Cleveland Guardians enter the Winter Meetings, the general consensus is that the Guardians will, as Chris Antonetti said, “look for an opportunity to add” to the offense.
While acknowledging that the Guardians could look to add at any position where they find value, one area that makes the most sense is finding a hitter who can hit left-handed pitching well and who can play first base.
Cleveland ranked 27th in Major League Baseball in wRC+ against left-handers in 2022, and their primary first-baseman, Josh Naylor, had 127 plate appearances and a 53 wRC+ against lefties. Owen Miller in his 155 plate appearances against lefties spelling Naylor only managed a 77 wRC+. It’s possible, of course, that the Guardians give right-handed hitter Gabriel Arias the Owen Miller treatment in 2023, but given their lineup’s overall slugging limitations, it would seem to make sense to add some proven pop from a player who specifically handles southpaws.
In the latest example of “At Least We Tried” leaks, Paul Hoynes of cleveland.com reported that the Guardians were in on José Abreu for three years. While there was no rumored dollar amount, the interest would seem to indicate that the Guardians are some level of serious about addressing this roster need.
It makes sense. The youngest team in baseball took the Yankees five games in the ALDS in 2022; the time to invest (in an emblematically responsible manner) a little in shoring up the roster would seem to be now. With these conclusions in mind, I want to briefly examine four of the best fits for the Guardians among players potentially available to play first base and crush lefties for them in 2023.
(All ages listed are how old these players will be for the majority of the 2023 season).
Option 1: Josh Bell, Switch-hitter, 30 years old, 1B/DH, Free agent
MLB Trade Rumors projection: 4/$64 million, FanGraphs crowdsource: 3/$43 million
Steamer projection for 2023: 123 wRC+, 2.0 fWAR.
Bell would appear to be the top prize of the free-agent first-baseman market following Abreu’s signing. One of the most interesting developments in Bell’s career is his recent prowess against left-handed pitching. While his overall career numbers are only a 105 wRC+ against lefties, in 2021-2022, he put up a 120 wRC+ against them. Bell is naturally right-handed so his lackluster performance against LHP early in his career always seemed strange.
The key for Bell seems to be patience — from 2016-2020, he had a K/BB% of 21.3/9.5 against left-handed pitching while putting up a 91 wRC+, but he maintained 13.2/13.9 K/BB% while batting right-handed. In watching some video of his swings over the past four years, his right-handed stroke appears quieter and more compact, perhaps a further indicator of a sustainable improvement.
*Ding dong* Who is it?— San Diego Padres (@Padres) August 21, 2022
It's Josh Bell, again. pic.twitter.com/X3MSTpoaFF
Overall, Bell’s career 18.2/11.9 K/BB% as a switch-hitter fits the Guardians’ philosophy of prioritizing contact well and provides the hope that as he enters his 30s, he will have a solid skill of plate discipline to buoy his value.
Personally, I am not particularly concerned about Bell’s tough stretch with the Padres over a couple month stretch — midseason trades can be tough and he was splitting time. The main question for me with Bell is whether or not the Guardians will be willing to hand him a three or four year deal, and, if they are, how much they would be willing to guarantee a player who is limited defensively as a slightly-below average fielder at first (though the decent 51 innings he played in left-field in 2021 still linger in my mind).
From all accounts, Bell is an excellent clubhouse presence and a fun player to root for as a fan. He is likely the best possible free-agent outcome for Guardians fans, and just think of all the great ringing, donging, and dinging puns we could make!
Option 2: Wil Myers, Right-handed, 32 years old, 1B/OF, Free agent
MLB Trade Rumors projection: n/a, FanGraphs crowdsource: n/a
Steamer projection for 2023: 104 wRC+, 0.8 fWAR
The key with a potential Myers addition is his career 119 wRC+ against LHP (130 in 2022). In Myers’ last four seasons, he has hit 22 homers in 414 plate appearances against southpaws.
Myers is an above-average first baseman and can also capably fill in for any outfield position, with his best defensive numbers coming in left field. If the Guardians look to sign someone to a one- to two-year deal while awaiting the arrival of Jhonkensy Noel, it’s hard to imagine a much better fit than Myers would be for that role, as he could ably help to spell both Josh Naylor and Steven Kwan against left-handed pitching and his cost should not be prohibitive.
Option 3: Brandon Drury, Right-handed, 30 years old, IF/OF, Free agent
MLB Trade Rumors projection: 2/$18 million, FanGraphs crowdsource: 3/$30 million
Steamer 2023 projection: 106 wRC+, 1.7 fWAR
Drury is a fascinating player since, prior to 2022, he looked solidly like nothing more than a serviceable utility infielder. However, a 123 wRC+ including a 160 wRC+ against LHP in the year before you hit free agency will change things for a player like Drury.
Drury grades out to average to slightly below average at every infield position and has shown himself to be playable in corner outfield positions as well. In Drury’s case, a clear change can be observed in his plate approach as he has gone to a more pronounced leg kick and achieved a 10% barrel rate, the highest of his career. These changes were well-described by Matt Wilkes and Kyle Berger at Reds Content Plus.
A legitimate question could be asked if Drury is needed when the Guardians have Gabriel Arias and Tyler Freeman. The answer lies in whether or not the Guardians believe that his ascension as a slugger in 2022, one who hit 12 homers in 155 plate appearances against lefties, is sustainable. If they believe it is, then Drury’s positional flexibility is more of a side benefit than a main source of value.
In my opinion, it would be unwise to risk more than MLB Trade Rumors’ projected two years and $18 million on Drury, but I think there is enough upside in Drury to make that deal and, because of his versatility, the Guardians would not have to worry about him blocking anyone. A Jhonkensy Noel breakout allows Drury to get at-bats in the corner outfield, or at second base.
Additional options to keep in mind
Trey Mancini: Right-handed, 31 years old, 1B/DH, Free agent
Mancini has seen his numbers decline in recent years and has a 112 wRC+ against LHP and 111 wRC+ against RHP for his career. Is it possible that another year removed from his cancer treatment sees Mancini regain some of his lost prowess at the plate? He is another player known as a clubhouse leader.
Yandy Díaz: Right-handed, 31 years old, 3B/DH, Rays, under team control through 2024
If a little more of Díaz’s value was in slugging and it didn’t require a trade with the Rays, I’d be demanding to get his career 136 wRC+ on the Guardians. Díaz is at the point where the Rays often trade players, but he’s capable as a third baseman, so I imagine he’d be traded as such for a return a team looking for a first-baseman won’t want to offer. Plus, the Rays fleece every team they trade with, so I’m scared.
Ian Happ: Switch-hitter, 28 years old, IF/OF, Cubs, under team control through 2023
For the first time in his career, Happ hit left-handed pitchers well — since Aug. 1, 2021, Happ has a 123 wRC+ against them. If that number is at least somewhat sustainable, he’s another slugger who can competently play first base and a corner-outfield position (he won the 2022 Gold Glove in left field). If Chicago is looking to move and not extend him, he would be a useful player in Cleveland.
Garrett Cooper: Right-handed, 32 years old, 1B, Marlins, under team control through 2023
The Marlins are rumored to be in on free agents like Xander Bogaerts, which, if true, would tend to indicate they may be motivated to move Cooper in his final year of arbitration to save funds. Cooper has a career 113 wRC+ against LHP (79 in 2022) and is a solid defender at first who, when healthy, can stand around in a relatively competent fashion in the outfield. Cooper doesn’t have the numbers against lefties for me to clamor for him, but he is certainly a solid major-league hitter who could help bridge Cleveland to other options in 2024.
Christian Walker: Right-handed, 32 years old, 1B, Diamondbacks, under team control through 2024
Walker is an elite defensive first baseman and had a breakout season with 36 homers and a 122 wRC+ in 2022, but it’s tough to pay for a breakout at the age of 31 and Arizona doesn’t seem to be motivated to move one of their few right-handed hitters.
Joey Gallo: Left-handed, 29 years old, 1B/OF, Free agent
Gallo does NOT fit the current Cleveland model, but his career 104 wRC+ against LHP and solid defensive abilities at first base and in the outfield are worth noting for a player of his prodigious power.
Rhys Hoskins: Right-handed, 30 years old, 1B/DH, Phillies, under team control through 2023
Hard to see the Phillies trading playoff hero Hoskins coming off a World Series run, even though he is only under team control through 2023. It is also hard to see the Guardians targeting such a limited defensive player, career 146 wRC+ against LHP, notwithstanding.
C.J. Cron: Right-handed, 33 years old, 1B, Rockies, under team control through 2023
It’s possible that Cron having been revealed to have received pills from the same person who provided them to Tyler Skaggs puts him off of Cleveland’s radar. He only has a 114 wRC+ against southpaws, but he is a good defender at first base. I’m not, personally, anxious for Cron to come to Cleveland, but I’m also not particularly concerned about his drastic home-away splits in Colorado as he’s had great seasons in Tampa and Detroit in the past.
David MacKinnon: Right-handed, 27 years old, 1B, Free agent
MacKinnon put up some great slugging numbers in the minors for the Angels, including a .972 and .862 OPS in 2021 and 2022, respectively, against left-handed pitchers. He seems like the kind of player who will get a chance to platoon against LHP, somewhere, but we hope the Guardians will aim higher, of course.