Help me understand what the Cleveland Guardians are trying to do.
José Ramírez is not at risk of being traded to the Toronto Blue Jays, but the fact that people were even talking about it is telling. Perhaps it’s not entirely clear to those outside the organization whether the Guardians are actually interested in winning baseball games?
If the Guardians were in full rebuild mode, dealing Ramírez for prospects would make sense. In that scenario, trading Shane Bieber would be understandable, too. But neither Ramírez nor Bieber are being traded. So Cleveland must be trying to win, right?
Well if that were the case, they’d be looking to build around Ramírez and Bieber by improving a lineup that made history last year as the only team to get no-hit three times in the same season. But thus far the organization’s only offseason addition has been journeyman catcher Luke Maile, who will likely serve as Austin Hedges’ back-up. Not exactly the type of free agent signing that builds excitement among fans and drives ticket sales.
Speaking of fan excitement and ticket sales, you would think Cleveland would want to capitalize on their first official season as the Guardians. I recognize that a subset of fans are still pouting about the name change, but there are also fans willing to embrace the rebrand as a new chapter for the organization. But a page-turner this chapter has not been, at least in the early goings.
Fan morale is almost as low as the Guardians’ payroll, which currently sits at $35 million according to Spotrac. Though, to be fair, that number will increase once the salaries of pre-arbitration players are added. Only Pittsburgh and Baltimore have a lower payroll than Cleveland at the moment. But this is by design as the front office has slashed payroll each year since the end of the 2018 season.
Guardians President of Baseball Operations Chris Antonetti has been pleading his case to the press, citing a franchise-record $135 million payroll in 2018.
“We had franchise-record payrolls the last few seasons and ownership invested a lot in the team and the path we were on was unsustainable,” he said back in January of 2019. Antonetti even reiterated that the organization’s goal was to win the World Series, though his actions have spoken far louder than his words. He has been rightfully skewered for comments he made after the Corey Kluber trade about that deal providing Cleveland with “more resources to invest in our team,” a promise as empty as Progressive Field on a week night.
Conventional wisdom has been that Cleveland’s coupon-clipping owners have been putting the screws to the front office, forcing them to slash the payroll to reduce costs and increase revenue. But at a certain point, the lack of financial investment dilutes the product on the field, as evidenced by last season’s 80-82 finish despite the fact that Guardians were competing in a division with only one team that finished above .500. When the product is poor, that impacts fan enthusiasm. No one wants to want watch a mediocre baseball team, especially in Cleveland.
If your goal is to increase revenue, wouldn’t it make sense to make at least a free agent signing or two and add a little sizzle to your steak? With one of the lowest payrolls in baseball — and repeated promises to invest in roster improvements — why sit on your hands and sleepwalk through the inaugural season of a rebrand? You risk alienating the fans actually willing to embrace the new Guardians name by inviting them to hope and pray that this is finally the year Bradley Zimmer and Oscar Mercado figure out big-league pitching.
I don’t know if Cleveland is trying to win now or build for the future. I wish I did, because some sense of direction would be better than whatever direction this is.