The Cleveland Guardians roster looks pretty much identical to the team that finished last year. With the exception of backup catcher Luke Maile, this is the same group that Zack Meisel described on November 23, 2021, as “sorely [in] need [of] a pair of corner outfielders … better balance between starters and relievers … more major-league-ready depth.” That nothing has changed since is no longer excusable by the lockout.
But here we are on March 25, two weeks from Opening Day, looking at a roster with the same imbalance of stars and scrubs that has produced good-but-not-good-enough results each of the last five seasons. The difference being that this year the cost of coming short will be orders of magnitude less than in previous years, despite assurances the team would spend. And as those stars on the roster highlight how good the Guardians could be with a little bit of investment to support them, we might actually be able to see the team pushing fans further away in real-time.
The biggest and most obvious strength on the Cleveland roster is the best third baseman in baseball: José Ramírez. Since 2017, the only players better (by fWAR) than Ramírez are Mike Trout and Mookie Betts, and the difference is fewer than two wins. The second-best third baseman over that span, Anthony Rendon, has accumulated nearly five fewer wins. There is no debate that José is the best, and projections expect nothing less than another career year from him this year (FanGraphs’ various projections peg him for between 5.8 and 6.5 fWAR).
Shane Bieber, who is still practically in recovery mode after only making two starts at the end of 2021 after a shoulder injury, is the other superstar on the Guardians roster. He is said to be feeling much better, and has been for a while, and is looking to get back into the Cy Young discussion. A return to his 5.5-fWAR heights of 2019 doesn’t seem unlikely, as FanGraphs’ projections put him in the 3.9 to 5.2 range.
The last well-above-average player on Cleveland’s roster is Emmanuel Clase. The man with the triple-digit cutter is projected for roughly 2 fWAR out of the bullpen, which is only made more absurd by the fact that he’s entering just his age-24 season. Relief pitching is a volatile thing, but the very-reliable ZiPS predicts Clase to have the best ERA+ in MLB this year, and that seems good.
After the GOAT, the ace, and the flamethrower, the Guardians project to have several good players, significant starting pitching depth, and some prospect talent that could breakout. Foremost among this group are Franmil Reyes and Myles Straw, who are locks in the lineup and likely to provide above-average but not All-Star productivity. Likewise, Cal Quantrill could continue his breakout, but even if he only falls in line with his 2-win projections he’ll be a solid second starter. With Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale, and Triston McKenzie behind Quantrill, the rotation seems to be in good shape, and the arms-in-waiting — the Logans Allen, Peyton Battenfield, Konnor Pilkington, among others — offer good insurance. On the offensive side, Cleveland boasts several players who could make a difference, such as Steven Kwan or Gabriel Arias; even old friend Andrés Giménez could finally make the leap, as he received the second-best projection of any offensive player from ZiPS (2.5 fWAR).
That Cleveland boasts so much depth in prospect talent, and that it could have such an impact this year is certainly a strength, but it’s also clearly a …
… because when Giménez has the second-best projection on your roster, you might be in trouble.
The biggest weakness in Cleveland is obviously the outfield. While Straw seems dependable and Kwan could be solid if he can repeat his Triple-A numbers, the options beyond those two are not great. Richie Palacios was given a rather aggressive projection by ZiPS, but with just 37 games at Triple-A under his belt, he seems a dark horse to make the roster. The more likely options are Bradley Zimmer and Oscar Mercado, and at this point, we know what they offer: production slightly better than replacement level (at best). They might be major-league quality, but not starting quality. Likewise, the idea of Amed Rosario (and his decent production and projections) in the outfield is intriguing, but only because the team has too many options in the infield that it needs to assess.
This is mostly because the infield also suffers from having too many guys we know too much about. Yu Chang is an adequate utility infielder for a non-contender, Bobby Bradley is probably always going to be more bust than boom, Ernie Clement is never going to hit enough to justify many ABs, and Owen Miller hasn’t proven he can hit major league pitching (though I think he deserves more time still). Yet, despite these clear and obvious issues, these are likely the first options for the infield.
At catcher, Austin Hedges as the unquestioned starter is also a weakness, because a batting average above the Mendoza line seems like a stretch for him. And since Maile left Wednesday’s game with an injury, the Guardians may be handed Sandy León as a backup and forced to make León-ade. While both Hedges and León may be better behind the plate than at it, their ability to work with the pitching staff will only go so far when the bullpen consists of Clase, Bryan Shaw (the Ennis Del Mar to Chris Antonetti’s Jack Twist), and a slew of players with (much) fewer than 100 IP at the major league level: Nick Sandlin, substance-less James Karinchak, Anthony Gose, Sam Hentges, Trevor Stephan, etc.
Without the benefit of additions to the lineup, via free agency or trade, the weaknesses on the Guardians’ roster greatly outweigh the benefits of its strengths. Which is a real shame, because those strengths are strong. It has been obvious for months that the roster needs support, but the team’s inaction to this point is negligent.
It would be great to see Arias, Battenfield, Giménez, Kwan, Palacios, Pilkington, or any other prospect come to Cleveland and succeed — we’re all cheering for these guys. But seeing them succeed likely means wasting the primes of Ramírez and Bieber on a rebuilding club, exactly what this front office has said it wants to avoid and not what fans were expecting after placing second in the AL Central last season. Likewise, if the prospect depth turns out to be a strength utilized on field (rather than in trades) this season, we’re likely to be watching a pretty weak Guardians team. And that’s a shame.