The Cleveland Guardians and outfield troubles go together like, I don’t know, peanut butter and ... mayonnaise? It’s not peanut and butter and jelly because that’s common and delicious. But peanut butter and mayonnaise are both common and also bad together.
Yeah, that works, that’s basically how Cleveland’s outfield has felt for the last decade. Like peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwich. Probably toasted. And, unless something changes soon, they will roll into 2022 with the same outfield that finished a combined 91 wRC+ in 2021 — 12th in the American League.
Myles Straw was a pleasant surprise for the Guards after coming over from the Astros, at least. He finished his 60-game debut in Cleveland with a .285/.362/.377 slash and led all outfielders (yes, even the ones who played a full season in Cleveland) with 1.6 fWAR. He seems cemented in center field and could provide the Guardians with stability at the position for the first time since the mid-00’s.
As I wrote last year, Straw is essentially Bradley Zimmer but more gooder. He’s fast, can spray the ball all over, and plays incredible defense in center field. Unlike Zimmer, he makes solid contact and his ceiling probably hasn’t been reached yet.
Outside of Straw, the Guardians’ outfield situation is up in the air. Zimmer and Oscar Mercado are both on the roster and out of options, seemingly here for the long haul. Over a full season, ZiPS projects them to be worth 1.2 and 1.0 fWAR, respectively, mostly riding solid defense and well-below-average bats. They will likely be paired as a right-field platoon to get the most out of their bats while leveraging their defense and speed.
Both are known quantities at this point, however. Oscar Mercado’s 15 home runs he hit in his rookie season looks like a mirage and he has yet to post a wRC+ over 100 in any season. He doesn’t strike out a lot, but the solid contact just isn’t there. Even during that promising 2019 campaign he finished in the 23rd percentile in hard-hit rate and barreled the ball in the 17th percentile. He has speed for days, but the bat is a mystery if it’ll ever work.
Zimmer has a career 33.3% strikeout rate and has struck out in almost every at-bat this spring. But boy is he fast.
Josh Naylor is expected to start the season on the injured list following a devastating leg injury that ended his 2021 season, but he should be back out there sooner rather than later. We probably haven’t seen the best of him yet, and ZiPS is a little more optimistic than the below-average bat we’ve seen thus far — the projection system has him at a 101 wRC+ and .258/.317/.425 slash over 115 games. Steamer has him is quite a bit higher at .273/.336/.471 for a 119 wRC+. His defense won’t carry him out there, but if he can land closer to Steamer’s offensive projections he might just be able to hit enough to negate it.
If there is any excitement left for Cleveland’s outfield, it comes from Steven Kwan, a 24-year-old who slashed .337/.411/.539 in Double-A and .311/.398/.505 in Triple-A last season. His impressive 2021 season has earned him a long look in spring training and it’s looking more and more like he’ll get a shot at the Opening Day roster.
A retweaked swing has moved him from a slap hitter to a potential gap-power threat, as detailed by Zack Meisel in The Athletic earlier today.
That skill set can carry a player far, perhaps even to the majors. But when Kwan arrived at spring training a year ago and conferenced with the organization’s hitting development team, they agreed he could benefit from a swing that allowed him to whack the baseball with more authority. Making a lot of contact is great. Making a lot of hard contact — resulting in line-drive doubles to the gap instead of weak grounders to second base, for instance — is better.
Kwan has the contact, he draws walks, and if he’s added power to his game ... look out.
Before he’s even taken a major-league swing, Kwan is projected to be the Guardians’ second-best outfielder by ZiPS at 1.9 fWAR. His projected .287/.343/.426 slash and 111 wRC+ would already be a welcome addition to the lineup — and that doesn’t even take into account any kind of swing changes he might have undertaken in the offseason.
The Guardians’ packed 40-man roster also includes Ernie Clement, Richie Palacios, and Nolan Jones, but don’t expect any of them to make an immediate impact in the outfield of Progressive Field. Jones is headed to the injured list to start the year, Clement is more of a backup utility player, and Palacios’s time will come, just not right now.
There are, of course, still options out there to improve if the Guardians wanted to. Michael Conforto is still a free agent, and I refuse to let the Brayan Reynolds dream die until the Pirates trade him somewhere else. But until that happens, the hope of Cleveland’s outfield rests in the bats of Steven Kwan and Myles Straw.