The Guardians declining to act before the deadline surprised nobody, myself included. The team already made great strides during the season developing a group of young players who will hopefully form a strong core for the foreseeable future. Furthermore the crest of the team’s wave of young (controllable) players arrives in the future, not in 2022. Which gives us all reason to expect more young players who may help in the near future. Given the youth current roster (and the prospects on the way), the logic seems sound: why make moves at all? In many circumstances: the answer would be a clear agreement. If the team was not in contention there would be no reason to add to the roster, but the Guardians find themselves (as of this writing) a game behind the division leading Twins. Few expected Cleveland to compete in 2022, and a big reason as to why is the weakness of our division, but unexpected playoff appearances count too! Not acting on it is a mistake.
Areas of Need
First it helps to review where the team could use some assistance, and for the first time in years: the Outfield is not on the list. The area the team is weakest is catcher, where Austin Hedges & Luke Maile combined for less than 1 bWAR for the season (which, surprisingly, is actually only the 9th worst in the league). Hedges is batting below the Mendoza line, and Maile is only barely above him; they’re both batting well below league average. Hedges remains a good defensive catcher, and that’s valuable, but not when his OPS+ is 54.
Second, for the first time in years, our pitching staff is no longer elite. Shane Bieber took a couple steps back from his Cy Young season in 2020, and Aaron Civale, Cal Quantrill & Zach Plesac have not stepped up; all three are closer to ‘solid’ than good pitchers (none have an ERA+ of 100). The bright spot has been Triston McKenzie, who has pitched ahead of his peripherals this season. To make matters worse: the team’s bench below them is fairly weak. Konnor Pilkington has filled in the most after our starting 5, and Pilkington is also not particularly good. Recently the team has started Bryan Shaw, and will start Hunter Gaddis on August 5th against Houston. This is a serious step back from where the team was in 2020, when we last made the playoffs, and 2018, when we last won the division.
Third, Owen Miller has taken most of the plate appearances at first base this year: and he’s repeated his poor 2021 season. After a blistering start, with a 1.166 OPS in March/April he’s posted an OPS below .700 every month. Josh Naylor has been a much better hitter, but probably shouldn’t play the field much given his injuries.
Fourth, the bullpen could use a veteran presence who isn’t Bryan Shaw. Shaw has been awful this year, and it remains laughable this team spent several million to bring him back in 2022. While others have stepped up (and that’s great!) replacing Shaw with a more reliable arm does not stop us from giving innings to other players.
None of these weaknesses are fatal, and the team can still compete even with these areas of need (this is the AL Central after all). I do not want to be miss understood: none of these weaknesses make the team bad. But there’s a two things about three of these four spots which are common:
1. They are true areas where we could improve the team
2. The players on roster are not going to help us win in the future AND we’re not calling players who will either
This to me means these positions are ripe for either a rental or a long term fix.
I want to highlight three players (there are others) who I think the Guardians missed out on:
Christian Vazquez, C
Vazquez is not the sexiest acquisition as he’s only a rental, but he’s also a clear offensive upgrade over Austin Hedges. He was batting a robust .282/.327/.432 (OPS+ 107) for Boston before Houston acquired him. Houston acquired him for two interesting but relatively low level prospects (who ranked 12th & 21st in Houston’s system). Vazquez is an obvious upgrade over Hedges, he does not make much money (probably earning about $3M for the remainder of the season), and bolsters our weakest spot on the roster.
Tyler Mahle, SP
Mahle is another unsexy acquisition, but he would fit perfectly on this roster. He’s posted an ERA+ of 104 this season (which is down from 127 he posted between ‘20-21), but also certainly better than anyone not named Triston or Shane in our existing rotation. Mahle has another year of control, which means he can help flesh out our rotation next season, and again is reasonably priced. Mahle cost more than Vazquez but was manageable given our system.
Mychal Givens, RP
Givens is, again, an unsexy acquisition. He’s 32, he only has one more year of control left (an option in his age 33 season). But he’s an upgrade over Shaw (if nothing else), and he’s pitched well this season. He also costs little to acquire, and isn’t making much money.
There were other players available who make/made sense. Obviously the Guardians were connected to Sean Murphy, who I think we should have acquired (barring an outrageous request). I disagree with people who fear him blocking Naylor: we can play both, and if Naylor plays well just trade Murphy at a later date. The Twins got Michael Fulmer from Detroit too, and he’d have definitely been an upgrade in the bullpen. Trey Mancini, Noah Syndergaard, Jose Quintana: it’s not like the Guardians lacked options to make upgrades on the MLB team.
None of this is dramatic either way: the team can still win the division (although it got harder), we could still nab a Wild Card spot. Fangraphs has us as a 50/50 shot to make the playoffs in 2022, which is much better than I thought headed into the season! Why not spend some resources and increase that? None of the above moves would have tanked our chances to make the playoffs in 2023 and beyond: at some point the team needs to prioritize the present at the cost of the future. We don’t know what 2023 will be like, but we do know that we could make the playoffs in 2022: and deliberately choosing to not capitalize on the opportunity is a waste. If we don’t make the playoffs today that’s one less chance we get in the postseason with Jose Ramriez & Shane Bieber (Jose isn’t getting any younger, and Shane Bieber only has two more years of control, and if history is any indication: he could be traded before then). This also could be our last season with Terry Francona at the helm, who is among the best playoff managers of all time.
I want to dwell on the Francona thought for a bit. 2023 could be a strange year for Cleveland if we replace Tito. Tito has been one of the best managers in club history, and I still believe he’s a top manager in the league. I am convinced a conventional manager loses us the 2016 postseason (possibly in the ALDS). Tito is a manager more bent on winning now than later (although he’s done an admirable job playing the kids, especially this season). Finding a replacement will be tough, and we should not discount the value he brings in the postseason: I would hate to waste a season of his experience.
Nobody expected this team to trade the farm system for Juan Soto, and that’s not what I am suggesting here: but the last couple of times we made trades to help the current teams (Andrew Miller & Brad Hand being the most important) those ‘can't miss’ prospects didn’t pan out, and both were crucial to the playoff runs; even some of the prospects we kept (Bradley Zimmer) flopped. We shouldn’t lose sight of 2022 in the hopes that 2023 or 2024 will be even better.
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