The cliche “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” is an interesting thing to think about in the context of the Guardians.
When it comes to keeping proven talents in Cleveland, the team is certainly a proponent of holding on to the bird in hand. To wit, signing José Ramírez to a long-term deal might end up being the best thing Chris Antonetti does in his entire career. The strategy dates back to John Hart, however, who retained guys Jim Thome, Sandy Alomar, Manny Ramirez, and other young players to build a long-term contender. But even though it was rather novel when Hart was doing it, it’s something like conventional wisdom now and not a Cleveland-exclusive practice. Alex Anthopoulous, for example, is clearly using the strategy to build a perennial winner with the Braves.
The circumstances are a little different in Atlanta, with the Braves averaging about 20,000 more fans per game (in a market with >1,000,000 homes more than Cleveland, it feels important to note), making it easier for them to spend big money to retain top talent. Though we don’t have the luxury of knowing what the Guardians’ financials look like, unlike the Braves, we do know baseball is generally profitable and the owners would make hundreds of millions in profit should they choose to sell the team. Still, we can forgive the Guardians a bit for not playing in the deepest end of the pool and offering massive contracts to potential free agents. Not least we can grant this graciousness because the team has proven so adept at developing prospects.
But it’s here that the team is guilty of valuing its two in the bush too highly. To get Sean Murphy, a player the Guardians were long reported to covet, Atlanta had to part with talent. As Anthopoulous said afterward, “It’s always hard to trade guys away. It’s just a rare opportunity to get a premium defensive player at a premium position. We gave up a lot of talented guys that we like.” Murphy is clearly a premium player, with 10.6 fWAR accumulated in just 330 career games at a demanding position, and Anthopoulous was willing to make that hard decision and give away promising young (read: cheap) talent to secure a proven piece and then extend him.
For multiple years now, we fans have heard and read the plaudits of the Guardians system from various baseball press and opposing front offices. Just this week MLB published a poll of front offices that recognized the Guardians for being both the best at developing pitchers and hoarding prospects the most. At The Athletic, Zack Meisel detailed 14 prospects who could make an impact in Cleveland next year, after 17 debuted in 2022, but couldn’t even include highly rated prospects like Jose Tena because of the team’s logjam up the middle.
While past success is no guarantee of future success, previous success at the MLB level is a much better indicator of future success at the MLB level than pedigree and minor league numbers. And yet, Cleveland still has more middle infield prospects than the local T-shirt companies have designs and more promising pitchers than “fans” have complaints about the nickname change. As our pal Quincy pointed out on Twitter, some of this MiLB horde could have netted the team one of its long-term trade targets like yesterday:
I'm not here to criticize Cleveland here, but I want to note the immense amount of confidence they have in Espino, Williams & Bibee and the value they've set on young, cost-controlled pitching. They could very likely have got Murphy or now Reynolds if they'd part with 1 of the 3 https://t.co/Vqacl71CEh— Quincy Wheeler (@QuincyWheeler1) January 12, 2023
And though Quincy isn’t trying to criticize anyone, I am. If the Guardians could improve with a player like Murphy or Bryan Reynolds (both of whom would’ve been at least the team’s 4th best player in 2022 by fWAR) at the cost of a potentially great player, they should do it.
I very much enjoy when the team produces a talent from within the organization, like Shane Bieber or Steven Kwan, but for every Bieber or Kwan there are two JC Mejías or Bradley Zimmers. So while we wait to see what the Tanners Bibee and Burns or Gavin Williams turn out to be, we do so with the knowledge they’re more likely to flame out than be an All-Star, Cleveland pitching pedigree be damned.
There’s a reason TINSTAAPP (there’s no such thing as a pitching prospect) is a baseball cliche, after all. Proven big league talent, the bird in the proverbial hand, is hard to come by, and a couple birds in a bush shouldn’t prevent the team from acquiring it if it results in wins.