The Guardians’ offseason work would seem to be mostly completed, as they reached arbitration deals with all seven of their eligible players.
Earlier in the offseason, they signed Josh Bell and Mike Zunino, completing two of the three offseason objectives mentioned by Chris Antonetti in November. The remaining objective mentioned was potentially looking for another arm for the pitching staff. Was that objective met in the team’s eyes in the non-roster invitees to spring training including Caleb Simpson, Michael Kelly, and Touki Toussaint — or in the trade for Ross Carver from Arizona? As interesting as Toussaint is, described in Merritt Rohlfing’s recent article, none of those four arms are particularly likely to add much to the Guardians’ chances at making a World Series run in 2023.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Twins made a significant splash last week in finally landing Carlos Correa. Rumors continue to swirl (of the non-blue checkmark variety, for what it’s worth) that the Twins are aggressively seeking Marlins pitcher Pablo López in a trade. The White Sox added Andrew Benintendi and have seemingly called it a day, but both the Twins and Sox have the roster talent to push the Guardians, especially if Minnesota can, indeed, shore up their rotation.
Prior to making any offseason moves, the Guardians were projected for 82 wins, the Twins for 81, and the White Sox for 76 by ZiPS. Overall, the teams seem to have mostly held serve in their November-January activities, so the Guardians should probably be viewed as the division favorite by the slightest of margins.
Is that enough? With the youngest team in baseball in 2022 by a wide margin, is the philosophy of counting on natural growth for young players and the strength of their minor league talent and player development system the best way for Cleveland to capitalize on the opportunities in front of them?
The Guardians gave the sixth most plate appearances to players under 30 of any team in baseball history in 2022. It’s a crude way to make a comparison, but the other five teams to give more plate appearances to players under 30 than the Guardians improved an average of 4.8 games the following seasons. All five of these teams competed in the 1960s-1980s in an era that didn’t often include significant free-agent signings, but player development has also obviously made huge strides since those teams were fielded. It would seem reasonable to expect some natural progression among young players, but not to count on that development being the contributing factor that will push the Guardians over the top for a World Series title.
The aforementioned Marlins signed Johnny Cueto last week and are rumored to be open to trading any one of their starters not named Sandy Alcantara. Earlier in the offseason, the Marlins were reported to be interested in adding high-contact hitters. The Guardians are, notably, flush with high-contact hitters. So, why don’t the Guardians get a deal done for Pablo López (projected for a 3.67 FIP in 2023), Edward Cabrera (projected 4.06 FIP), Trevor Rogers (projected 3.66 FIP), or Jesus Luzardo (projected 3.85 FIP)?
Part of the answer to that question always lies in how teams matchup in potential deals — the Marlins were rumored to be interested in St. Louis’ Brendan Rogers in exchange for Edward Cabrera and have been connected to Minnesota’s Luis Arráez in a potential trade for López. The Guardians have mostly Triple-A pieces to offer who may or may not be major-league ready, whereas Rogers and Arráez are proven major-league talents. The other part of the answer for the Guardians seems to be a willingness to gamble on their ability to develop their own young, cost-controlled talent in building a championship roster.
At the same time that I’m frustrated with the team’s inability to sign a pitcher like Ross Stripling to a reasonable free-agent deal, and I sympathize with Chris Davies in wanting the team to consolidate a few of the ten middle-infielders on the 40-man and excellent starting pitcher prospects in the system as part of a deal for a catcher or a proven major league starter, I can’t help but picture a Sports Illustrated cover (are they still making those?) in mid-2024 titled “The Four Aces” featuring Triston McKenzie, Daniel Espino, Tanner Bibee, and Gavin Williams, all on arb or pre-arb deals, allowing the team to spend on other roster needs without putting the Dolans in the poorhouse.
I can appreciate that, currently, the Guardians have several really exciting young players to help at 2B/SS (which spot depends on where Giménez ends up), in the outfield spots, and, in addition to the four aces above, Aaron Civale, Joey Cantillo, Konnor Pilkington, Peyton Battenfield, Xzavion Curry, Carver, and others offer significant rotation depth.
My educated guess based on past experience and listening to recent interviews with organizational leaders is that, aside from some minor league deals and maybe a signing of another right-handed bat to help in a 1B/OF role, the Guardians will enter the 2023 season as is.
With the payroll only at $85 million, they should be able to approach Andrés Giménez, Triston McKenzie, Shane Bieber, and maybe Steven Kwan with extension talks in the spring — any of which would be exciting moves for the future. They will then let their collection of young major leaguers and top prospects continue to develop and then look to upgrade at any positions of need in July of 2023. I can admit that it makes market sense to attempt to solve organizational needs internally, first, and then adjust to needs as they arise ... as long as potential trade chips don’t lose value through a failure to develop as expected or through injuries (see: Nolan Jones, Carlos Vargas, and Owen Miller — to varying degrees in each case).
I still dream of a blockbuster deal to acquire a No. 2 starting pitcher and sign Chad Pinder before spring training to crush the hopes and dreams of Twins and White Sox fans everywhere (and provide us something fun to analyze — big trades are so fun!). But, I’m also excited to see if the fun players who are already Guardians, many of which we have eagerly followed in Lake County, Akron, and Columbus, can bring us the World Series title as our championship drought turns 75 years old this fall.
I think, for now, the tension between these two perspectives is a good place to live as a Guardians fan.