The Astros are the undisputed class of the American League. As one of our fine commenters at Covering the Corner put it the other day, “I can’t think of a move, or several moves, that [The Guardians] could make that would make the team better than the Astros.”
So, I wondered, with Steamer and ZiPS projections out for both the Astros and the Guardians, how do the two teams stack up so far based on what the computers say, and how might the Guardians close any gap that may exist between the two teams?
First, let’s look at 2023 batting projections for the Astros:
Astros 2023 Projections
|Starter Totals||Starting 9||123.78||118.11||207||205|
Next, we look at our very own Cleveland Guardians:
Guardians 2023 Projections
|Starter Totals||Starting 9||115.4||103.5||168||149|
- I reconciled significant differences in projected playing time between Steamer and ZiPS by projecting every player based on ZiPS’ projected plate appearances, so the numbers are easier to compare.
- I don’t believe Bo Naylor will open spring training with the club but I included him as Mike Zunino’s partner because I do think he’ll spend the majority of the season in that role.
There is no doubt that the projections predict a sizeable gap between these respective offenses. Steamer is higher, in general, on the Guardians than ZiPS is, but eight points of wRC+ per hitter and 39 home runs is still a significant amount of runs to overcome. So, how can the Guardians do it?
First, it’s not really a plan or a strategy, but it is worth remembering that anything can happen in a short series. Inferior offensive teams beat superior offensive teams all the time, and the Guardians project to be an above-average offensive team by any measure you use. They will always have a solid shot against the Astros and that’s important to note. The gap itself, of course, is also very important to consider.
The Guardians do have some solid depth. If you were willing to switch Will Brennan or Will Benson in for Myles Straw in this projected lineup, or at least to give them more of his at-bats, you would immediately increase the projected home run count from the centerfielder anywhere from six to 15 times (depending on your preferred projection system and the player you chose). Alternatively, if you’re willing to try to play Steven Kwan in center and put wunderkind George Valera in left, you increase your projected offensive production and projected home runs from both positions as they are currently.
Another fact to keep in mind is that it doesn’t matter when the Guardians field their best lineup, as long as they make the playoffs and can field that best lineup there. They can likely continue to play Straw and see if he can be an average major-league hitter for three or four months and still be in line to compete for a division title or a wildcard. This allows players like Valera and possibly Brennan and Benson to continue to develop and demonstrate they are ready for a starting role if a change needs to be made.
I am sure Astros fans can point to where the projections systems are underrating some of their guys. But, that shouldn’t stop us from doing the same for the Guardians.
- What effects will a full offseason of training and conditioning without trying to rehab a traumatic ankle injury have on Josh Naylor and his ability to hit home runs? Naylor hit left-handed pitching fairly well in the minors; can he also make incremental improvements there to help his overall offensive numbers?
- Prior to his thumb injury, Andrés Giménez was on pace for 21 home runs in 2022; instead of regressing, might another year of big league experience and a firm knowledge that he is the starting second baseman help him reach even greater heights in 2023?
- José Ramírez was on pace for 46 homers in 2023 before his thumb injury; if he’s healthy in 2023, who isn’t going to take the over on 30 homers?
- Oscar Gonzalez was four home runs below his expected home run rate in 2023 (Straw was about two homers below his, by the way). Oscar also made some clear adjustments in September/October, getting himself into a few more long counts, and hitting at a 24-homer-per-year pace during that time frame; might another year allow SpongeBob to tap into more of that power he displayed at every level of the minor leagues?
- Josh Bell has averaged 30 home runs in every odd year he has played. Twenty-twenty-three is an odd year. If you don’t believe in Odd Year Josh Bell, I suggest you need to do your own research. He’s real and he’s spectacular.
- Finally, Steven Kwan is not a mere 108 wRC+ hitter, ZiPS. Listen to me, computers, I need you to understand that the man has superheroic bat control and is going to continue to beat the regression allegations and BABIP gods.
Even if we project the best possible outcomes for the Guardians and say the Astros essentially meet their projections, there is probably still a gap between the two franchise’s offenses. But, that’s what the trade deadline is for, baby! In all but one year in recent memory (I’m looking at you 2022), Guardians have shown that when they are confident a team is going to be in the playoffs, they will make trades to shore up roster holes mid-year. I would expect that if the offense is performing something closer to the ZiPS numbers than the Steamer numbers, we will actually see the Guardians trade for someone with a significant amount of slugging capabilities.
As I ran these numbers, I was mostly encouraged by what I saw. The Guardians appear to have a good offense with the potential to be great if developmental paths continue for their top young players and they are given the opportunities they deserve. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’d be far more encouraged if the Guardians had signed Aaron Judge or traded for Rhys Hoskins. But, I also don’t think a move like either of those was actually possible. Aside from Judge (who obviously wasn’t coming here), the free agent market was not especially flush with home run hitters, where the Guardians most notably lag behind the Astros.
I believe a midseason trade is truly the best way to keep up with the Astros while allowing for the possibility that a few standouts from this young core of hitters may surprise us all with their offensive abilities. In my next article in this series, I’ll compare the two teams’ respective pitching projections.