Of the few big roster needs of the Cleveland Guardians this offseason, the outfield stands as the most crucial of the bunch. The team has been looking for three real mainstays for years now, and they have only been able to find one of the such. As it is right now, Steven Kwan is the one real and viable mainstay that will be a lock for the Guardians’ 2024 Opening Day starting lineup (barring any trades, injuries, etc.). However, there are a good number of routes the Guardians can take to remove this thorn in the side that has been bugging the organization for years on end. I am here to bring light to those options and suggest some strong candidates to fill this void.
Before I start laying out the options, it should be known that the team has a vast power shortage, especially in the outfield. This year, the Guardians outfield has amassed a .091 ISO. That ISO is the worst out of any outfield in the entire 21st Century so far, falling under the next worst team, the 2015 Atlanta Braves, by a .07 difference. However, this will not last as long as the Guardians front office plays their chips right and chooses the right candidates. This is a prime opportunity to get some real pop in the lineup, as the outfield is really the last spot where a question mark lies.
Now, every path is open for the Guardians. They can choose any department and have a great chance at finding an answer. They have high-end outfield prospects who can debut at some point next year. They have a great amount of middle infield prospects and starting pitchers that they can deal from to acquire an experienced and talented outfielder. They also have the money to spend, Dolan-willing, on a scarce outfield free agent market. The possibilities are endless, so let’s discuss some of the prime candidates for this outfield issue.
Path 1: Prospects
One half of the Guardians’ big two outfield prospects, DeLauter was the organization’s first round draft pick in 2022. The team invested in Chase with the belief that he could live up to his highly-touted draft prospect profile. During his first season this year, Chase is displaying much of that potential, hitting .355 with a .945 OPS. Many think that he could be up here by June or July next year and I, for one, agree that he should get the call by then. That is, as long as he continues to progress at the rate he is. I also believe he already has a reserved spot in the outfield, and have full confidence he could be the main piece of a potentially elite big three in the Guardians outfield.
For who was once largely considered a superstar in the making by a number of those following the team’s farm system, George Valera sort of took a back seat this season in the talks about the Guardians’ future outfield. Many are reconsidering their confidence in Valera, given all that happened surrounding him this year. He had surgery on his hamate bone after 2022 only to aggravate it during Spring Training, and then missed even more time on top of that with a hamstring injury. He was also, by and large, quiet until the last couple months of the season. George only hit ten homers in his 312 plate appearances for Columbus this season. He also had a .164 ISO, the second worst of his career with at least 100 PAs. Although things have not looked great at all for Valera, I still have a lot of hope in him. He did settle in during the aforementioned last couple months of 2023, re-establishing a bit of the power that was absent all season. Now having a full offseason to work, I really do believe he can get back to the power he initially had. If George has a great Spring Training, I am easily giving him a spot on the Guardians’ Opening Day roster next year.
Alright, I know Juan Brito is a middle infielder. But unless every one of our MIF prospects unlikely fails to secure the job at shortstop, we are going to have to find a way to give Brito a role. The acquisition in the infamous Nolan Jones trade last November, Juan Brito turned a lot of heads this year and became one of the big breakout prospects in the Guardians’ system. The switch hitter batted .271 with an .811 OPS in the minors this year. Though there is a concern about his ability to field the ball, I believe plugging him in right field would be the most ideal possibility, given the team’s very low availability in the infield.
A serious dark horse candidate to take the outfielder job is Johnathan Rodriguez who, like Brito, made a jump in his development this year. To put it simply, Rodriguez just mashes. Accumulating 29 homers, 26 doubles, which all contributes to a .243 ISO, it is clear why so many people think fondly of him. Not to mention he posted a 12.4% walk rate in Columbus, so he is good at looking for his pitches. However, there is one big flaw with him, and that is his very concerning tendency to swing and miss. According to Prospects Live, Rodriguez has a 34.5% whiff rate. Having a whiff rate such as that could be indicative of how he might fare in the majors, even more so, since major league pitching is vastly different from AAA pitching. That isn’t to say that Rodriguez will not adjust, because I am still hopeful for him and think he might evolve into a serious mainstay candidate. But until then, I am just keeping a loose eye on him. Rodriguez is Rule 5-eligible this year, so we should be seeing him placed on the team’s 40-man roster sometime between now and November.
For better or worse, Noel is mainly a boom-or-bust prospect. He has not been doing all too well during his time in Columbus, but there is still a bit of breakout potential in him. Jhonkensy was initially profiled to be a power machine. FanGraphs potrayed Noel to have 70/80 grade raw pop, and even in his quiet term in Columbus, it still has shown from time to time. He hit 27 homers and 23 doubles, cumulating for almost half of his hits. Looking at his game logs, he has yet to sustain success at the plate. However, it is important to notice Jhonkensy’s quick rise to AAA. He passed through every level with ease, and just hit a wall in Columbus. He just turned 22 years old in July, so he is very young for a AAA ballplayer and he might take a big leap as he reaches 23 or 24.
Path 2: Trade Targets
Taylor Ward - Los Angeles Angels
Possibly the most realistic trade target for the Cleveland Guardians is 29-year-old Taylor Ward. Getting Ward makes a lot of sense for both sides. The Guardians would get an experienced, controllable outfielder who has very respectable power numbers, and the Angels would get a couple high end prospects to rebuild their already gutted farm system. The Angels are losing Shohei Ohtani to free agency this offseason, and even have considered dealing their golden boy Mike Trout, if he wished, as well. As for Ward, this year he had a worse season than his breakout in 2022, but still hit very well. He provided the Angels with a 1.5 fWAR and displayed a 107 wRC+. If we trade for Ward, he can prove to be a reliable leader of the Guardians’ next trio of outfielders.
Austin Hays or Anthony Santander - Baltimore Orioles
The Baltimore Orioles just suffered the consequences of not acquiring talented pitching at the trade deadline, being swept by the Rangers in the ALDS, even after going 101-61 in the regular season. A young and underperforming Grayson Rodriguez as well as John Means, who is fresh off of Tommy John surgery, cannot yet be depended on to deliver the O’s a World Series title. That is where the Guardians’ pitching factory comes in. Cleveland has a vast surplus of SP talent from which they can definitely make a deal. The Orioles also have a vast surplus in outfield talent, ranging from prospects to veteran ballplayers. Both teams have a surplus in a position that which the other team needs. It is a perfect match, so I would expect the two teams to engage in some sort of trade talk. Now, as for what outfielders the Orioles offer, I could dream all day about acquiring Heston Kjerstad, the Orioles’ number 2 outfield prospect. But, that is a very unrealistic desire, because of Kjerstad’s venerable prospect profile. It seems most likely that the O’s would try to deal either Austin Hays or Anthony Santander for a front of the rotation pitcher. This year, Hays put up a solid stat line, hitting for a 112 wRC+ as well as a 114 OPS+. Hays also had a .169 ISO all the while putting up an 8.9% barrel rate, so he has average pop at the very least. Hays is also under contract through 2025, so he wouldn’t be just a one year rental. The same can’t be said for Anthony Santander, though, as he is only under team control for 2024. However, Santander is easily the better player of the two. He also better fits the mold that the team should be looking to fill as well. Santander in 2023 hit 28 homers, had a .215 ISO, accumulated 2.6 fWAR, and hit for a 119 wRC+. He also generates a lot of pulled fly balls, making him a 30-homer threat. He would be plugged in as the team’s cleanup hitter, if they were to make the trade.
Tyler O’neill - St. Louis Cardinals
Similar to the Orioles’ situation, the St. Louis Cardinals are in need of a great rotation. They are probably even in dire need of such, because Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt are either in, or exiting, the latter halves of their prime. They also have many young stars on their offense that it makes it sort of imperative that they find stellar pitching to bolster their chances to take an NL Central that is full of young and hungry teams. Again, similarly to the Orioles, I would love for the Guardians to work out a trade for Lars Nootbaar, but I am really under the impression that he will not be dealt. So, Tyler O’neill is an alternative but very viable option nonetheless. O’neill would be another one year rental, but he still provides you with at least an average bat with a solid glove that plays best in left field. In what was an injury-stricken year for the righty, O’neill posted a 97 wRC+ with a 94 OPS+, and has a respectable batted ball profile. Tyler had a breakout season in 2021, so I believe he could return to the production he previously had if he was able to stay on the field.
Path 3: Free Agent Possibilities
Though he had a very poor start to the season, Teoscar Hernandez made up for it in his performance since then. Excluding July, Hernandez played like he had all career from June-onward. He got up to a 105 wRC+, hitting 26 homers along the way. Hernandez put up a 49.4% hard hit percentage and a .215 xISO (nearly .40 above his actual ISO). He could really be in for a great season next year if he keeps those power numbers up, and I would be ecstatic if it happened for the Cleveland Guardians. The organization needs to add a reliable power bat to their outfield, and I have confidence that Hernandez is it.
One of the biggest announcements from the international realm of baseball was that KBO superstar Jung-Hoo Lee was making his move to the Americas to play in the MLB. Lee put up amazing stats in the KBO. This year, he had his lowest wRC+ in four seasons at 139. He also had a .396 wOBA and 12.7 BB rate. Now, I get it, the MLB and KBO are far different leagues from each other, but it isn’t easy to not take a shot on him, especially when the team has a huge need to add a great bat in the outfield.
Now, I am sort of trending into unrealistic territory. Heck, he may not even be available, since he has a player option for 2024. But Jorge Soler would provide a heaping amount of power that is needed in the lineup. Soler is just one of your normal three true outcome hitters. Top 30 in the league in both K rate (24.3%) and BB rate (11.4%), while just missing the top 10 in dingers at 36. There’s not much else to be said about his bat other than the fact that he just hammers the ball. What is a big concern about him, though is the fact that he is primarily a DH, especially since he is reaching his age 32 season. That being said, we would be forced to put him in a corner outfield role, where he does not do well. But me, personally, I am willing to sacrifice one third of a gold glove caliber outfield for a mammoth of a hitter. As long as he opts out of his contract, of course.
Okay. Hear me out. I don’t think the 2023 Jesse Winker is the real Jesse Winker. Y’know, the “lowest xISO of his career was .152 just last year” Jesse Winker. Yes, he had a horrid 2023 campaign, but I really don’t think him having a higher OBP than SLG this season is totally real, the year after he hit for a 108 wRC+. Now, I get that there is a great chance that he may not be the hitter he used to be. I sure do believe, though, that it isn’t very possible that he continues to slug less than he gets on base, especially when he touched a .229 xISO in more than 450 plate appearances before. On the contrary, I think it is possible that he could get back to at least a 90 wRC+. Is this a total shot in the dark? Definitely, but I would surely entertain the possibility of getting Winker here on a prove-it deal.
It is obvious that the Guardians do need impact bats in the outfield. It is also obvious that there are some real candidates who can easily come in and fill the void. I am confident that it will not be long before the team gets some real pop out there, as long as things do not stray far off the initial premise for these players. The great thing is that we can, as aforementioned, have the three big options to choose from and not coincidingly create additional holes in the roster. Nevertheless, this offseason should be filled with a great amount of discussion about who the Guardians are going to choose.