Despite what our eyes told us — and even if every reader of this article is as ensconced in numbers as your typical quant — it feels under-reported just how bad the offense-first positions dragged down the Cleveland Guardians in 2022.
The division title and winning a playoff series certainly helped gloss over it, but that 1B/DH combo was just a pit. Due in part to their continuing to fold in new rookies, the utter collapse of Franmil Reyes, and the presence of Owen Miller for 80 games at first, Cleveland ranked 20th in offense from first basemen with a 99 wRC+ and 30th at designated hitter, with a 68 wRC+.
For context, that last number is basically just batting Myles Straw at DH every game of a season. This is borderline criminal, possibly malpractice for a division winner, but it was the name of the game as they sought a solution throughout their system. That should be all over now — and it’s amazing how one man, Josh Bell, is somehow a savior.
In proper terms, Josh Bell shouldn’t be anyone’s savior, at least in a baseball sense. He’s perfectly fine as a player, a solid offensive threat, and certainly a good fit at first, but there’s nobody who thinks he should be some kind of game-changing, Aaron Judge-esque signing. That said, and I’m sure it’s been mentioned countless times — on podcasts, likely here at Covering the Corner, and in all our heads — this move could not be more perfect.
If we just dragged and dropped his 2022 version into last year’s lineup, he’d immediately be the third-best hitter on the team. However this makes you feel, and whatever it says about how good or bad the Cleveland offense was in 2022, it’s the truth, and it’s going to make life a little easier for everyone in Cleveland.
I started to delve into the numbers on this, to figure out precisely where Cleveland is going to land in the offensive rankings based on last year’s numbers, but the number of moving parts is just astronomical. If you just take Bell and Josh Naylor as a platoon at first, you have a guy who hits .280/.343/.470, or roughly Anthony Rizzo. Just so we’re clear, Rizzo was the fourth most potent first baseman in baseball last year. This alone is nice, but it doesn’t take into account how time off and platooning might help Naylor or Bell, or the other moving parts including Oscar Gonzalez, perhaps a dash of Will Brennan if his flash of success was real last year, and whoever else will start popping off in the minors.
And that’s just first base. That DH performance last year was nothing short of dreadful. Like, even if they play Bell at DH when Naylor plays first since he switch hits, he put up a 127 wRC+ against righties. Again, this number alone puts him in the top echelon of Guardians hitters in 2022, and I see no reason why that shouldn’t hold firm. Cleveland ranked 16th in baseball with a 99 team wRC+ — effectively average, and simply by tacking back to average from two positions that traditionally drive that number makes me think they’re going to be somewhere in the top ten in baseball, and might even have a shot at top five in the American League.
There’s likely going to be some drop-off from some of the holdovers from last year. Andrés Giménez might not be an MVP-level hitter again, but something like 90% of what he was in 2022 combined with Gold Glove defense is still something special. Oscar Gonzalez has an untraditional approach at the plate that doesn’t leave much margin for error, and we’re going to have to wait and see on Myles Straw about which offensive profile is real, last year or 2021. He’s another case of a potential huge lift just by being barely below average, but that’s a conversation for another day. There are other question marks, but those loom the largest.
On the flip side, one has to assume Steven Kwan will get a bit better as he settles into his role and gets a bit more muscle, and José Ramírez probably won’t break a bone in his hand again and fall back to the world of mere mortals quite so heavily. Catcher won’t be a total black hole, maybe just a gravitational anomaly (and perhaps something more if Bo Naylor tears the cover off the ball in Arizona?), and if he’s healthy Mike Zunino can be potent.
All to say, there’s always talk of that “missing piece” that helps lift a team from playoff hopeful to a contender. Sometimes it’s a huge signing, the arrival of a new MVP, sometimes it’s the right guy that lets everyone find their place. Mike Napoli was a perfect example in 2016 for both on the field and in the clubhouse (even if he fell into a pit and was never seen again after about August of that year) and Bell is that kind of guy now. Though hopefully without the corresponding second-half disappearing act.
With it being a one-year deal, we’re still not clogging things for the wave of talent we’ve all been promised is coming from the farm, so either he’s a one-year wonder that carries the Guards to glory, or we just kind of slot him in with the Napolis and Kotchmans and Swishers of the world.
The ideal is an Edwin Encarnación Mk. 2 (complete with inside the park home run), but the goal is just a positive offensive influence. Outside of José, there’s nobody that’s going to blow your mind offensively — unless you’re a long at-bat sicko like me and just want a team of nine Kwans — but Bell is the addition that lets this whole machine tick flawlessly.