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2023 Guardians will go as far as their infield can take them

This group is special, and the core of it will be around for a long time

Texas Rangers v Cleveland Guardians Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images

Unlike the outfield, where certainty is a new feeling, the infield has carried the Cleveland Guardians offense for the better part of a decade. It was once Francisco Lindor and José Ramírez. Then it was briefly just José Ramírez. Now — and for the next half-decade — it’s José Ramírez and Andrés Giménez.

Along with locking up Ramírez last offseason, agreeing to a seven-year deal with Giménez on Tuesday, and holding onto Amed Rosario, the Guardians also added first baseman Josh Bell into the mix to provide the power they crave at the position. Toss in a fully healthy Josh Naylor and a comeback candidate at catcher in Mike Zunino, and with a little bit of luck the 2023 Guardians infield could be one of the better groups the organization has seen in a long time.

ZiPS’s playing-time adjusted projections estimate that Ramírez, Giménez, Rosario, Zunino, Naylor, and Bell will be worth a combined 19.6 fWAR. That is assuming full health, of course, which is never guaranteed in a baseball season. Over half of that total comes from Ramírez and Giménez at 6.0 and 4.9 fWAR, respectively, but there is plenty of value all around. Even Rosario, who is probably considered the weakness, is projected to finish with 2.7 fWAR. Zunino, similarly, is at 2.6 fWAR thanks to his defense and above-average offense. Bell and Naylor can hold their own as well, of course, and even Gabriel Arias off the bench could be a surprisingly effective addition.

When injuries do inevitably occur, the Guardians will be prepared thanks to years of stacking up middle infielders like they’re trying to catch ‘em all. Arias is the obvious first man up seeing as he is already on the active roster (and he might even see some time platooning with Naylor at first), but Tyler Freeman shouldn’t be too far behind. Looking beyond this year, the depth potential is incredible. Angel Martinez, Brayan Rocchio, Juan Brito, Milan Tolentino, Angel Genao, and others are making the slow march through the minor leagues. It only takes one prospect hit to solidify the position for a decade, and the Guardians have plenty of opportunities to find the right player.

In the meantime, a lot of the infield comes down to whether or not Giménez can prove that 2022 was no fluke — and the Guardians don’t seem to believe it is, based on the contract they are handing him.

After surging to an incredible 6.1 fWAR, 140 wRC+ season last year, the Guards’ shortstop-turned-second-baseman is projected by ZiPS to finish with a 4.9 fWAR and 115 wRC+. Considering how much of a leap Giménez took from his 0.8-win campaign in 2021 to last year’s breakout, I’d consider those projections favorable and beatable. No one will question his speed or his Gold Glove-winning defense, and he sprays the ball effectively, but the 17 home runs he hit last year may represent the ceiling for his power unless he makes some changes to his approach. His ceiling is the moon if he can add power, but even if he just stays the course and maybe draws a few more walks, he’s an on-base machine and an ideal candidate to bat second in any lineup. Could you imagine batting him anywhere else on a consistent basis? Not I.

First base will be manned by two designated hitters between Bell and Naylor, who should bring the boom — just don’t expect many acrobatic saves on bang-bang plays at first base. This will be Naylor’s first time entering a season fully healthy with the confidence that he has a position locked down. It’s been a bumpy ride to consistent playing time so far for Nayls, between a trade, a horrific leg injury, and the 2020 season just kind of screwing everything up. But he’s had a full offseason to refine his craft (and by craft I mean headbutting, of course), so I fully expect him to put up career numbers — maybe even with the aid of a minor platoon down the road to help him crush righties. ZiPS sees him as essentially the same player as last year, but Steamer gives him a considerable boost to his BABIP en route to a 125 wRC+, compared to 117 wRC+ last season.

Bell finished last year slashing .266/.362/.422 with 17 home runs between the Nationals and Padres. Most of that came in the first half of the year in Washington, however, as his wRC+ free-fell to 79 wRC+ in San Diego. He seems comfortable in Cleveland though, and he is playing on a deal that could be one-and-done if he wants to opt out and test the free-agent market after it’s over. Maybe that pushes him to top his previous career highs with his last shot at a big, multi-year payday on the horizon.

On a similar note, shortstop Amed Rosario is playing to impress suitors in the offseason. Part of the reason I don’t believe an extension is happening is because of the prime position he sits at. He doesn’t turn 28 until November, and he plays solid-enough defense at shortstop with elite speed and a history of being a solid teammate. In such a weak shortstop free-agent class coming, he is lined up to make bank well into his 30s if he can put up a big contract year. That’s the best-case scenario for everyone, isn’t it? Rosario plays his brains out, blows by his 101 wRC+ projection and gets paid in the offseason, while the Guardians reap the benefits of his abilities on and off the field for one final year.

Overall, if you’re not excited about this infield, you’re not looking hard enough. There are some question marks, as there are with every group on every team, but they have the cream of the crop with Ramírez at third, Giménez locked up and poised to win multiple Gold Gloves (and then some) at second, and plenty of potential around them to make 2023 a special year on the infield dirt of Progressive Field.