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Confidence levels for Guardians hitters

Who is going to stop this runaway train of offensive futility?

Colorado Rockies v Cleveland Guardians Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

I don’t need to tell you that the Guardians’ offense is struggling at historic levels. You know that. Let’s talk about reasons to hope for better days.

For that reason, I’d like to look at the current 40-man roster and evaluate my confidence level that each hitter will either improve on their current performance or offer solid hitting value at the major-league level for the rest of the 2023 season. Each player will be ranked on a scale of 1 to 10.

Confidence level: 1 out of 10

Cam Gallagher, C
It’s pretty clear that Cam Gallagher is a glove-first catcher who offers next to nothing at the plate. That’s who he has been, that’s who he will be. There’s probably a place for that player on this team, especially if Tito brings him in for more of Emmanuel Clase’s ninth innings so the closer can feel free to bury a hard slider in the dirt more often as he cannot do with Mike Zunino behind the dish.

Jose Tena, SS
Jose Tena is great with the glove, he’s still pretty young, but I don’t see much in his surface or underlying numbers that he could contribute in the bigs if called upon. Hopefully, some team likes Tena enough to give the Guardians something of value for him here when Triston McKenzie comes off the 60-day injured list.

Jhonkensy Noel, 1B/OF
I like Jhonkensy Noel — you can’t teach exit velocity like his, and I hope he might be able to help in 2024. But despite an increased walk rate this year, I don’t see any other signs that he’ll be ready to help in Cleveland before the season is up.

Myles Straw, OF
Myles Straw has a not-nice 69 wRC+ as of this writing. Sure, he may bump that number up to something closer to his 80 wRC+ career mark but we’ve got enough sample size to conclude that Straw is what he is.

The Guardians should evaluate how best to get some real slugging percentage in right and left field and look to move Kwan to center, in my humble opinion. They should get Straw to that Jarrod Dyson role I discussed earlier in the offseason, where he can still get regular starts and provide a lot of value.

Confidence level: 2 out of 10

Angel Martinez, IF and Juan Brito IF
In the case of both Angel Martinez and Juan Brito, I think these players are too far from the majors to realistically make an impact on the major-league club in 2023. Additionally, they are blocked by layers and layers of the middle-infield prospect cake that Guardians front office leaders Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff have inexplicably baked and left in the oven for far too long.

Martinez and Brito get twos on the scale because I think both are exciting players who could be potential trade pieces and there would be an outside chance that either could simply catch fire and help in September if need be (that scenario is more likely for Brito with his exceptional walk-rate currently than Martinez).

Confidence level: 3 out of 10

Mike Zunino, C
I do think the Zunino signing was a reasonable risk once a Sean Murphy trade was off the table. It’s unfortunate that his bat speed looks to have slipped and his much-maligned ability to block balls in the dirt seems to have declined from an already alarmingly poor level.

In the past 10 days, Zunino has looked unplayable. I don’t think he’s that bad. I do think he has an established ability to hit left-handed pitching that he’ll probably find again. However, I also am no longer sure that he won’t just put up Austin Hedges-type numbers at the plate while forcing all our pitchers to be terrified of burying breaking balls in the dirt and only getting baserunners out when the ball he throws hits them in the testicles and bounces the right way. His xwOBA is .263. Yikes.

Will Brennan, OF
Will Brennan is better than what he’s been, as his .246 wOBA compared to his .293 xwOBA indicates. But he is clearly struggling with fastballs with a run value of -2 against them while seeing them at a rate that is rapidly approaching 50% of the time. Until he shows that he can put a major-league fastball into play with some authority, he is running the risk of becoming a Quad-A player.

There are reasons for optimism, of course, with this being Brennan’s first extended run in the majors. He wouldn’t be the first player who took a minute to adjust to major-league fastball quality. But, there’s also an increasing risk that he is a very discounted version of Steven Kwan.

Richie Palacios, IF/OF
Richie Palacios is probably a better hitter than Straw. He’s also far, far worse as a defender and won’t offer much more than possibly league-average production. If Brennan continues to scuffle, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Palacios brought up to play some in left field while Kwan shifts over to right against right-handed pitchers.

I don’t think a confident Brennan is a worse hitter than Palacios, but Palacios with a second crack at the bigs seems like a reasonable shot at being a better hitter than a slumping Brennan. Will this solve the offensive issues? Not at all, but it could raise the floor slightly which may seem unbelievably attractive at the moment. Palacios is also a trade candidate when McKenzie is activated.

Brayan Rocchio, IF
I fully believe in Brayan Rocchio as a future valuable, major-league hitter. However, he only rates a three on this scale for two reasons: barring an Amed Rosario and Gabriel Arias or Tyler Freeman trade, I don’t see how he’s getting major league at-bats this season. Second, we should probably expect an adjustment period for any young hitter.

If the Guardians can’t pull things together, they should absolutely get Rocchio up to Cleveland to start taking his lumps by trading Amed and one of the Arias/Freeman grouping. Will they? I have my doubts.

Confidence level: 4 out of 10

Oscar Gonzalez, OF
I am not out on Oscar Gonzalez. He’s got a small margin for error as a hitter, needing to lay off enough bad pitches to earn enough good pitches that he can do damage on enough of them to stay above water. I remain optimistic he can do that, primarily because he made an adjustment after returning from the injured list last fall to do so. But, I can’t be super confident of this, of course, because he just chases so darn much.

I tend to hang on to belief in a player who has done it and done it at high levels a little bit longer than players who have not, however. An xwOBA of .279 is bad, but it is 60 points higher than his .219 wOBA. Give Gonzalez some time to regain confidence in the minors and then bring him back and tell him to find the best pitches to do some damage on as best he can and swing away. I think there’s still potential in him to provide a needed spark.

George Valera, OF
It pains me to put George Valera in this category, but even here, I may be being optimistic. After nagging hand pain following hand surgery, he will be essentially starting the year over in Triple-A, a level he hadn’t exactly solved in 2022 with a 103 wRC+ and a strikeout rate of 25.1%. However, it’s hard not to dream about the power he has shown in the lower levels of the minors translating to Columbus and then Cleveland.

If healthy, Valera is unlikely to be worse than what the team currently has in Brennan, Arias, and Straw. He is also unlikely to offer much more than league average production, overall, at best in his first stint in the big leagues; however, that production would probably include a healthy dose of slugging which is just what the doctor has ordered for the Guardians.

Health is, also, still the main concern here — once Valera is healthy, can he maintain it? He had a good start with Columbus yesterday notching a walk, a lineout at 98.4 mph, and a single hit at an exit velocity of 104.4 mph, so here’s hoping for the best.

Gabriel Arias, IF/OF
Let’s play a little game of Small Sample Size. Arias’s overall numbers for 2023 are abysmal, as are most Guardians’ at the moment, with a 64 wRC+ and a .223 xwOBA. However, in his past 11 plate appearances, representing some consistent playing time in the past week, he’s had a 116 wRC+. He also hit one ball 107.4 mph(!!!) as part of putting up a 32% hard-hit rate, overall. We are grasping at straws, admittedly, but Francona does sound and appear committed to getting Arias some consistent at-bats.

Arias is young enough to offer hope for improvement, while his cannon arm and slick glove provide run-prevention value in the field.

Confidence level: 5 out of 10

Josh Bell, 1B/DH
Josh Bell has a .319 wOBA and a .349 xwOBA. After a horrific start, over the past 72 plate appearances, he has a 123 wRC+, which is more in line with his career mark of 115. I’d bet on him getting in that 115-120 range before the season is over, which means, with his current mark of 97 wRC+, he’s in line for a hot stretch at some point.

Bell isn’t the problem, but he’s also not the solution at that number for a slumbering offense.

Amed Rosario, SS
Through his first 138 plate appearances in 2023, Rosario has a 65 wRC+. Through his first 133 plate appearances in 2022, he had a 65 wRC+. Consistently, over his career, he does not hit for the first 6-8 weeks of a season. So, I suspect when it’s all said and done, he will find himself close to that 93 wRC+ mark he’s been at for his career, which means he is due for some good months ahead.

While that’s exciting, I have kept Rosario at a confidence level of five because I have serious concerns about his defense where he is at -2 DRS, -4 OAA, and -1.9 UZR. It looks like his range limitations are not being helped by the shift, and that’s going to continue to cost the Guardians runs while his bat rebounding adds runs, perhaps evening things out.

Pitchers have also been steadily throwing Amed more and more sliders throughout the years, and are currently at their high water mark of 31.3%. Until he shows he can lay off some of those sliders down and away, especially in 2-strike counts, he’s going to continue to see more and more of them.

Tyler Freeman, IF
If you let any player with a plate appearance qualify, Freeman leads the Guardians with a 148 wRC+. He also put up a career-high .482 slugging and 153 wRC+ in his brief stint in Columbus.

After adding some muscle in the offseason, there is reason to be optimistic about Freeman. However, I have zero confidence that Terry Francona will find a way to get him playing time. He could sub for Kwan against lefties now and then, he could spell Andrés Giménez against lefties as he did in the recent series finale, he could spell Rosario against right-handed pitchers where Rosario’s career mark of 83 wRC+ doesn’t measure up, and he could also DH against left-handed pitchers on this team now and then.

I can’t say I’m super confident that Freeman is an above-average major-league hitter but he offers reasons for optimism on a team that is mostly barren of them. I simply have little confidence that Francona will be creative and aggressive enough to get him regular at-bats.

Confidence level: 6 out of 10

David Fry, 1B/3B/C
I’m a firm believer, based on his minor-league numbers, that David Fry is a lefty masher. I also think the front office and Tito recognize this. More and more, I believe you’ll see Fry play for Josh Naylor against left-handed pitching and provide above-average production.

Fry playing at third and catcher in the series finale against Detroit also seems to indicate that Tito respects his positional flexibility and you know there are few things managers love more than a guy who you can plug and play at three different positions. I think these factors will enable him to help the team not be as abysmal facing southpaws.

Bo Naylor, C
It’s important that we proceed with caution on Bo Naylor as he is a 23-year-old catcher who will require a significant adjustment period to the major leagues. He needs to show he can hit a major-league fastball, for one, as well as the numerous catching duties involved with a big-league staff. He has struggled mightily to throw baserunners out on steal attempts, for one.

With that said, an 18.2% walk rate at Columbus, a 126 wRC+, a .235 ISO, and Baseball Savant game feed pages full of batted balls with exit velocities in the 90s and 100s indicates an exciting young player who deserves his shot with the major league team soon.

I fully expect Naylor to be up at least by sometime in June, which will spell an end to Gallagher’s time, most likely, or perhaps Fry’s. In any case, I’m confident Naylor will improve production at the position, but it may take a few months to kick into place given his age and inexperience.

Confidence level: 7 out of 10

Josh Naylor, 1B/DH
The poster boy for unlucky results on the Guardians roster, Naylor has a .239 wOBA and a .329 xwOBA.

Now, a .329 xwOBA is still not good but a 44.7% hard-hit rate and a 7.4% barrel rate are indications that not all is lost. He also rarely whiffs (77th percentile) while chasing a ton (6th percentile) which indicates again that he is effective at identifying pitches, just not at exhibiting the patience he needs to earn the strikes he can punish. If he can take a few more of the pitches that he can’t do much with, I think we will see Naylor take off, offensively.

I see clear signs that Naylor is pressing and I believe he can stop pressing and get those barrels up. It’s important to remember that he is still only 25 years old. In fact, I’d have him higher in confidence levels except for the fact that we are nearing the conclusion that he cannot hit left-handed pitching, like, at all. If this is the case, as seems likely, he will be limited in the amount of value he can provide the team, especially late in games.

Andrés Giménez, 2B
I’m sorry, doubters, but I believe that these first 37 games of 2023 do not accurately represent who Andrés Giménez is. Yes, he was a prime candidate for regression after career numbers and an unsustainably high BABIP in 2022. He also gives off extreme vibes of a player who is deep in his head about failing after getting a huge contract extension.

Giménez is flailing at off-speed pitches like the changeup and curveball which he has hit well throughout his major league career. I think that will normalize. His barrel rate is at a career-low 1% and he has a career-low 20% hard-hit rate. I think both of these numbers will also normalize. Ultimately, that will put him more at a 100-110 wRC+ level, but he’s still young enough to grow. He’s managed to keep his launch angle consistently at close to 12% as it was last season.

If Giménez can lay off breaking balls out of the zone — as he has in the past — and punish more pitches on the inside of the plate by pulling the heck out of them in the model of his exemplar José Ramírez, he will be fine. Count me in the group that believes his struggles are mostly mental and expects him to get hot sooner rather than later.

Confidence level: 8 out of 10

José Ramírez, 3B
My position here is that the problems we are observing are from the thumb. Whether from bad habits developed as a result of playing with a torn thumb ligament or from waiting for the ligament to regain full strength or a combination of the two factors, I think Ramírez will find his stroke somewhere around the time he tore the ligament last June. His .326 wOBA and .354 xwOBA indicate positive regression is coming, and he’s striking out at a career-low 8.6% ... it’s essentially only the power that is lacking.

I believe José will find that power and my confidence is high in the face of the franchise.

Steven Kwan, OF
The likelihood of Kwan’s wOBA of .310 continuing to lag behind his xwOBA of .327 seems low to me. I also believe that we will start to see him become more aggressive in hunting pitches he can hit hard, as he was in the second half of 2022, as the season progresses.

Unlike many Guardians hitters, Kwan does not seem overwhelmed or frustrated at the plate, and that’s an important demeanor to exhibit in disastrous times like this. He has bumped up his launch angle by about a degree and his hard-hit rate by two percentage points. I expect those numbers to continue to increase as he makes additional adjustments and takes more risks at the plate to find more power.

I expect Kwan’s 94 wRC+ to increase to somewhere close to Steamer’s rest-of-the-season projections of 115. That won’t carry this Guardians team to a World Series, but it will be a welcome improvement.

Bottom line

Even in the middle of this disastrous, horrendous offensive funk — the worst I’ve seen as a Guardians fan who started watching the team in 1994 — there are some reasons to hope. I also think there are many reasons for Antonetti and Chernoff to be working the phones trying to find young, right-handed power that can be plugged in for left and/or right field.

Whether it requires trading some young pitching talent or the best of the middle infield prospects, or some of both, it’s time to make use of the resources the organization has to address the alarming lack of power we are observing in the lineup. Adding some slugging potential will be needed to go along with expecting some of these players to climb out of their collective offensive holes.