How much longer are the Guardians going to pretend they don’t need Bo Naylor?
Mike Zunino missed nearly all of last season due to surgery needed to correct thoracic outlet syndrome in his left arm. He was signed to a one-year deal by Cleveland this past offseason in the hope that he could recapture his career-best form from 2021.
Through 27 games with the Guardians, Zunino boasts a career-high walk percentage (12.8%) but also a career-high in strikeout percentage (44.7%). He has yet to record a hit in the month of May and has struck out 70.8% of the time in 24 plate appearances. His 76 wRC+ ranks 22nd in the league among catchers with a minimum of 90 plate appearances.
That may sound like standard offensive production for a Cleveland catcher, but the problem is that Zunino doesn’t have the defensive prowess to compensate for his struggles at the plate. According to Baseball Savant, he ranks in the 62nd percentile in catcher framing, the fourth percentile in pop time, and dead last in the league in blocks above average (-9).
Naylor was promoted to Cleveland in September of last year to get a taste of life in the big leagues, portending his future as the Guardians’ backstop. He saw limited action and failed to record a hit in eight plate appearances. Once the Guardians signed Zunino, it seemed likely Naylor would start the 2022 season with Triple-A Columbus.
“We were really encouraged with the progress Bo made this year,” Cleveland president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said at the conclusion of the Guardians’ season last October. “He had a really good year in the minor leagues and came up here and got acclimated to the major leagues. And I think that also has helped identify, for him, things he can continue to work on through the course of the winter and heading into next year.”
It’s anyone’s guess as to which areas the organization challenged Naylor to improve, but offensively there seem to be few. He has slashed .256/.399/.526 and posted a 130 wRC+ in 168 plate appearances for the Clippers. Naylor has also slugged nine home runs, two of which came in the same game against the Reds’ top-ranked pitching prospect, left-hander Andrew Abbot.
#Guardians 23yr old (C) prospect Bo Naylor homers twice & reaches base 4x (2-3 3R 2HR 4RBI 2BB) for Triple-A Columbus in win. Naylor now has 9 HR's on the year and a .958 OPS over 36 games.— Guardians Prospective (@CleGuardPro) May 14, 2023
34-128 28R 7(2B) 1(3B) 9HR 32 RBI 32BB .266 AVG .411 OBP#ForTheLand pic.twitter.com/Fliqcqymjb
Defensively, the biggest knock against Naylor seems to be his ability to thwart stolen bases from behind the plate. He is 5-for-43 this season in throwing out baserunners, but there are a variety of factors that impact a catcher’s ability to catch baserunners stealing. For comparison, Zunino is 5-for-29 this season. Naylor also only has one passed ball compared to Zunino’s four, and there is almost certainly a case to be made that many of the 14 wild pitches Zunino has allowed this season would be more appropriately categorized as passed balls.
If the organization’s primary concern is Naylor’s familiarity with the pitchers in the starting rotation, there is nothing he can do about that in Columbus. You’d also think there would be less of a learning curve at this point in the season considering three-fifths of the rotation — Tanner Bibee, Logan Allen, and Peyton Battenfield — all pitched in Columbus earlier this year.
What makes the organization’s insistence on keeping Naylor at Triple-A even more puzzling is the way they’ve handled the catcher position in Cleveland. They’ve carried three catchers on the big league roster all season long, first with Zunino, Cam Gallagher, and Meibrys Viloria before designating Viloria for assignment at the start of May and promoting David Fry. All of them have played sparingly and none have made a meaningful contribution.
The Guardians have been pointedly opaque about what it will take for Naylor to earn a promotion to the big league club. The most substantive quote I could find regarding the organization’s plan for Naylor came from Antonetti at the time that Zunino was signed.
“We want to make the determination what’s best for him and the team and not let circumstances dictate it,” he said. “When it’s in his best interest, he’ll come to the major leagues, but we’ll make that determination. We’re very excited about Bo’s future.”
Well, right now it would seem to be in Naylor’s best interest and the best interest of the Guardians for him to come to the major leagues unless the organization truly sees his struggles throwing out baserunners as a clear and present obstacle in his development. But with how low the bar has been set by Zunino this season, could he really be that much worse than what they already have?