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Righting the ship before Memorial Day

What has to change in the week leading up to the first mile marker of the MLB season?

Cleveland Guardians v Chicago White Sox Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

Don’t check the standings until Memorial Day, so goes the baseball bromide. With that day nigh upon us, what can the Guardians do to make our first day of checking the standings feel a little better?

The obvious first answer is “win some baseball games.” With a win in a series opener against the White Sox under their belt and the Cardinals coming to town Friday, now would be a good time to see the pendulum swing in a big way opposite from their heart-breaking sweep at the hands of the Mets.

The Twins continue to struggle, so even being five games under .500 hasn’t put the Guardians in an insurmountable hole yet, thanks to the beleaguered American League Central division. But how can the Guardians get to some more sustainable winning?

Let’s look at a few reasonable goals for this week leading up to Memorial Day.

Baby steps for Andrés Giménez

Andrés Giménez has career lows in both hard-hit rate (21.6%) and pull rate (39.2%). He is struggling against all off-speed pitches with an average exit velo of 78 mph compared to last year’s average of 89 mph. His walk rate is down from 6.1% to 4.7% while his strikeout rate has actually lowered by a similar percentage, and his plate discipline numbers all look well within his career norms, indicating that pitchers simply don’t fear pitching to him at the moment. It’s not easy to figure out exactly what Giménez is doing wrong besides not looking for pitches to pull and doing damage on those pitches when he sees them.

It would be a hugely important, positive sign for the future of the 2023 Guardians (and beyond) if Giménez can hit some balls hard — especially to his pull-side — in the week ahead and show an ability to start on some sort of sustainable path toward being a useful piece in the Guardians’ lineup.

A sense of urgency from Terry Francona and the front office

I completely understand why Peyton Battenfield and Hunter Gaddis have received starts over Gavin Williams. It’s May 22. Williams still has some development to do. Getting him on the 40-man for one game isn’t the kind of panic move a smart front office does. However, despite an amazing start from Gaddis on Monday, Williams is very likely to be a much better pitcher. Maybe Williams needs more development time, but I hope the team will continue to be aggressive — as they have been — in putting their best foot forward by getting the young pitchers who give them the best chance to win on the 26-man roster.

I also understand that Bo Naylor has more defensive development to do and doing so at the major league level puts a lot of pressure on a young player. But you have a universally lauded mentor of young catchers in Sandy Alomar, Jr. and Mike Zunino is offering the team nothing in his role. I defended the Zunino signing as something that made sense having missed out on the Sean Murphy trade and it appears I was wrong to do so.

I loved seeing Cam Gallagher and Zunino break out of their slumps this past week, but I think we’re at the point where a sharing time arrangement between Gallagher and Bo or Zunino and Bo makes sense. Even keeping Zunino in the quasi-David Fry role as a pinch-hitter against lefties and occasional catcher might be worthwhile. This division is winnable but I’m not sure how the Guardians will win it if Bo Naylor doesn’t become a player who can help at catcher while offering something like a league-average bat at the position. I suspect this arrangement will happen toward the end of June. I also hope the Guardians will show some urgency to get Bo up to Cleveland by the end of May ... but I won’t hold my breath.

Francona’s brand is loyalty, but as he emphasizes to the team that they have to get back to playing their brand of baseball, he needs to recognize that both Zunino and Amed Rosario have been huge liabilities defensively. He’s publicly stated the team’s commitment to playing Gabriel Arias — well, it’s time to let Arias help the team more at shortstop. Rosario can play shortstop against left-handed pitchers, DH some against right-handers, and come off the bench for pinch-running and pinch-hitting (against lefty relievers).

I don’t buy the concept of needing to “showcase” a player for a trade. Teams understand and know what Rosario can offer a team in terms of hustle and hitting left-handers. If a trade is to be had in July, starting Rosario for another 40-50 games against right-handed pitchers for him to possibly have a hot streak is unlikely to significantly increase a trade return. From giving Zunino and Rosario more time on the bench to moving away from James Karinchak as a go-to high-leverage reliever with runners-on-base, Tito needs to recognize the urgency of the moment and get his guys in the best position to win.

Spread out the bullpen opportunities

Because of how close the Guardians play every game, Karinchak, Trevor Stephan and Emmanuel Clase are all on pace for over 80 appearances. This isn’t sustainable, especially with Clase struggling to put hitters away.

I’d like to see Francona spread the wealth of late-inning opportunities to the rest of the pitchers in the pen to see what they can offer in those roles, even if it costs the team a win or two while figuring out which arms, if any, he can trust to get high leverage outs.

Putting too much strain on the backend of pen options will be even more costly than occasional losses while figuring out the proper bullpen circle of trust will, in the long term.

Get Josh Bell to lift the ball

Josh Bell has the lowest launch angle of any qualified Guardians hitter at 3.2%, less than half of Amed Rosario’s 7.8% just above him on that list. His barrel and hard-hit rates are good, his walk rate is tremendous — he just hits everything on the ground. So, if we start seeing Bell lifting some balls into the Cleveland night sky over the next week, that should be a huge source of encouragement.

Emmanuel Clase needs to rediscover his dominance

Clase’s velocity is down a little, but his stuff is still fast enough and good enough that the results should be better than they have been. However, he has thrown his slider 6.3% less than last year and his cut fastball and four-seam fastball have received that 6.3%.

I would like to see him rely on that slider more, especially earlier in counts to get hitters off of his cutter. If we start seeing Clase throw first-pitch strikes and use the slider both early and late in counts, that will be extremely good news for this Guardians team.

More extra-base hits for Steven Kwan

Steven Kwan is playing like an average offensive player and the Guardians need him to be more.

Whether it’s becoming more aggressive at the plate in hunting pitches he can hit harder or if it’s attempting more steals when he reaches base, the Guardians need Kwan to get to second base and beyond more often than he has been. If he can show signs of doing that this week, I’ll buy into some positive offensive regression coming.

Enlist more wild animals to help

If Will Brennan can come to the plate like Sean Connery in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark:

... maybe other ballplayers can see if they can find other wild animals ready to interfere with balls in play for the Guardians’ benefit. A true market inefficiency!

Even if the Guardians somehow were to find themselves in fourth place in the Central on Monday, May 28, it likely won’t doom them in the division race. It will, however, be another indicator of how far this team likely is from actual playoff contention at the checkpoint of Memorial Day. Let’s hope for some positive signs, and some wins, in the days ahead.