The internet is mad at James Harris and the Guardians’ front office about Bo Naylor — should they be?
In case you haven’t seen it, MLB.com’s Mandy Bell shared a quote from James Harris, Guardians assistant general manager, on Twitter on Sunday morning. Here it is:
Guardians assistant GM and former director of player development James Harris' thoughts on Bo Naylor: pic.twitter.com/uAucRMquM9— Mandy Bell (@MandyBell02) June 11, 2023
After some helpful opening information about things they’ve been working with Bo Naylor on and areas in which he is, accordingly, showing improvement and continuing growth efforts, Harris began to opine on the catching situation and Naylor a little further. I appreciated the specific insights, and want to enter the more controversial portion of these comments remembering that James Harris is a brilliant front-office person and scout, and talking to the media isn’t easy. I was pretty surprised by how bad the rest of these answers sounded when I first read the transcript, but let’s see if we can make sense of what’s got some Twitter hornets’ nests kicked:
Yes, he can probably come up and be great right away. I hope that’s the answer. But if you can spend a little bit of time and be sure, we’re hoping that’s gonna set us up for the future.
I think it’s probably a public relations error to say that a given young catcher “can probably come up and be great right away,” when Mike Zunino came into the day this statement was made with 67 wRC+, -9 DRS, -0.2 framing runs above average, and measuring as the worst catcher at blocking pitches in MLB. Zunino also measures at -6 rCERA, the measurement FanGraphs uses to compare pitching performance/game-calling with a given catcher. Of course, Cam Gallagher is a defensive savant ... but he has a -9 wRC+ for the year. If there is a young catcher that you believe “can probably come up and be great right away”, no one on the Guardians’ roster is blocking him from coming up and doing exactly that and every Guardians fan understands that even without the accompanying numbers I shared.
If you have someone who can be “great,” Guardians, we should probably see if he can be “great” because we do not have anywhere close to “great,” currently.
You can bring him up to be C2 or maybe even C3 because we’re carrying three catchers, but is that the best way to prepare him? I don’t think so.
I don’t think anyone would argue with Harris on this point. If the team wanted Bo Naylor to split time for a while and work on things with Sandy Alomar on his off days, everyone would be in full support. But, they are saying that’s not the best path. Understood. We get it. But, if development for Bo should occur as a starter, I think every single Guardians fan is ready to say: “OK! Let’s start him right now!”
So, the hold-up is a bit confusing at this point. Zunino and Gallagher are not major league-caliber starting catchers, at least on an everyday basis. David Fry is a third catcher. Is Bo not starting because Zunino is making $6 million this year? Or, is it simply learning more about how to lead a major league pitching staff, as Harris intimated? If the latter, what’s the compelling reason to believe learning to lead a major league pitching staff wouldn’t involve getting experience leading an actual major league pitching staff?
We don’t have a crystal ball to tell us exactly how he’s going to be great.
I appreciated that this statement implied that Bo Naylor is going to be great. The question is just about “how” to get him to that point. Again, he apparently needs to practice leading a major league clubhouse and facilitating pitcher-catcher meetings. One could speculate that a player who taught himself fluent Spanish would put forth any effort needed to lead a meeting and a clubhouse, but Bo Naylor is only 23 years old. Is Harris implying some level of waiting for gravitas combined with a major-league opening is needed? I guess that’s the best guess of what we are being asked to believe is the case.
There’s guys in the past like Oscar Gonzalez who started off really, really good. He’s in Triple-A now. We’re trying to figure it out.
Harris now goes into the analogy portion of the proceedings, always a dangerous gambit. I love Oscar Gonzalez, but I’m not sure comparing Bo to a player the Guardians valued so little they allowed him to become a minor-league free agent in the fall of 2021 is the best point of comparison to use. The team also has players in Gabriel Arias and Will Brennan who have shown themselves deserving of continued reps in right field, unlike what Zunino and Gallagher (as a hitter) have shown at catcher.
Harris’s overall point of development not always being linear is absolutely correct. Fans expecting Bo to be an immediate all-star and savior are bound to be disappointed by a very young player playing one of the toughest positions in professional sports. But, Carlos Santana, Yan Gomes, and Roberto Pérez all were called up to catch for Cleveland none were returned to the Triple-A affiliate. Gomes and Pérez were 25 and Santana was 24 upon their debuts. Again, we are left to conclude that the concerns focus on Bo’s youth.
It’s hard to understand how much age should be held against a prospect. Bo has little, if anything, to prove at Triple-A. The best way to earn respect and achieve greatness would seem to be to enter the major league clubhouse and earn his way through the merit of his talent.
Richie Palacios came up here and was really, really good. He’s in Triple-A, trying to figure it out.
In Richie Palacios’s first month in the majors, he had a 65 wRC+. He ended the year with a 65 wRC+. He was scouted and projected as a role player. He has been thoroughly blocked on the major-league level by other players, which is the case for Bo on the 2023 team. Palacios was being designated for assignment as this tweet from Mandy Bell was posted. The comparison between Bo and Palacios seems forced, and a bit cavalier toward a player being traded or put on waivers.
Sometimes they have to go back to Triple-A. We’re hoping that’s not the path for Bo. It likely will be, but we’re trying to prepare him as much as we can so we can make the right decision.
To me, the biggest issue with Harris’s statement was his prediction that Bo will likely return to the minor leagues before sticking as a big leaguer. Of course, this prediction could certainly come true. Many good, young ballplayers have had some up-and-down times between MLB and the minor leagues before they settle in as reliably productive. But, why set this as a “likely” outcome to Bo, the media, and listening fans, essentially saying, “We like you, but we expect you to fail big time”?
The simplest — and most cynical — answer is that Harris in this statement is guarding against any perception that the team is suppressing Bo’s clock until he gets past the Super 2 point, to save on arbitration costs down the road. Instead, Harris emphasizes Bo needing to learn general skills like “clubhouse/pitching staff leadership” and offers the prediction that a young player like Naylor will come up and then need to return to the minors to iron out the kinks. So, Bo, Josh, potential MLBPA lawyers ... this isn’t a service time thing. This is Harris and the Guardians being careful not to ruin the fragile psyche of a young ballplayer by setting expectations low and bringing him along at a slow pace.
If I can indulge in some meta-narrative commentary, I think Harris’s comments fit pretty well with the way Terry Francona talks about young players, emphasizing that the team always expects them to struggle. I find this mindset reflected not only in public commentary offered by team officials but in the reluctance by the team’s social media platforms to do any special promotion of the debut of highly touted prospects. Surely, the Guardians know that promoting the excitement of individual prospects increases those prospects’ market value and financial pull on their roster. Better to de-emphasize what prospects are capable of and save arbitration and salary costs whenever possible. This approach isn’t something I can prove, but I do find the lack of call-up videos of any kind for the best Guardians prospects to be odd.
Bo Naylor has a 125 wRC+ in Triple-A. ZiPS says he’d be likely to put up an 86 wRC+ and Steamer projects a 96 wRC+ for him in the majors. He’s clearly capable of catching major-league pitching as he’s proven in catching for rehabbing major-league starters effectively in Columbus. I believe the Guardians should call him up and give him a chance to catch 4-5 games a week with Cam Gallagher generally starting on the days Bo sits.
Mike Zunino’s $6 million contract can continue to provide value on the bench as a bat against lefties (relievers, any time, and starters, occasionally) and as a mentor to Bo on those very clubhouse and pitching staff-leading skills that Harris and the Guardians front office covet.