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Being realistic about the 2023 Guardians

Decision time is approaching for the direction the front office should go with this year’s squad

Cleveland Guardians v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

We are approaching a crucial stretch of games in a pivotal month for the 2023 Cleveland Guardians.

The Guardians sit three games under .500 with 15 games left until the all-star break. With ten of those games coming against the Royals and Cubs, the Guardians will need to take care of business in those series and not be completely overwhelmed by the Brewers (as they were in Game 1 on Friday) and Braves. I think a 10-5 run putting them two games over the .500 mark would be enough for me to say, “Let’s push some chips in on making the playoffs and seeing what happens.”

But, I wonder if that’s the right perspective. Yes, I’m a firm believer in “give yourself as many bites at the apple as you can” when it comes to implementing strategies to win a World Series. Yet, I can’t deny that it’s extremely unlikely a team with the worst ISO in MLB at .125 is going to make a deep playoff run. I can’t ignore the fact that Triston McKenzie probably won’t appear in any more Guardians games this season and all these rookie pitchers are going to be dancing around innings limits for the rest of the year. It feels extremely unlikely that this Guardians team — should they sneak in the playoffs — is going to win a title.

A superstar like José Ramírez can carry a team, and excellent bullpens make a huge difference in the playoffs but in the past decade, every World Series winner has been in the top half of MLB in ISO except for the 2013 Boston Red Sox (who were 17th). You have to be able to make good pitchers pay by hitting their mistakes a country mile if you want to win in October and the Guardians have, at best, three players who are able to hit a home run in any given at-bat. The team looks like it needs some slugging help to have a real puncher’s chance to make noise in the 2023 playoffs.

So, where are the Guardians going to get that slugging help? Some of it can come internally. Maybe George Valera stays healthy and brings that ISO of .222 since 2021 to the majors, replacing Myles Straw in the lineup. Hey, even replacing Straw with Will Brennan and moving Gabriel Arias to right field for the time being would fulfill my dream. Replacing Mike Zunino and some Cam Gallagher starts with Bo Naylor should help. Giving Brayan Rocchio or Arias Amed Rosario’s at-bats, particularly against right-handed pitching, can also provide some power upside. But, it’s hard to look at the roster as currently constituted and not conclude that there needs to be outside additions to really add thump.

This brings me back to Shane Bieber. Do I want to trade Bieber? Emotionally, of course not. He’s a very capable starter, who, with diminished stuff, looks like a great No. 3 in any rotation. I also wouldn’t bet against him figuring out a way to find some of his missing velocity at some point, even if it’s only for a season. However, as a free agent after the 2024 season, and someone with whom the Guardians seem not to have any real shot of reaching an extension, he’s the one player with notable value whom typically the Guardians would trade at this point to recoup some controllable talent. If they do trade Bieber, they’re probably admitting that a playoff run is extremely unlikely for 2023. But, they also may be signaling an exciting commitment to try fixing the power outage Cleveland’s lineup has experienced.

Most likely, it’s going to have to be a Triple-A hitter for Baltimore, Los Angeles, New York’s Yankees and Mets, Tampa Bay, or maybe the surging Reds. A major-league starting player for major-league starting player trade midseason is very hard, particularly when both teams plan to be competitive in the very near future. But, it’s time to be creative and get one or two bats, somehow, someway, who offer some additional power ceiling that can consistently come into play in right or left field.

How will the Guardians do this? Aside from Bieber, they should be checking in on what teams will offer them for Aaron Civale and for whichever of their non-Emmanuel Clase relievers other teams like. I don’t think trading more than one starting pitcher and one relief arm would be wise, but they need to address this slugging issue and be aggressive in trying to do so. They need to decide which of Arias, Rocchio, Tyler Freeman, Juan Brito, and Angel Martinez they believe in, and be willing to trade one or two of the others. I’d also be willing to discuss players like Brennan or even Steven Kwan in the right circumstance — perhaps as part of a three-team deal — assuming Straw isn’t necessarily in any sort of demand. The Cleveland outfield is utterly bereft of pop, and that simply can’t continue if visions of Manfred’s Hunk of Metal are dancing in Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff’s heads.

I think the primary goals of the rest of this season for the Guardians, when I am being realistic, should be something along the lines of this:

  1. Get Tanner Bibee, Logan Allen, and Gavin Williams (also Joey Cantillo, to some degree, and maybe Cody Morris?) fully stretched out for as close as possible to a full season’s worth of starts in 2024.
  2. Get Bo Naylor fully acclimated to the job of a major-league catcher.
  3. Figure out if Arias, Rocchio, Freeman, or maybe even Brito should be Andrés Giménez’s future double-play partner.
  4. Get George Valera major-league at-bats.

Any of these goals can result in more wins and better results for the team in the here and now, but they most certainly will provide long-term benefits for the 2024-2026 teams.

Is it ideal to waste another year of Ramirez’s prime without really going for a World Series title? No. No, it is not. But, I don’t see much other choice than to prioritize 2024 and beyond while not giving up on 2023 at this point. Having the youngest team in baseball was always going to lend itself to some volatility in results, and we are seeing the truth of the old adage that development is not always linear.

In future weeks, I will be looking in articles at potential names the Guardians could target to help address their abysmal lack of power. In the meantime, the team needs to be more aggressive in moving away from everyday at-bats for Rosario and Straw and getting a better look at their young players who will need to carry this team in the future.

The Guardians are still in a good position for success in the near future, but how they handle the next five weeks will play a big role in increasing or decreasing their chances of ending that 75-year title drought, or at least making a run at it.