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Guardians need to shake things up with Myles Straw

Terry Francona needs to loosen Myles Straw’s grip on center field

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MLB: Cleveland Guardians at Kansas City Royals William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

When Cleveland signed Myles Straw to a five-year contract extension on April 9, 2022, he had only appeared in 60 games for the Guardians. But he had made an impression, slashing .285/.362/.377 and posting a 108 wRC+ through 268 plate appearances since coming over from Houston, who received reliever Phil Maton and catcher Yainer Diaz in exchange for Straw.

Since signing that extension, Straw has also made an impression. Just not a good one.

Out of 119 qualified hitters, Straw ranks 119th in wRC+ (66) dating back to the start of last season. His closest competition is Orioles shortstop Jorge Mateo (77).

Last season, you could at least make the argument that Straw had the glove — specifically a Gold Glove — to compensate for his bat. But as of this writing he is on track to record his worst season defensively. After ranking fourth in the league in Directional Outs Above Average last year with 13, that number has dropped to -3 this year. Straw also ranked first among all qualified center fielders in FanGraphs Defense (15.8). This season he currently ranks last (-7.8).

Cleveland was never going to bail on Straw after one bad season at the plate, especially after signing him through 2026, with club options for 2027 and 2028. I can even understand them betting on his bat to bounce back while he contributed elite defense in center field.

That said, I was puzzled to see them double down on Straw this past offseason, shipping Will Benson to the Cincinnati Reds in February in exchange for a pair of High-A prospects. Benson served as Straw’s primary back-up for the final two months of last season, drawing eight starts in center field. Making his big league debut on August 1, he struggled in limited action, slashing .182/.250/.200 with 32 wRC+. But 61 plate appearances is hardly an audition.

Whatever you do, don’t look at how Benson is faring in Cincinnati. He started the year 1-for-20 with a 57.1% strikeout percentage before being demoted to Triple-A Louisville. But he returned to the Reds in late May and flipped a switch in June, posting a .350/.473/.600 slash line with 185 wRC+ in 74 plate appearances and settling into the spot in left field.

But had the Guardians opted to retain Benson, it’s difficult to say how much run he would have gotten in center field this season, even with Straw’s struggles. His stranglehold on the center field position has shown no signs of loosening, only ceding four starts all year to Will Brennan.

The fact of the matter is that Straw isn’t going anywhere. He signed a contract that guaranteed $25 million and Cleveland is not about to pay him the rest of that money not to play. But his spot on the roster should not guarantee him the starting spot in center field.

The Guardians may not have Benson, but Brennan and Steven Kwan are both viable options in center field. Shifting either of them to center would create more opportunities for David Fry to see the field in left or for Gabriel Arias (or even Oscar Gonzalez, who may be due for a return trip to Cleveland) to see the field in right. Straw would still have a role off the bench. The Athletic’s Zack Meisel reported in June that the team is eager to see him start swiping bases again. Using Straw as a pinch runner late in games could help him focus on honing that particular skill.

More than anything, it defies logic to stick to the status quo. By all statistical measures, Straw is hurting the team more than he is helping at the plate and in the field. A common criticism of Terry Francona has been that he manages with his gut rather than his head, and his refusal to even experiment with other options in center field reeks of that kind of decision-making.

No one player should be above the needs of the team, and what this team needs right now is to determine whether their best outfield configuration includes Myles Straw.