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Making sense of the Guardians’ 2023 trade deadline moves

Like Terry Pluto, the Guardians have me talking to myself

Division Series - Cleveland Guardians v New York Yankees - Game Five Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

After an inactive trade deadline in 2022, no one can accuse the Cleveland front office of not making some moves in 2023. We are only left with the question of whether they were the RIGHT moves.

First, trading Amed Rosario to the Dodgers for Noah Syndergaard

It’s hard not to be positive about this move. Rosario was 56th of 56 shortstops in MLB with 100 or more plate appearances in defensive value according to FanGraphs. He had a very disappointing 87 wRC+. He was cemented into the number 2 spot in the lineup day-in and day-out while intriguing young shortstops like Gabriel Arias, Tyler Freeman and Brayan Rocchio cooled their heels on the bench or engaged in Sisyphean labors in Columbus. To be able to trade Rosario and get a pitcher with at least the potential to eat some innings and give the team a chance to stay in games is a clear win in value. The Guardians also get the opportunity to see if they can provide Syndergaard a place to feel comfortable so that he might even consider a one-year deal here in 2024 if things go well. Or, they can happily let him walk when the season ends.

The risk in this move is the potential effects on clubhouse morale. It seems pretty clear that Rosario was mostly beloved by his teammates. Jose Ramirez’s friendship with him is well-known, to the point where Ramirez (jokingly?) offered to help pay for part of a contract extension for Amed last season. I can’t imagine that Rosario’s teammates are entirely unaware of his offensive and defensive struggles, but it’s also fair to remember that these players are human. It can be a gut-punch to lose a guy who is always ready to give his all everyday, even while acknowledging that “his all” was rarely good enough to make a significant difference in the team winning games in 2023.

I am excited to see Gabriel Arias get an extended run at shortstop. I hope Tyler Freeman’s shoulder is ok and he gets some AB’s there. I’d really like to see Rocchio get some reps all over the infield. I’d be interested in giving Juan Brito some AB’s in September as well.

Trading Amed Rosario is a win in my book, and getting a useful arm for 2023 in Syndergaard in the deal is a huge bonus. Really, the only downside to this move is that the Front Office doesn’t seem to have pursued trading Amed Rosario last summer or in the offseason when his value was likely significantly higher, but I think we can understand why they were reluctant to do that given his place in the team’s clubhouse.

Second, trading Aaron Civale to the Rays for Kyle Manzardo

This is the most controversial trade. Civale was pitching as well as any AL pitcher in the month of July and with Shane Bieber, Triston McKenzie and Cal Quantrill all hurt, his presence seemed pretty crucial if the team wanted to make a real run at the AL Central - unless the Guardians had a plan to replace his innings by trading for a Jack Flaherty-type rental (which, as we now know, they did not).

Personally, I was in favor of trading Civale if the team could find young, controllable slugging/hitting to help fix their punchless lineup in 2024 and beyond. The question, now, is whether or not Kyle Manzardo fits that bill, a question to which we don’t yet know the answer. The conspiracy theory side of my brain fears trading with the Rays, who aren’t perfect, but usually seem to understand how to get value from trades, especially recent deals with Cleveland. Manzardo being shelved with a shoulder injury, currently, adds to that fear, as shoulder injuries for hitters are often nagging, Tyler Freeman’s latest shelving being but the latest reminder of that.

However, I understand that a major league front office can’t share a fan’s concerns in this area; if the front office evaluates Manzardo as a future middle-of-the-order hitter, trading the oft-injured Civale for him now made a ton of sense. Civale has never pitched more than 124 innings in a season and he last did that in 2021, so it’s sketchy whether he’s really going to be good for another 10 or so starts this season if past precedent is any guide. With starting pitching going at a premium, it made complete sense to cash in on Civale with 2.3 years of control left with Bieber not an option to be traded at the moment.

FanGraphs ranked the 23 year-old Manzardo as the 31st best prospect in MLB, MLB Pipeline has him as the 37th best, Kiley McDaniel for ESPN ranked him as the 87th best prospect, and Keith Law from the Athletic had him at 81st in baseball. For his minor league career, the left-handed hitting Manzardo has a 140 wRC+, with a 17.9/13.8 K/BB%. His ISO has been comfortably in the .250 range. While Manzardo has had a difficult 2023 season (undoubtedly affected by the aforementioned shoulder issues), he’s still managed a solid 8.7% Swinging Strike Rate, and his hard-hit rate at Triple-A is an excellent 48% with a max exit velo measured at 112.2 mph, leading me to conclude that a meager .269 BABIP is the likely main culprit for his 93 wRC+ at Triple-A overall rather than any meaningful struggles to hit pitching at that level. Manzardo hasn’t been amazing against LHP in 139 minor-league AB’s against them, with an OPS of around .650, but I think that should fairly be considered a small sample size, so far. Manzardo also has the reputation of being an above-average defender at first-base.

To me, the biggest concern about Manzardo, aside from the shoulder injury, is what message acquiring him sends to Josh Naylor, the Guardians’ breakout performer at first-base in 2023. How does Naylor take the news that the Guardians may prefer him primarily as a DH, which, if true, will lower his salary in arbitration and potential extension or free agency negotiations in the future? Do the Guardians think Naylor can make himself into a playable option in right-field? If so, I hope they’re communicating that to him, and further, I REALLY hope they are right. My guess is they believe in Josh Naylor to do what’s best for the team and agree to some sort of split between first base and DH with Manzardo. I just hope they aren’t jerking him around and using this move and his younger brother’s presence here as a method of getting him to sign a more team-friendly extension in the spring. I also hope they don’t see him as expendable because I see him as one of the few trustworthy middle-of-the-order bats on the team and as a guy who has stepped up as a team leader the past two years, doing everything the organization has asked of him.

While it would be ideal if Manzardo was a right-handed hitting outfielder with a fully healthy shoulder, it’s hard to argue with the potential of his bat and the rarity of such players being made available in the trade market. To get a player like that for 2.3 years of an oft-injured pitcher whose ceiling is probably a #3 starter for a playoff team is something I think Guardians fans should be reasonably optimistic about, while expressing some reasonable questions about how the move will affect the team’s handling of Josh Naylor.

I do wonder how this trade reflects on the team’s view of players like George Valera, Juan Brito, Angel Martinez, Oscar Gonzalez, Will Brennan, Johnathan Rodriguez and Johnkensy Noel. Do the Guardians think an answer to their outfield hitting issues for 2024 and beyond is found in that group (with a position switch consequently in the offing for Brito and/or Martinez)? I also wonder if dealing Civale makes trading Bieber in the offseason less likely. Perhaps the team keeps him and lets him rebuild value before the 2024 deadline, keeps him through 2024 and lets him walk for a compensatory draft pick, or even revisits extension talks in the spring with Bieber’s injury history perhaps bringing him into the team’s preferred range of salaries again.

Third, trading Josh Bell to the Marlins for Jean Segura and Khalil Watson

One level of this deal is obvious - the Guardians did not want Josh Bell’s contract for 2024 and did not want him taking further DH AB’s away from younger players they need to evaluate in 2023 and need to contribute in 2024. So, they took Jean Segura’s deadweight contract from the Marlins which will save Cleveland somewhere between $8-10 million dollars, and released Segura (Cleveland fans wanting to get on Zack Meisel’s random Guardians jersey countdown will be ordering that Segura custom jersey).

I find it surprising that the Guardians managed to get a decent prospect in this deal in Khalil Watson. A first-round pick in 2021, Watson hasn’t raced through the minors, but he’s still barely 20 years old and has a 104 wRC+ for the Marlins’ High-A affiliate. He has a reasonable 12.4% Swinging Strike rate, and overall in the minors he has a 110 wRC+ with a 31.2/11.2 K/BB%. He was suspended for pantomiming shooting an umpire with his bat - he’s barely 20 years old, so this incident doesn’t concern me much, but I guess his emotional control will have to be monitored by coaches.

FanGraphs ranked Watson as the Marlins 13th best prospect, Pipeline had him 11th for them, McDaniel had him 2nd in Miami’s farm for ESPN, and Keith Law put him at 9th in their system. The general consensus seems to be that Watson is unlikely to stick at shortstop, his drafted position, but has the athleticism to play potentially in a multiple other positions. Personally, I’d enjoy seeing Watson get some time in the outfield in Cleveland’s farm, where his bat probably would play best in centerfield.

The Marlins recognize that Bell is still taking walks and hitting the ball hard, so they were willing to take on some extra money and trade Cleveland a prospect who still has a lot of potential, even though it is still mostly unproven. It’s hard for me not to see this deal as a likely clear win for Cleveland, given that Bell was unable to provide any consistent level of production for the team in 2023. Watson provides nothing to help the 2023 club, however, and since he will start in Lake County and isn’t Rule 5 eligible until fall of 2025, it’s unlikely he helps the team in 2024, either. So, while trading Bell makes sense and getting Watson in the deal is exciting, it doesn’t help the 2023 roster at all, and likely hurts it.

It’s not hard to understand why it’s being rumored that the Guardians’ players are not feeling great about the deadline moves. The trades of Civale and Bell are clear blows to the ability of the 2023 team to win a Central Division title. I suspect the Cleveland front office knows that of the 50-some remaining games on the Guardians’ schedule, only 12 are against teams under .500 and, so, a run to beat the Twins was and is unlikely and so concluded that possibility was not something worth gambling on acquiring a couple rental players to help pursue, nor was it worth retaining Civale and Bell when these two returns were out there. However, there’s no denying that losing valuable contributors will be a tough pill for the Guardians current roster to swallow.

In the end, Guardians’ players and their manager have to look in the mirror and recognize their poor performances as a key factor in the team’s subpar record this season. The front office recognized their own failures in targeting Mike Zunino and Josh Bell in free agency, and retaining Amed Rosario as a shortstop with shift restrictions coming into play, and tried to re-align resources accordingly. Players like Gimenez, Brennan, Straw and Gonzalez need to do the hard work necessary to right the ship that has gone off-course for each in their own way. This young team needs to come together under its veteran, future Hall-of-Fame manager and put the hard work into trying to win games regardless of who is on the roster.

Future seasons will show whether or not the Guardians 2023 trade deadline was a success or a failure, but, for now, I think the front office had the right approach to the past week’s events, conceptually. They needed to use some resources to help their lineup and did. They needed to move on from Amed Rosario and Josh Bell, and they did, and even somehow acquired useful pieces in both deals. I hope they will be aggressive in promotions and playing time for the young players they need to contribute in future seasons for the remaining games in this season. I hope the young starting rotation will continue to grow and learn in the months ahead, and, most importantly, get and remain healthy enough to throw enough innings to make a full season’s worth of work possible in 2024.

Evaluating the development of the Guardians’ young players in the majors is the measure through which fans of the team should regard the remainder of this season. That statement, in itself, is a disappointing admission to make for an organization that won a division and a playoff series in 2022. It’s up to the Guardians to surprise us in 2023, or to make 2024 the beginning of a redemption arc for this organization’s failures this season.