(All stats below were current as of 9/22/23)
There is no way around it - 2023 has been a wildly disappointing season for the Cleveland Guardians.
Coming off of winning an AL Central title, a wildcard series and two games in the ALDS in 2022, hopes were high that the Guardians, the youngest team in baseball by a wide margin last season, would have a rousing encore performance in them. Instead, we are watching the team flirt with a top ten draft pick in the 2024 MLB draft. As of September 21st, the Guardians were 13th in MLB in pitching in both fWAR and FIP, 19th in position player fWAR and 22nd in wRC+, and they are 12th in Defensive Runs Saved. For comparison, the 2022 Guardians were ninth in both pitcher fWAR and FIP, ninth in position player fWAR, 15th in wRC+, third in Defensive Runs Saved. This is obviously negative regression and not what you want to see as young players get another year of playing under their belts.
Their are some reasons for this decline that are obvious - Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie’s injuries have hurt, missing a month of Josh Naylor didn’t help, hanging on to Amed Rosario was a disastrous decision, and Josh Bell’s incredibly bad luck remained stubbornly persistent during his time here here. None of these circumstances were extraordinary in anyway, however. You have to anticipate injuries in any season, someone is going to be unlucky, and everyone (outside of the Cleveland front office, apparently) could look at shift restrictions as likely bad news for a player like Rosario. Also, the Cleveland front office should have expected decline in offensive numbers, given that the team was 29th in MLB in hard hit rate in 2022. They are now last in hard hit rate MLB in 2023, so they didn’t hit the ball hard consistently last year, and nothing has changed except a decline from 13th in BABIP in 2022 to 20th in BABIP in 2023.
So, why do I still feel optimistic about the Cleveland Guardians for 2024? Let’s go through a list:
The Rotation remains a strength
Guardians fans have to be optimistic about the chances of Tanner Bibee, Gavin Williams and Logan Allen helping the team immensely in 2024 after their strong rookie seasons of 2023. It’s important to note that the projections are not yet sold on the sustainability of the level of success the three have experienced, with ZiPS predicting Bibee and Williams’ ERA’s to grow by about a run based on the data and Allen’s to rise by about half a run. However, I think it is reasonable to be optimistic that while there may be some regression, the Guardians have shown enough with pitching development that fans can expect the team and these bright young stars to mitigate the issues the robots see in their peripherals with some solid offseason work.
Additionally, it has been very encouraging to see good Cal Quantrill re-emerge following an injury plagued first four months of the season. Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie are set to pitch for the major league club before the season ends, leading to some optimism that either or both can start in the rotation in 2024 and avoid surgery to correct their prior, respective elbow issues. The particularly optimistic fan can also hope that Daniel Espino’s renowned work ethic will make him an option to help late next season, and there are reasons to be excited about Joey Cantillo and Doug Nikhazy if either can get their walk rates a little more under control. Even Ryan Webb’s trip to the Arizona Fall League provides an outside chance he may help the Guardians if need be, and Will Dion continues to dominate minor league hitters with a 90 mph fastball so he shouldn’t be counted out as a factor. Personally, I would put a rotation of Bieber, McKenzie, Bibee, Williams and Allen/Quantrill against any group in MLB for 2024.
The Lineup has more answers than Questions
I’m going to do some picking and choosing, but I think the numbers are of interest. From June 18th when Bo Naylor was called up, the Guardians are 16th in MLB with a 97 wRC+ and that’s missing over a month of Josh Naylor. If we can speculate that Kyle Manzardo is likely to replicate something close to his projections, allowing him to replace Josh Bell’s production, it’s looking like an offense solidly in the top half of MLB.
Catcher - Bo Naylor: Since the All-Star break, Bo has a 140 wRC+ and a reasonable .274 BABIP. His K/BB% of 20.1/14.5% during that time reflects well the excellent plate discipline he has shown. I know we should exercise restrained optimism about young players but let’s not ignore the excitement over what Bo has shown he is capable of providing and how huge of an upgrade it would be over anything the Guardians have got at catcher for half a decade.
First Base/Designated Hitter - Josh Naylor and Kyle Manzardo: Josh Naylor hasn’t quite found his power stroke since his return from the injured list but he seems to have established himself as a 120-130 wRC+ guy who can play a solid first base. I think it’s also important to recognize the intangibles he displays as a hard worker and clubhouse leader. Personally, I’d love to see the team find a way to extend him, while realizing it will be a challenge given where he is in arbitration.
Kyle Manzardo has a 130 wRC+ in his last month with Columbus with a low BABIP of .246 and an excellent K/BB% of 15.9/12.5. While the rest of season projections see him as close to a league average hitter, I think Guardians fans can be reasonably optimistic he may be closer to his preseason 2024 ZiPS numbers of 124 wRC+.
Second Base - Andres Gimenez: Gimenez has been battling to keep his wRC+ at 100 or better, and it’ll probably go down to the wire to see if he can do it. There’s no doubt he was due for some regression but I think it’s reasonable to bet on the 25 year-old to do some needed offseason work to identify better pitches he can hit hard (an 11% decline in hard-hit rate being a primary reason for his offensive decline) given the adjustments pitchers have made on him in 2023. His defense would seem likely to remain excellent for at least a few more years, whether he is left at second or asked to move to short.
Shortstop - Gabriel Arias: We all know that Gabriel Arias has been terrible against LHP. This needs to be his focus for the offseason. With this caveat, consider that, among current Guardians with at least 50 PA’s, Arias is second in hard-hit rate at 35.4% and second in barrel rate at 9.6%. Against RHP, Arias has a 126 wRC+ with a 26/8.2 K/BB%. In 385 innings at short, Arias has 2 Outs Above Average. Given similar value at a full-time rate, that would put him around 7 OAA for a full-season. Personally, I like his odds at exceeding that number. IF Arias can get to a point of even around 80 wRC+ against LHP, and increase his launch angle by even 1-2 degrees, he looks like a 4-win player to me.
Note: I think we are all hoping the Guardians can use their middle infield depth to help shore up other areas of the roster, but it’s also nice to know that if Arias (who certainly still has a lot of boom-bust to his profile) falters, the team should have a solid replacement between Juan Brito, Tyler Freeman and Angel Martinez (probably at second-base), or Jose Tena and Brayan Rocchio (likely at shortstop). Personally, I’d like to see Juan Brito start at Columbus at second-base to begin 2023, and, if Arias still looks like the real deal, shift him to left field by mid-May. If not, get him up at second and ask Gimenez to move to short. When it’s all said and done, I think it’s reasonable to expect above average production in the 2.5-4 win territory from the double-play partner for Andres Gimenez in 2023, whomever it may be.
Third Baseman - Jose Ramirez: We’ve seen some decline from Jose Ramirez in 2023. With that said, he still has his sites set on a 25/25 season (which he may have reached by the time you read this) and a 125 wRC+ with around 5.5 fWAR. If the team can get that from him again, or if he’s got one more elite season in him, they’ll feel good. His age 31 season coming up should be a good reason for the team to get him a couple more bats to help, but we’ll see if the front office finally feels that urgency or not. Regardless, he’s a joy and treasure to have in Cleveland for the forseeable future.
Left Field - Steven Kwan: Since the All-Star Break, Kwan has a 121 wRC+ and a reasonable .307 BABIP. He’s set to win another gold glove in left field. I’d love to see him moved to center, but I do wonder if the team thinks the rigors of center may hurt his durability and, thus, production. I like his chances of figuring out how to sustain something close to his second-half production which would make him a good option for left-field... provided the team can find a way to upgrade the other two outfield spots. The team should also revisit an extension with Kwan this Spring.
Center Field - ?: The Guardians have two options: find a way to offload Myles Straw to a team that has a 5th outfielder role for him, paying almost all of his remaining salary, OR believe in Straw finding his missing baserunning prowess and keep him as a 5th outfielder who will get around 200-250 PA’s in 2024. But, he cannot be the starting centerfielder as the worst qualified hitter in baseball since Opening Day 2022. Would the Guardians move Steven Kwan to center? This lets them look for an upgrade in either left or right field (or both). If not, would the Guardians consider a centerfield platoon of Will Brennan and Ramon Laureano? Brennan’s career 100 wRC+ against RHP and Laureano’s career 122 wRC+ against LHP would play, but their defense in center is going to be a notable step-down from Straw. My great preference would be to pay for Cody Bellinger or Jung-hoo Lee to play center. But, I certainly am not expecting that to happen.
Right Field - ?: If the Guardians signed Cody Bellinger or Jung-hoo Lee and entered 2024 with Will Brennan, George Valera, Ramon Laureano and Johnny Rodriguez as options for a right-field platoon, I’d be fine with it. I’d also like to see Jhonkensy Noel kept as depth, continuing to develop at Columbus. It’s hard for me to see Oscar Gonzalez getting another shot in Cleveland, but he still has the fact that he was a major league player in 2022 in his favor, so I don’t completely count him out from helping. However, my great preference would be finding a way to either trade for Taylor Ward or sign someone like Teoscar Hernandez or Jorge Soler to help in right-field. But, in any case, I do like their chances, regardless of external additions, to find above-average outfield production in right-field. The big issue, for me, is adding some legitimate help in centerfield.
Backup Catcher - David Fry or Eric Haase or Bryan Lavastida. I am assuming that the team is being careful with David Fry’s hamstring and playing him sparingly, but I’m all in on him as a backup for Bo Naylor. I hope that Eric Haase and Bryan Lavastida stick around as depth in the minors, but Fry hits the ball hard (leads the team in hard-hit and barrel rates) and crushes lefties and looks fine behind the plate. I don’t think he’s a good choice for that Swiss Army Knife role, but I’d like to see him solidly entrenched as the backup for 2024 and I’d feel very good about his chances of helping.
Utility Infielder - Tyler Freeman and/or Brayan Rocchio and/or Jose Tena: As mentioned before, the plus side of having a ton of middle-infielders should be having someone pretty darn good as your bench guy. Tyler Freeman seems born for the role as someone whose shoulder might not be up for everyday reps, but who is seemingly always able to get the bat to the ball. However, I also think Rocchio and Tena show potential of being excellent options in this role if the Guardians find a team that really likes the idea of acquiring Freeman as part of a potential trade return for an outfielder or relief arm the Guardians like.
The Bullpen is going to be ok
There are some issues in the Cleveland pen, primarily that they need to find some more strikeouts. However, I’d also say that there are some solid reasons to think the group they have will be better in 2023 without any changes (and there will be changes). The Guardians led MLB with ten wins above average in Win Probability Added in 2022; in 2023, they’ve been two wins below average in WPA. They have also dropped from 4th to 13th in BABIP. I wThe bullpen’s 2023 performance would have been fine had the offense progressed to give them the occasional bigger lead. I like the chances of players like Franco Aleman, Cade Smith, Cody Morris, Tim Herrin and even Hunter Gaddis being able to help in 2024.
I also think a strong attempt to re-sign Reynaldo Lopez would go a long way in helping deepen the pen and replace one of the more fringey arms the team has counted on this season. Do I expect that to happen? No, no, I do not expect the Guardians to spend significant money on a free-agent reliever. I’d expect them instead to target an Enyel De Los Santos types on waiver wires or Trevor Stephan in Rule 5. But, I can’t help but hope Lopez being acquired and hanging around might provide the team a chance to show him that Cleveland is a great place to pitch and they can make a good faith offer to retain his services.
The Team knows they need at least one bat
Even if the Guardians think they can handle one outfield spot with a George Valera/Ramon Laureano platoon or a Will Brennan/Ramon Laureano platoon, or if they think Johnny Rodriguez or Oscar Gonzalez can help, they will be aware that they need to add some proven slugging. While the market for outfield upgrades appears limited, I do like their chances of landing one of the following players: (trade) Dylan Carlson, Tyler O’Neill, Adolis Garcia, Austin Hays, Anthony Santander, Taylor Ward, Juan Soto, Lane Thomas, Randy Arozarena, swap a bad Straw contract to play Willson Contreras in LF?, (free agents) Teoscar Hernandez, Lourdes Gurriel Jr, Joc Pederson, Hunter Renfroe, Cody Bellinger, Jung-hoo Lee or Jorge Soler. With attendance figures for 2023 looking good, I don’t think I’m naive to think they will spend a little to get some outside help in the hitting department.
A new voice in the clubhouse may help
It’s hard to argue that replacing a hall of fame manager will improve the team, but I do think it’s fair to be optimistic that a new voice (or, a few new voices) in the Cleveland clubhouse may help the team get out of some bad habits and find some advantages on the margins. I feel reasonably confident that the team will make a good hire for Tito’s replacement and excited to see what that person can do with a talented, young roster.