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Reasons for Optimism About the Cleveland Guardians: Outfielder Edition

What if Cleveland Outfielders Are Good This Year?

Baltimore Orioles v Cleveland Guardians Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images

Ah, yes, the bugaboo of every Guardians’ fans' plans to spend their fall watching their team make a World Series run, a collection of feckless outfield bats.

At the recent Guards Fest, Paul Dolan and Mike Chernoff made it pretty clear that the team wants to see what their internal options have to offer to help fix their offense in 2024. The Guardians, overall, ranked 22nd in wRC+ and last in isolated power in 2023. The Guardians had 16 home runs and a 92 wRC+ from their hitters in 2023. In the past 10 years, the Guardians have had ONE hitter reach 20 home runs while regularly playing outfield (Brantley in 2014). They have had two outfielders since 2019 reach even 120 wRC+ (Steven Kwan and Oscar Gonzalez in 2022). Questions remain on whether or not Cleveland’s development team can reliably develop major league outfielders who can do more than dink and dunk and play great defense.

Steven Kwan is the bright spot in the current Cleveland outfield, so I won’t be addressing him in the following article. Matt Schlichting did an excellent job, recently, looking at reasons to both doubt and to believe there is more to Kwan’s bat, but we should be confident he is, at the least, a league average bat who plays gold glove defense in left field. That’s enough, given Cleveland’s other outfield options, to consider left field checked off on the current roster for the purposes of this exercise.

So, let’s now examine reasons for both skepticism and optimism about eight outfielders in Cleveland’s system. For reasons to believe in Tyler Freeman and Angel Martinez, who may receive some outfield reps, please take a look at my previous article on reasons for optimism regarding Cleveland’s infielders. I also wrote about David Fry recently, who may see some time in the outfield. For the players discussed below, I’m listing alphabetically by last name.

Will Brennan LH 25.11 years old

Reasons for Skepticism: Will Brennan had a .285 wOBA and a .301 xwOBA last season. He was a better hitter than his results showed, but even the underlying metrics have him at 20% below the average wOBA for a major league outfielder in 2023 - .323. Brennan has had prounounced splits in MLB so far, 100 wRC+ vs RHP and 31 wRC+ vs LHP. Some of that may be a bit of luck (only a .244 BABIP vs. LHP) but Brennan did not hit lefties well in the minors, either (OPS of .718 against LHP in 2021 and .647 against LHP in 2022). While Brennan has been able to maintain a low strikeout rate in the majors (13.6% in the minors and 12.2% in the majors), his walk rate has yet to translate (9% in the minors and 3.6% in the majors). His 2.4% barrel rate and 29.2% hard hit rate in 2023 were bleak, and don’t paint the picture of a player who was a victim of particularly bad luck. He was above average as a baserunner at 1.1 BsR and put up 4 DRS and 5 OAA in right field, but doesn’t appear to have the speed to be a real difference maker on the bases or in center field.

Reasons for Optimism: Brennan’s .313 wOBA against RHP indicates he doesn’t have to improve much to be a league average bat against right-handed pitching, allowing him to be a serviceable platoon choice with Ramon Laureano should the team decide to go in that direction. Brennan's ability to take walks in the minors make it fair to assume more of that ability will show up in the majors if he is given the chance. His chase rate is in the 6th percentile in MLB, shown by his over-aggression toward pitches out of the zone and in the shadow of the zone. He makes a lot of contact so he’s tracking the ball, just making poor swing decisions. If he can learn to take more pitches he tracks as out of the zone, perhaps Brennan could double his current measly walk rate.

Speaking of doubling, Brennan was a doubles machine in the minors in 2022, hitting 40 doubles in a full season’s worth of plate appearances. His 9.4 launch angle from 2023 indicates that if he can manage to find a few more barrels and add a little more umph to his swing, he should be able to find his way to some more gap power and maybe even (gasp!) a handful more home runs. While we shouldn’t assume any of this is likely to happen, I do think it’s fair to mention Brennan’s drive to succeed and his positive mentality. If anyone can put the work in to maximize his abilities, perhaps getting himself to more of the 120 wRC+ range vs RHP, Brennan seems like a good bet to do it. He and Laureano in right field should provide excellent defensive value, as well. However, in his age 26 season, it’s probably now or never for Silly Willy to show why Cleveland seems to have preferred him over other options like Nolan Jones and WIll Benson.

Chase DeLauter LH 22.3 years old

Reasons for Skepticism: While DeLauter had an exciting debut in the Guardians’ system, he likely too inexperienced to expect him to help in 2023. The young outfielder has a unique sawed-off swing with a scissor kick that should likely be tested against advanced pitching for a while before assuming he is ready to help a major league team.

Additionally, DeLauter had only a .592 OPS vs. LHP, so there is still platoon risk.

Reasons for Optimism: DeLauter had a 159 wRC+ and a .173 ISO while going from the complex league to Double-A Arkon with a 12.4/9.5 K/BB%. DeLauter also put up a .914 OPS in the Arizona Fall League, hitting as many homers in 23 games in Arizona (5) as he did in 57 prior professional games. He looks natural in right field and has an excellent arm. It’s fun to dream on a player like DeLauter because he has so many tools that if he continues to put them all together, you could imagine Cleveland giving him the call late in the season and getting a glimpse of someone who should at the last be a formidable presence against right-handed pitching in the middle of the Guardians’ lineup for years to come. You can bet I’ll be among the voices clamoring for him to debut if he’s able to put up a 140-150 wRC+ in Triple-A by August.

Estevan Florial LH 26.2 years old

Reasons for Skepticism: The New York Yankees designated Estevan Florial for assignment in April 2023 and he passed through waivers back to them. The Yankees had several outfield injuries and were still reluctant to give Florial consistent playing time out there, despite his experiencing somewhat of a breakout in Triple-A. They traded Florial for Cody Morris, who is interesting but constantly injured and turning 27 years old, almost exactly a year old than Florial.

When you look at Florial’s brief time in the majors, there are some alarming underlying metrics: swinging strike rate of 16.3 (15.4 in Triple-A), and an in-zone contact rate of only 72.9% (the average major leaguer’s rate is around 85%). So, while he has some interesting power potential, knows how to take a walk and doesn’t chase at a high rate, the question remains whether or not he is actually going to make enough contact with the pitches he does recognize as being in the zone to get to his power and compensate for some swing-and-miss issues.

Reasons for Optimism: If you can’t be reasonably excited about Estevan Florial, you need to adjust your optimism levels. Florial had a barrel rate in Triple-A of 14.3%. For comparison, the Guardians’ top barrel rates in the majors were David Fry at 12.9%, Gabriel Arias at 9.9% and Ramon Laureano at 9.4%. Florial had only a 25.4% out-of-zone swing rate in Triple-A, and 21.3% in MLB. For comparison, Arias, also known for his in-zone contact issues, chases at about a 10% higher rate. ZiPS projects Florial for a 94 wRC+ and Steamer has him at 93 wRC+. Florial doesn’t look unplayable against LHP with OPS’s of .688, .713, and .817 against lefties over the past three years, respectively. The rumors are that Florial is a solid-good centerfielder and there are no doubts about the strength of his arm.

Florial had 135 stolen bases and 53 caught stealings in the minors, so he’s not afraid to run with his 94th percentile sprint speed. I think there is a lot to be excited about Florial’s ability to find the sweet spot on the bat, to not chase, and to play defense. Guardians fans should be cautiously optimistic that there is a 2-3 win centerfielder who can hit 15-20 homers if given the chance to be a full-time player in the land of opportunity that is the Cleveland outfield. It’s also exciting to see a Dominican-Haitian player getting an opportunity as Haitian players have not seen the majors anywhere near as often as players from the Dominican Republic.

I cant quire hand wave the Yankees' reluctance to play Florial except to say that their market doesn't lend to having a lot of patience with young players who may be somewhat late bloomers. In Cleveland, on the other hand, Florial being just better at hitting than Myles Straw would be welcome.

Ramon Laureano RH 29.6 years old

Reasons for Skepticism: Since Ramon Laureano was suspended for PED usage in April 2021, he has had a 99 wRC+. In that time period, he has only an 88 wRC+ vs. RHP with a 28.9/6.7 K/BB%. He’s also about to turn 30 years old.

Reasons for Optimism: Laureano appears to be an average fielding option in center and an average (by OAA) to good (by DRS) fielding option in right field. The reverse of his RHP splits is his 125 wRC+ with 23.1/8.5 K/BB% against LHP, making him a good platoon option on a team that can use some help vs. southpaws. He hits the ball hard when he gets a hold of it as his aforementioned 9.4 barrel rate shows.

One can also hope that escaping the general miasma of the Oakland Athletics organization may help revitalize Laureano who immediately updated all his socials with Guardians’ images when the team claimed him, indicating some excitement about the ability to move to a new playing environment. If the Guardians are able to platoon Laureano in right field or center field (or in time at both), he should provide good value for the lineup against LHP. If he is playing full-time, his limitations as a hitter will likely be quickly exposed.

Jhonkensy Noel RH 22.6 years old

Reasons for Skepticism: Noel had a 77 wRC+ in Triple-A last year with a 15.2% Swinging Strike Rate and 24.8/8.4 K/BB%. He had a 28% whiff rate which would be the average of the sixth worst team whiff rate in the majors. He was 11th on the Clippers’ team with a 37.4 hard-hit rate, which is nice, but needs to be even higher to compensate for the sing-and-miss inherent in his profile so far.

Reasons for Optimism: Noel is still quite young for his level and he had only a .249 batting average on balls in play last season. He had an .862 OPS and a .797 OPS vs. LHP in 2022 and 2023, respectively, with only a 2-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio against lefties. He also looked reasonably competent at defense at first base, third base, left field and right field, though his ability to play at any of those three positions in the majors is difficult to judge. Time is running out for Noel to show he can help a major league team with 2023 being his final option year, but when a player can blast home runs like Noel does, it’s fun to imagine him what he could do if he were to make more consistent contact with his pull-rate consistently around 50%. There are few sights and sounds more entertaining than a Jhonk Donk:

Johnathan Rodriguez RH 24.2 years old

Reasons for Skepticism: Rodriguez had a higher swinging strike rate at Triple-A (15.6%) than Oscar Gonzalez who is one of the most aggressive hitters I’ve ever seen. He struck out 32.7% of the time at Columbus as well. His 28% K-rate over the past three years of minor-league experience doesn’t generally translate well to the major leagues. In comparison to another free swinging outfielder, Rodriguez swung out of the zone about 13% less often than Oscar Gonzalez did, but he also whiffed at pitches about 16% more often than our formerly beloved OGon did. In other words, no matter how you slice it, both hitters will have trouble beating the allegations that their plate discipline isn't going to hold up to major league standards.

Rodriguez also doesn’t hit the ball in the air as much as one would ideally want with a groundball rate hovering around 45% in the past three years and a fly ball rate closer to 30-35%.

Reasons for Optimism: Added to the 40-man prior to last fall’s Rule 5 draft, Rodriguez put up a 135 wRC+ between Akron and Columbus with a .243 ISO and a 10.4 K/BB%, to accompany the troubling numbers listed above. That 10% walk rate is a HUGE separator from Oscar Gonzalez. That and Johnny Rodriguez's 49.5% hard hit rate and 13.8 barrel rate at Columbus in 2023, I believe, are the reasons the Guardians didn’t let other teams have the opportunity to make him a Rule 5 pick.

Rodriguez has hit LHP very well, with an .896 OPS in 2022 and 1.022 in 2023 against them. However, his K-rate remains essentially steady against RHP and LHP. So, the question is whether or not he will make enough hard contact with a high enough launch angle to get to the power he clearly posseses. Rodriguez also seems capable defensively to hold down a corner outfield spot and posseses and excellent arm. I would like to see Rodriguez, given the current roster, receive a chance to show if his skills in barreling and driving baseballs can translate to the bigs, or if ML pitchers will find the holes in his swing and flaws in his plate discipline too exploitable to allow for it to ever arrive.

Myles Straw RH 29.3 years old

Reasons for Skepticism: Myles Straw has been the worst qualified major league hitter over the past two seasons with a 68 wRC+ with a .055 ISO and an average exit velocity of 86.7. He has a career 69 wRC+ against LHP, so he’s not even a good platoon option.

Reasons for Optimism: Straw is still an elite centerfielder and his 92nd percentile sprint speed would seem to lend to optimism for baserunning prowess better than his 20/26 rate in 2023. Maybe another offseason of work can get Straw back to pulling the ball at more of a 30% rate like in his 98 wRC+ 2021, but that season clearly looks like the outlier in many way. Straw has a 132 wRC+ for his career when he pulls the ball, but he simply hasn’t show the bat speed or strength to consistently pull pitches that are most easily pulled.

I feel sympathy for Straw because he seems like an exceptional teammate and a good human being, but I have trouble being optimistic about anything other than the hope that Straw will be used strictly as a late-inning defensive replacement, pinch-runner and starter on the occasional game in a ballpark with a big outfield when a fly ball pitcher is on the mound. I also hold out thin hope that even the frugal Guardians’ ownership and front office will eventually cut bait on Straw if he cannot provide sufficient value in even that reduced role. I also know that Jose Ramirez loves Myles Straw, so at least Straw gives the team some value as a Ramirez encourager and friend.

George Valera LH 23.2 years old

Reasons for Skepticism: Valera had a frustrating year trying to return from yet another nagging injury, this time with his wrist/hamate. He had only an 84 wRC+ in his second year of Triple-A experiences. He also has worsening splits vs. LHP in 2021-2023 (.876, .708 and .565, respectively). He doesn’t really steal bases and likely cannot stick in centerfield. Many of his metrics look promising, but his 76.9% in-zone contact rate in 2023 isn’t ideal (major league average being around 85%).

Reasons for Optimism: Valera is still very young and has all the tools to be a good corner outfielder and to handle RHP well as a batter (.946, .844, .826 vs. RHP in 2021, 2022 and 2023). From 2021-2022, Valera had an ISO of .228, which is likely closer to his true talent than his hamate sapped .168 ISO in 2023. Valera has generally managed to the pull and hit fly balls around 40% of the time in the minors, both good signs for the ability to maintain power.

The big issue for Valera is if he can stay healthy because his 15.4% BB-rate over the past three years looks playable as does his power when he has a workable wrist. I suspect his .268 BABIP from 2023 is telling us he didn’t get much good luck when he needed it, either. IF Valera can come into camp healthy and maintain health, I would advocate for him getting a platoon opportunity with Laureano in right field and I’d expect Valera to have a decent shot of being a three outcome player who hits some homers, takes some walks and strikes out a good bit; looking at ZiPS and his minor league performance, something like 15 homers, an 11% walk rate, a 29% strikeout rate and a wRC+ of around 115 against RHP seems very like a realistic outcome for a healthy George Valera.

Conclusions: I think we should all admit that there are some players who are intriguing among the Guardians’ outfield options. Were it me and I were choosing a team, assuming health for all the players listed above, I’d argue for Kwan in left, Florial in center, and Valera and Laureano in right field. If the team is committed to keeping Straw (which I expect they are), I’d have him as the 5th outfielder/defensive replacement/pinch-runner from day one. if they trade, demote or DFA Straw (which I do NOT expect), it would be nice to have either Will Brennan or perhaps Tyler Freeman, having learned outfield, in that 5th OF role,

I would still very much prefer Cleveland’s signing or trading for an experienced and valuable outfield bat, especially on a one-year deal than to have another discovery year where they’re hoping against all hope for at least one sustainable breakout from an outfield prospect. But, given that seems unlikely to happen until closer to the midseason deadline, if at all, I will be rooting for the team to give early at-bats to Valera and Rodriguez in the right field spot. But, I also won’t complain if we get to see more of Will Brennan’s exceptional personality try to put everything together for another couple months, as well.