Has the Cleveland Guardians’ Front Office lost a step?
In 2010, Chris Antonetti became general manager for the Cleveland Indians, and in 2015, he became president of baseball operations, with Mike Chernoff becoming the general manager. Since 2010, Cleveland is seventh in all of MLB in regular season wins. Since 2015, they are fourth. Despite being solidly in the bottom ten for team payroll for the majority of that time, the Cleveland Front Office has found a way to assemble teams that win more baseball games than they lose. Part of that can likely be credited to the hiring of Terry Francona in 2013, reported to have pushed for a more collaborative approach in the front office and organization as well as someone who brought credibility and respect due to his winning managerial experience with the Red Sox. But, certainly, Antonetti, Chernoff and their front office team deserve a lot of credit for using the limited resources they have to bring winning baseball to Cleveland.
With that said, I believe 2024 is a crucial year for Antonetti, Chernoff and the Cleveland front office to demonstrate that they are keeping pace with the constantly changing landscape of Major League Baseball and doing the best they can to put the team in the best position possible to win games. Do I expect Cleveland ownership to fire anyone if 2024 is a disappointing season? Absolutely not. No one lost their jobs after Mickey Callaway, so I seriously doubt that Antonetti or Chernoff are going anywhere until either they want to leave or they want to retire. And, personally, I’m not going to be demanding that someone be fired regardless of how the season goes. But, as a fan and amateur analyst, there are some reasons I’d like to go into here as to why I believe 2024 will reveal a lot about the shape the organization is in for future success.
First, the Guardians are obviously struggling to find offense, specifically in their outfield. Since Michael Brantley left following the 2018 season, the Guardians have been 27th in MLB in outfielder wRC+ with 91. From extending Myles Straw in 2022, to trading Will Benson and Nolan Jones after the 2022 season, the Guardians have made the difficult task of finding and developing good hitting outfielders harder on themselves through recent decision-making. Imagine, with me, if we were entering the 2024 season with Steven Kwan in center-field, Will Benson and either Johnathan Rodriguez or Ramon Laureano in right-field and Nolan Jones in left-field. In 2024, we will get a good sense of truly how much better that group would be than the players like Straw (extended) and Brennan, Valera, 2023 Oscar Gonzalez, Estevan Florial and David Fry who will have littered the current Guardians’ outfield over these latest two seasons. Maybe regression hits both Benson and Jones (certainly possible), and one or two of the young hitters for the Guardians breaks out. In any case, we will have a great chance to evaluate the front office’s choices in this area of roster-building.
In 2024, we will see if any of the middle infielders the Guardians have been hoarding over the past seven years will demonstrate themselves to be valuable middle infielders to pair with Andres Gimenez, or if the Junior Caminero for Tobias Myers deal is going to look worse and worse. Already, it’s difficult to understand why Amed Rosario was retained for 2023 and why he continued to get full-time playing time at shortstop after his play collapsed and valuable evaluation could have been made on Gabriel Arias, Tyler Freeman and Brayan Rocchio in his role. In the coming season, will the Guardians’ front office and coaching staff properly balance patience and aggression and available playing time to give Gabriel Arias, Brayan Rocchio, Tyler Freeman, Jose Tena and Juan Brito the chance to show they can be an effective and valuable double-play partner for Andres Gimenez.
In 2024, the revered Cleveland pitching factory will be put to the test. Can the team rely on their trio of rookie pitchers from 2023 to not regress but instead take steps forward? Will Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie be some semblance of healthy? If they aren’t, will depth starters such as Ben Lively, Jamie Barria, Carlos Carrasco, Joey Cantillo, Xzavion Curry, Hunter Gaddis, Doug Nizkhazy, Ryan Webb and maybe even Ethan Hankins and Daniel Espino provide useful value in their stead? If the answers to any of these questions becomes “no,” questions should be asked of the front office regarding if they did all they could to provide the depth the starting pitching on the team needed to survive the upcoming season. Because, with the three rookies and two veterans with elbow issues, it is not difficult to foresee, right now, that the depth on the team looks unproven and shaky, after we just experienced an MLB offseason where the depth of the free agent market was to be found in starting pitching.
Of course, the most glaring flaw on the Guardians currently is the lack of an impact bat being added to a 2023 lineup that finished 22nd in wRC+. Maybe, it turns out this year that betting on players like Florial, Brennan, Arias, Rocchio, Freeman, Fry, Deyvison De Los Santos and Valera was a good idea. I’ve certainly written about reasons to be optimistic for infielders, outfielders and for Fry. But, there is no doubt that Cleveland is gambling on this being the case. Would beating a $5 million one-year-deal for Joey Gallo have been a better bet? Would out-bidding $12.5 million guaranteed for Joc Pederson have been wise? What about Jorge Soler, J.D. Martinez and Tommy Pham, who are still available? Have Mike Antonetti and Mike Chernoff pounded the table with owner Paul Dolan and emphasized that the lineup needs to have the money to add one more bat to have the best shot possible at playing winning baseball and taking an AL Central division that, predictably, looks as weak as it usually does? We will likely never know the answer to that question, but the front office has made clear, so far, that the plan is to bet on the young hitters within the organization to take the steps forward needed to address the team’s offensive deficiencies.
Cleveland’s ownership and front office repeated the mantra at Guards Fest recently that they need to see what their young hitters can do and don’t want to bring in a veteran who will block those players. Fans and media should, thus, hold the organization accountable to not play games with the best hitting prospect’s service time, but give them the opportunity to impact the major league club. They can now get draft pick compensation if Kyle Manzardo wins rookie of the year; will this incentivize them to start him with the Guardians on Opening Day? If Chase DeLauter continues to excel at every minor league level while Cleveland’s major league options in the outfield falter, will DeLauter get a chance to help after the all-star break? Or, will the team stick stubbornly to surrounding Ramirez, Josh and Bo Naylor, Andres Gimenez and Steven Kwan with Straw, Florial, Laureano, Fry, De Los Santos and Brennan, come what may?
In an offseason following a disappointing season while bringing on a first-time manager, the Guardians have added Austin Hedges, Scott Barlow, Ben Lively, Estevan Florial and Deyvison De Los Santos.
It doesn’t take an expert to say that none of these additions are likely to significantly improve the Guardians’ 2024 roster. Rather than finding a way to make a significant trade (even if it required trading a valuable - yet notoriously volatile - bullpen arm) to acquire the bat the lineup needs, or signing a vet with at least an average-above average floor, the Guardians appear to be going with the options they have on hand. Rather than demand or reallocate the resources needed to sign a proven depth starter from the teeming ranks of them that the MLB offseason offered, the Guardians chose Lively, Barria, Carrasco and in-house options. We will see how the front office handles the in-season trade deadline, also. Then, the Cleveland front office needs to be evaluated on these choices by how the 2024 season goes and held accountable for it in some manner, either with praise or criticism of some kind.
I realize some will read this opinion piece and say “The point isn’t about 2024, it’s about 2025 and beyond.” I’d argue that this perspective misses the point that the AL Central is clearly winnable in 2024, the team is entering Spring Training with five good-to-great lineup pieces as well as an exciting group of young pitchers in both the rotation and bullpen, and one-year deals were available for several players that would have helped raise the floor of the current roster, not to mention potential trades that may have been available about which we cannot be sure. I also think it’s important to remember that Jose Ramireaz is probably only going to be a 4-6 win player for another 2-3 years at most. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this is the kind of collection of players and circumstances that is begging for a little investment to shore up obvious holes, moves that the Cleveland Guardians ownership and front office has been reluctant to make so far this offseason. I’ll be closely monitoring to see how their strategy pays off and I hope media, fans and franchise decision makers do the same.