The Offseason Dissection of the Guardians

Wow isn’t that just weird to type…

Don’t recognize the name? Well it’s new for 2022, and will replace the longtime “Indians” moniker for the Cleveland-based baseball team. Now let me go on the record here and just state that I am 100% in favor of the name change, this was long overdue and people should definitely be excited about the idea of baseball adapting to become more current and inclusive.

That being said…I really would’ve preferred “The Cleveland Baseball Team” or “The Cleveland Baseball Club”, a la what we’ve seen become a pop-culture phenomenon within the NFL.

Regardless of your stance on what the name of the franchise should or shouldn’t be, Cleveland is something of a departure from the first two teams I’ve covered (the Yankees and Mets) in the sense that they were a team in a rebuild campaign who grossly over-performed. The team now enters 2022 with something of an interesting conundrum, do they continue to blow up what remains of a team that went to the 2016 World Series, or do you pivot now and try to contend once more with your current core intact.

So that is exactly what I’m trying to do here, in a little series I’m calling “The Offseason Dissection”. In an effort to examine what the Guardians have now, and where they need to be come opening day of 2022, I’ve broken this team down position by position. I’ll talk who needs to stay and who needs to go. So with out further a do, let’s begin with the man who’s job that actually is:

FRONT OFFICE

Mike Chernoff is perhaps the greatest example of loyalty that the sports world has seen in quite a while. Chernoff took an internship in the then-Indians front office during his senior year of college and rose from within to the role of Assistant General Manager by the Fall of 2010. In 2014 he turned down an offer to become the San Diego Padres’ GM in the hopes of seeing things through in Cleveland, and was ultimately awarded the position of General Manager the following year, leading the club to the World Series the year after that.

Chernoff remains in place to this day, and after some small salary-dumps in recent years, finally appeared to commit to a full-scale rebuild; most-notably shipping their franchise cornerstone and baseball’s best smile, Francisco Lindor, to the New York Mets. But with this year’s team far exceeding the expectations of a rebuild, it is perhaps time to just call it a retool instead. Luckily for fans of the Guardians, Chernoff has already proven he can take an over-achieving young core and stabilize it with the right veteran additions to build a playoff contender in a heartbeat.

There’s no reason not to shoot for the playoffs here. Outside of the 2021 AL Central Champions, the Chicago White Sox, the rest of the division is in full-on rebuild mode. Throw in the fact that many of the other top tier teams in the American League will be in a state of flux this offseason, and there’s no reason the Guardians can’t pad their roster with worth-while veterans on short deals, to make another run at this while you have the chance. Worst case scenario, you’re very much out of it by the July and use the Trade Deadline to really blow things up.

COACHING STAFF

As much as it pains this lifelong Yankee fan to say, Terry Francona has been one of the best managers in baseball over the course of the last 20 years, and remains one today. Health concerns aside, if he is willing to stick it out in Cleveland for another year (all indications appear he does) then by god you let him.

Outside of the Managerial role, the Guardians have maintained one of the better pitching programs in the league for well over a decade regardless of who the top man in the department has been. Now it is abundantly clear that they need to find a way to match that level of sustained success with their hitting coaches at each stage. It has to be something of a slap in the face for Cleveland watch a guy like Gio Urshela toil away in their system, swinging a bat like a pool noodle before getting cut, only to eventually end up being an occasional clean-up hitter for an incredibly deep Yankees lineup.

For that reason, I think the man whose hitting philosophy worked for Urshela, might do just the same for other underachieving prospects and even big leaguers: Marcus Thames. The former journeyman outfielder was a power-bat and then-some when in his prime, and has translated that skillset to his teachings as a hitting coach. Thames has just been let go by the Yankees in what appears to be a series of sweeping changes to that franchise, but I think his approach can work wonders in Cleveland and create the type of multi-level offensive tutelage that he helped foster in the Yankees’ system.

STARTING ROTATION

As mentioned before, the Cleveland Guardians have a recent run of churning out great pitchers from their ranks. Whether we’re discussing World Champions like Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia, Cy Young Award winners like Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer, or simply career-long work horses who fill out rotations with consistency like Carlos Carrasco and Fausto Carmona, it really shouldn’t be a surprise for the team who can lay claim to one of the all-time greats, Bob Feller. Today though, the Guardians might somehow have the most exciting young rotation in Cleveland’s illustrious history, featuring four of the most talented pitching prospects in the game:

  • Shane Bieber
  • Aaron Civale
  • Zach Plesac
  • Triston McKenzie

The Guardians have more prospects in the pipeline (I’m a big fan of Daniel Espino and Logan Allen) and a handful of guys in their ‘pen who can profile as starters as well (Cal Quantrill and Trevor Stephan). But I feel that the right way of adding on to that core would be to turn their attention to veteran savvy. Cleveland will never be a premier destination for athletes outside of the Lebron years, so they’ll struggle mightily to attract the pitching-studs that sit atop this free agent class. Plus the Guardians entered their rebuild last year predicated on their small-market status and lack of desire to shell out big money contracts to their own homegrown talent, so it’s a reach to think they’ll spend big on anyone.

I think there’s a pair of perfect options to add veteran leadership to an otherwise young and inexperienced pitching rotation: Johnny Cueto and Corey Kluber. The former, once received one of the heftiest contracts for a pitcher (to that point) in big league history when he jumped ship to the Giants after winning a World Series as a part of the Kansas City Royals and posting All-Star stats with the other Ohio baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds. He brings with him veteran poise, a history of reinvention to stay relevant, and a championship ring. The latter, is a Cleveland legend on the last legs of his career. Traded from the team only a couple of years ago, he’s found limited success outside of his first home at Progressive Field, and his attempt to latch on to a championship contender has resulted in him not even getting a crack at a playoff start courtesy of an early exit. Kluber is at a point in his career where he wants to win and he also brings with him a wealth of knowledge to be imparted on young starters, I think a properly built Guardians team can give him both.

BULLPEN

Cleveland is a treasure trove of pitching delights unlike any other franchise in the history of this sport. They’ve yielded more All-Star pitching appearances than any other in team in the bigs, but they’ve primarily done it with starting pitching. This is a team who has traditionally yielded 200-inning workhorses who can give you pseudo-MVP seasons because of their dominance in lengthy outings. But the Guardians’ recent stretch of bargain hunting in their lean financial years has yielded something a bit new for the franchise; they’ve started to put together the makings of a bullpen that can be equally as scary as their rotation. The Guardians next year will return Quantrill, Stephan, Emmanuel Clase, James Karinchak, Anthony Gose and Nick Wittgren all of whom have been brilliant in stretches over the past couple of seasons, and perhaps most importantly for this franchise…all of them are under team control for at least four more full seasons.

This is another situation where of course a stud free agent arm would be an obvious upgrade, but the Guardians’ budget will likely instead favor a more cost-effective option that can provide veteran leadership. David Robertson jumps off the page to me as a guy who can help either Karinchak or Clase really learn the ins-and-outs of being a long-term closer, while himself being able to anchor a consistent 7th or 8th inning slot to set them up. If Robertson isn’t your cup of tea because you’d like to see the team add a late-inning lefty, perhaps Oakland’s Jake Diekman will be more your speed. He’s more of a right-now piece with better pitching metrics than Robertson in recent years, but doesn’t have the same track record of sustained success.

CATCHER

One school of thought for a franchise in a never-ending cost-cutting spiral, would be to decline Roberto Perez’s option for the upcoming season and attempting to bring him back for less than the $7 million he’s currently owed in the final year of his deal. While this might help you free up space for other moves, it should be abundantly clear that with a catching market as thin as this year’s you’re really opening yourself up to heartbreak if he signs elsewhere. You’re still able to run a defense-oriented backstop duo of Perez and Austin Hedges for another year until they both become free agent eligible. For the sake of trying to roll the dice at contention, keeping the pair in tact could prove to be your best option.

To be clear, I’m not advocating an extension for either Perez or Hedges, as both have grossly underperformed on the offensive end since their promising debut campaigns. I do think though, they represent the best path to contention in the immediate future and should that fall through in short order next Spring, whichever can net you the healthiest prospect return can be moved at the July 31st Trade Deadline to further pad your farm system. At that point, whichever of the pair remains will spend the remainder of his final season in Cleveland acting as a tutor to Bo Naylor, a highly-coveted offensive-minded prospect slated to arrive in the big leagues in 2022.

FIRST BASE

The Guardians seem to have fixed an over saturation of young First Basemen by relocating several to other spots on the diamond. This spot appears to firmly belong to Bobby Bradley for the foreseeable future, despite underwhelming stats in his rookie campaign in 2021. The Guardians had been very high on Bradley for a majority of his time in their organization, and have stuck with him through slower starts at lower farm levels. Patience is a strong suit in this organization, and at least for the time being they believe that Bradley’s raw power and bat-to-ball instincts will help to justify their waiting game with him. This very well could just be an instance where the team desperately needs to find a way to protect Bradley in the order, moving him up a bit higher (in front of Jose Ramirez and Franmil Reyes) to ensure he sees more pitches to hit.

Should Bradley lose the job, there remains a slew of other options that the Guardians could turn to replace him at First Base, most notably Josh Naylor and Nolan Jones. Naylor and Jones have been relocated to other spots on the diamond to accommodate Bradley’s promotion to the pros, but they very much have the skillsets required to be a successful First Baseman in today’s game.

SECOND BASE

Cleveland made it a point that in order to let Francisco Lindor move to Queens last winter, they needed to pull in the Mets’ top prospect, Andres Gimenez. The lefty bat is a defensive wiz, and makes plays at Second Base look far easier than they should be. Defensive metrics in the minor leagues profiled him as a forever-shortstop but because of other strong infield arms in the Guardians’ system his long-term home while will this team will be at Second.

Gimenez was hurt for a majority of the 2021 season, so Cleveland didn’t really get a great look at a player they’re hoping to build their future around. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be terribly detrimental to player on a sub-par team, but considering that the Guardians have so many top prospects that play the infield, it’s imperative that Gimenez have a strong 2021 (especially on the offensive side) to solidify his place with this team. Nipping at his heels in particular appears to be the #7 ranked prospect in Cleveland’s system, Brayan Rocchio. The high-IQ middle-infielder is beginning to profile more as a Second Baseman because of his mediocre arm, but his elite athleticism and ability to get on base could lead to a promotion to big league ball in just his age 20 season.

Should Gimenez solidify his role and help the Guardians be a playoff contender through the first half of the season, they could look to flip Rocchio and other prospects for a strong bullpen arm or Outfield help at the deadline.

THIRD BASE

Technically speaking, Jose Ramirez could see the final year of his contract negated by his club and join an already stacked infield free agent class as the now premier option for teams looking to add an MVP-caliber Second or Third Baseman. The likelihood of Cleveland doing that though, is about as slim as the likelihood that the team will go back to calling themselves the Indians. Ramirez is a top-5 player in baseball, and letting him go for nothing would be unthinkable. So the Guardians will try to negotiate an extension, likely see that not materialize and look to move him prior to the start of the 2022 season.

As I’ve mentioned already, I believe this is a team that should look to contend one last time while they’ve got him, with nothing to lose. I say hold on to J-Ram through at lest through the All-Star Break and if you’re contending still, keep him and try to work on extending him with a promise to get better. If you find yourselves already out of the Postseason picture, then you seize the opportunity to unload him to a desperate contender as a rental (with unrealistic expectations of retention) and continue to hoard prospects with another remarkable haul.

After that, it’s time to unveil your shiny top prospect, Tyler Freeman, slotting over from his traditional home at shortstop to make way for a more traditional athlete to move up that depth chart instead. Freeman’s MLB-ETA is 2022 and as long as nothing drastic changes he’s in line to get the second call up of the Guardians’ super-shortstop system. He’s going to almost immediately feature as a top of the order guy because of his contact ability and ambush approach at the plate, and he’s likely to be among the biggest early beneficiaries of the Marcus Thames hitting adjustment which will tap into a more power-driven approach to his swings.

SHORTSTOP

This is where I think the Guardians could really start to get experimental this upcoming season. Despite receiving Ahmed Rosario as part of the Francisco Lindor trade last offseason, I don’t know that the team ever really considered building around him long term. They still might be looking to use him as trade bait as they angle themselves to eventually promote their crop of young shortstops, but an impressive offensive season in 2021 could have definitely changed their outlook on his future with the club. All that being said, I still don’t believe that Cleveland sees him playing Shortstop very much for them in 2022.

Instead, the Guardians can do one of two things here:

  • Sign a mid-tier free agent like Jose Iglesias or Jonathan Villar to a short-term contract
  • Promote the excitingly-explosive Gabriel Arias to their big league roster out of Spring Training

In case my bias didn’t really shine through there, I think the latter is the way to go. Best case scenario, Arias is the next in a line of incredible young high-octane ballplayers that includes Fernando Tatis Jr. and Ronald Acuna Jr., and you ride a hot start to a playoff berth. Worst case scenario, he’s an erratic rookie with mixed results that’ll still put asses in the seats of Progressive Field because people want to see what wild feat of athleticism he might be able to pull off on any given day.

OUTFIELD

This is where I think the Cleveland Guardians will make the most changes to what we see come Opening Day 2022, but for what it’s worth, I think the changes will be almost exclusively internal here too. Beginning in Left Field, Josh Naylor (older brother of catching-prospect Bo) will ideally be healthy all year and prove to be a worthwhile option out here after relocating from First Base. As mentioned before, there’s always a chance he moves back there, but his plus-arm translates much better in Left and his less-than-stellar athleticism otherwise will be covered up by another relocating young ballplayer next door…

Amed Rosario needs to open the 2022 season as the every day Center Fielder. Consider him the Ketel Marte of 2022: his athleticism definitely translates to Center Field, you have a massive hole there, his bat makes him worth keeping around long-term and you really want to free up his original spot for your flashy new prospects. Rosario’s bat is a massive upgrade to the grossly underperforming Bradley Zimmer, who’ll find his way to a new team courtesy of the non-tender list this winter. Plus, he serves an important roll as stop-gap for the #2 prospect in the system, George Valera, who won’ be big league ready until at least 2023 when he’ll be asked to take over this role or…

Right Field is the most up in the air position for me. I was a big fan of Harold Ramirez during his days in the Marlins’ farm system, and still think he can be something special if given consistent playing time in any lineup. On the other hand though, I’ve been impressed by the offensive strides and defensive versatility of former #1 prospect Nolan Jones. After being drafted as a Shortstop, Jones was moved to Third Base because his range left something to be desired. Then he got some work over at First Base when it appeared as though Cleveland might need some depth there. Then he moved back to Third Base when the team promoted Bobby Bradley and traded for Josh Naylor. Now he’s been reported to have quickly picked up the trade of corner Outfielder in the past year or so. My gut says Ramirez gets the first look here in 2022, but Jones opens the year on the big league club playing damn near everywhere until a spot opens up for him somewhere more regularly.

DESIGNATED HITTER

If there was a guy on this team best suited to the approach of my perceived new hitting coach, Marcus Thames, it’s Franmil Reyes. Here’s my quick summary for all of you who don’t get around to watching a lot of Cleveland baseball, which I assume is basically everyone: he will be an MVP of this league in the very near future.

The only hole in his game is his glove, which will be forever hidden in his career now that he’s playing in the American League (and the NL looks to soon be getting a DH too). He’s got the makings of a perennial 40+ home run guy, while still hitting for average and getting on base at astounding rates for someone his age. For a more well-known player comparison, think Nelson Cruz…but if in his early Texas years they didn’t let him lose them a World Series in Right Field but rather win it with the dominant offensive production we’ve seen ever since from the DH role.

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