For Cleveland Guardians fans hoping for moves to improve the roster, this offseason has been brutal. If the team wants to inject some hope into a frustrated fan base, here are some things it could do going into the 2022 season.
Going into the current offseason, the Cleveland Guardians were expected to add some degree of outside talent to boost their payroll from the dismal sub-$50 million total they spent in 2021. Coming up on the outset of the 2022 regular season, the club has made virtually no moves on that front (Bryan Shaw and Luke Maile aside).
With the rebranding of the team, and following the first season below .500 in nearly a decade, many fans are understandably concerned about the direction of the team going forward. Without a notable signing or two, or even a trade to infuse fresh blood into the lineup, the team looks to be the offensively stagnant, pitching-centric club of the last few years.
Ownership and the front office (who many fans have supported over the years) owe the Cleveland faithful some degree of commitment towards stepping back into contention. If they want to generate some hope and buy-in among a frustrated fan base, here are a couple of things they could do before the 2022 season gets underway.
1. Through trade or free agency, the Guardians snag a serviceable outfielder
This probably isn’t the first time you’ve heard this diatribe, and it shouldn’t be the last until it finally happens, but the Guardians need a veteran outfielder to fortify the roster. Coming into this offseason, there were plenty of good options Cleveland could have gone after (Mark Canha, Starling Marte, Andrew McCutcheon, Nick Castellanos, Jorge Soler, Joc Pederson, etc.). Ultimately, the Guards stood pat on all of them while other organizations took chances and dealt out contracts.
With the free agent market dwindling, Cleveland needs to make a move and make it quick if it’s going to (which admittedly seems unlikely at this point). It is worth mentioning that there are still some serviceable options out there, some of whom are still looking for homes as spring training begins to wind down. Getting a name like Michael Conforto would show the team is interested in trying to field as complete a lineup as possible, and it would give fans a reason to pay attention as the regular season gets started.
As if this hasn’t sounded like a broken record up to this point, acquiring an outfielder via trade would probably be the best course of action to address glaring roster deficiencies. Trading from positions of strength – say a middle infield prospect and a starting pitcher – for a proven outfielder with a good deal of control (Bryan Reynolds, for the tenth time) would show the team is for real, and believes it can contend in what has turned into a deep AL Central.
Dealing ten-year+ contracts with $300 million tied up in individual players will never be Cleveland’s way, but making a bold (or even semi-bold) move in an area of need will help move the needle on the Guardians for many fans going into 2022. Doing something to provide some semblance of outfield hope would be a long-welcomed move for the team.
2. Dish out a Luis Robert-style contract to one of the upcoming prospects
Of all of the options for giving fans a palpable dose of hope, this particular idea is probably the least plausible, but could still be worth some passing consideration (even if it’s just for the fun of speculating what could be). The Guardians could work to rewrite the narrative that they don’t invest in top players by offering one of the top prospects in the system a long-term extension that buys up some of their prime free agency years.
For some reference as to recent history with these types of signings, the Chicago White Sox signed Luis Robert to a six-year, $50 million contract extension before he ever touched the field in the Windy City. The deal contains two $20 million team options at the end of the contract, giving the Sox lengthy control over the outfielder, while giving Robert financial security before getting his feet wet at the major-league level. The White Sox also signed Eloy Jimenez to a similar deal before he reached Chicago.
Although a deal of this type would break the mold Cleveland has developed for itself, it would show the front office and ownership have legitimate interest in keeping top talent in Cleveland long-term. Taking a player like Gabriel Arias and giving him a deal that ties his future and much of his prime years to Cleveland would serve to excite a fan base in need of some juice.
Other players who could potentially be worth a deal like this could be the likes of George Valera, Brayan Rocchio, or Tyler Freeman. The financial commitment would be a show of faith in the ability of the player who gets the offer, and the promise of financial security before they’ve ever played in an MLB game would be a tough offer to pass up.
One other benefit to this type of deal would be no longer needing to manipulate a young player’s service time. Hypothetically, if Arias was signed to a 7+ year deal in the $13-18 million per year range (just spitballing with the numbers) before the season started, he could immediately play with the club due to the service time dilemma becoming a non-issue as soon as the ink dried on his contract. The team would also have a level of commitment in the middle infield, and could work out a trade with one or a few of the remaining pieces who no longer have a clear path to the active roster, but could net the team a needed return of some sort. It could also alleviate some of the pressure on the 40-man roster.
Although I doubt this is an alternative the Guardians would ever consider, the idea is somewhat tantalizing when you calculate the upside of getting some of Cleveland’s best, upcoming talent under control into the prime years of their career. The risk is high due to the uncertainty of prospects panning out at baseball’s highest level, but the reward could be worth it if the Guardians think they have a sure thing in one of their youngsters. Keep in mind that this idea is admittedly far-fetched considering the recent team history of not extending even well-established stars, but it never hurt anyone to consider the what-ifs. Speaking of extensions…
3. For the love of all that is good, extend José Ramírez and Shane Bieber
For his elite play and years of service to Cleveland, José Ramírez deserves a bigger contract, and he deserves it now. For that matter, Shane Bieber does too for his excellence on the mound. Both of those points are common knowledge not only amongst the Guardians faithful, but amongst the majority of the baseball universe. Hungry fans of big-market teams circle Cleveland’s elite players like vultures because of the team’s history of trading away star talent for prospects.
For the most part, I understand the approach of the organization. Dealing established players for youngsters has helped the team create one of the strongest farm systems in all of baseball. It also has helped to keep the window of contention at least cracked, without the need for a lengthy rebuild. However, the system is now well-stocked with talent. Plenty of potentially MLB-caliber pieces are coming up the rungs, and if there was ever a time to sign top-notch guys to extensions to solidify a dynamic core for the next couple of years, it’s now. Having some well-established veteran stars, with an exciting cast of young players, could create just the type of team Cleveland fans want to root for.
If extensions are not reached, everyone knows how this story will play out in the end. Seeing Ramírez leave will absolutely gut the fan base, whether it is in a trade or via free agency. What he has meant to the team since he came up as the stopgap shortstop between Asdrubal Cabrera and Francisco Lindor is something that is not easily replaced in this sport. One could argue that if Ramírez spends the entirety of his career in a Cleveland uniform, and puts in another couple elite-to-good seasons into his mid-30s, he could be due for a statue at Progressive Field in the future. With that in mind, losing an impact player of Ramírez’s caliber would be an incomprehensible blow to the franchise. He deserves a financial commitment from the team, just like he has committed the last nine seasons to Cleveland.
Shane Bieber is also one of the players that fans dread losing most. He offers Cleveland one of the premier aces in MLB while displaying an attitude and work ethic that have endeared him to the city. Seeing Bieber flipped for prospects – the fate of players like Trevor Bauer or Mike Clevinger – wouldn’t sit well with the vast majority of fans, considering his age, track record, and the years he could spend in a Guardians uniform. Bieber has voiced his interest in staying with the team, so it is on the team to find a way to come to fair terms with the Cy Young winner.
Showing a willingness to extend players that are a no-brainer to other organizations could be a way to expand the bottom-five payroll Cleveland is otherwise headed for, and it would create something to show fans that the Guardians truly intend to compete in 2022 and beyond.