For the first time in recent memory, the Cleveland Guardians opted for a catcher who could hit. Gone are the days of Austin Hedges, Roberto Perez or a carousel of journeymen backups behind the plate that have been stellar on defense but are more or less black holes on offense.
No longer will we groan when the Guardians have men on and the eighth hitter, typically a catcher fighting to stay above the Mendoza line, trots to the plate, only to take his hacks and walk back to the bench unsatisfied. Mike Zunino’s bat, for that simple reason, has already begun to look well worth the $6 million Cleveland gave him this offseason.
For a team that prides itself on small ball, bloop hits and never being out of a game, Zunino slots in as someone who can contribute. It’s great… until he crouches down behind the plate and prepares to catch. Two years ago, Zunino hit 33 home runs with the Tampa Bay Rays, finishing his age-30 season with his first All-Star bid. Last year was basically a lost season after he underwent surgery on his left arm for thoracic outlet syndrome. The Guardians took a somewhat pricey flier in hopes that he could be a stopgap for top catching prospect Bo Naylor as he readies himself in Triple-A. Whatever contributions he makes before then, like his three multi-base hits this past Sunday, will be seen as a bonus.
Zunino might still be struggling to regain his talent behind the plate after surgery, and is 32 years old, so he's not exactly the shiniest object in the shop. Manager Terry Francona said that it’s cold, he’s catching an entirely new staff and is still trying to get back into full swing after playing just 36 games last season. But Zunino’s defensive struggles through the start of the season have been undeniably noticeable. He spoiled Cleveland’s potential win against the Oakland Athletics with a passed ball in the eighth inning and couldn’t block three wild pitches on Sunday, leading to the Guardians having to come back in extras to win.
He’s starting to become more of a nuisance behind the plate than someone who can command a pitching staff. Maybe this is payback for complaining ever since Yan Gomes was dealt to the Washington Nationals that we all wanted more hitting out of the catching position. But I think the first two series, though an extremely small sample size, combined with Naylor’s hot start, show it's time to make the switch and usher in the second Naylor era in Cleveland.
While Zunino is struggling to find his footing - and move his feet - behind the plate, Naylor is raking in Columbus, sending social media into a firestorm on a nightly basis. Call him up! Call him up! The cries on each video of Naylor hitting a home run or throwing someone out at second aren’t ill-informed calls for a call-up. It’s simply looking at the top prospect in the organization getting off to a terrific stat line of .313/.450/1.200 and saying, “Yes. It’s time to bring him up and get him playing time.”
Cleveland, do you want a hitting catcher who can also block behind the plate and will provide better than a -29 defensive runs saved above average? He’s about two hours south waiting for the opportunity to showcase his talents at Progressive Field. He did everything last year in Columbus and Akron to warrant a call-up, and his hot start has already shown it’s time to bring him up. His major-league clock has already started, so it’s time to stop delaying the inevitable.
If Zunino wasn’t as bad at blocking balls and defending behind the plate, the yearning for Naylor to traverse up to the big leagues wouldn’t be as loud. But it’s incredibly difficult to watch Zunino struggle behind the plate while simultaneously seeing Naylor obliterate minor-league pitchers and rifle throws down to second base with his cannon arm. Naylor is going to be raw, and, like the majority of this lineup, is going to have his youthful ebbs and flows. I don’t think keeping him down in Triple-A for much longer is doing any good for Cleveland. It’s probably getting his confidence up, but why wait and risk a slump?
As for Zunino, I think he still plays a valuable role for this team once Naylor comes up and takes over the starting catching spot. He can do a couple of things on and off the field that would make his $6 million justifiable. Zunino could act as a veteran presence from the bench, guiding Naylor through difficult situations and acting as one of the best backups in the league, an experienced brain for Naylor to pick throughout his rookie campaign. Zunino could also come in to relieve Naylor or give him a day off. He could also slide in at DH to give either Josh Bell or Josh Naylor a day off. Suddenly, Zunino looks a lot more appealing for an entire season than what his role is right now.
Naylor’s call-up would eradicate the need for three catchers, and either Cam Gallagher or Meibrys Viloria could be sent to Columbus or DFA’d to open up another spot on the 40-man roster. Then, Cleveland could bring up Richie Polacios or Tyler Freeman, adding another versatile bat off the bench that can play multiple positions. What’s not to like?
I know it’s been seven games, and the Guardians are off to the second-best start in the league. But there’s so much room to improve, and this little tinkering to the roster, spurred by the promotion of Naylor, would undoubtedly make this lineup a force to be reckoned with.