Major League Baseball used to advertise that "chicks dig the long ball," and if that is true, then chicks really weren't fans of the Cleveland Guardians last season. The Guardians took a small-ball approach to score runs, combined with a low strikeout rate, and the result was finishing 29th in MLB in team home runs.
In 2022, the Cleveland Guardians hit a total of 127 homers; only the Detroit Tigers had fewer (110) while playing in spacious Comerica Park. The leader of the Guardians was José Ramírez (29), followed by Josh Naylor (20), who was working his way back from a brutal injury in 2021. Needless to say, the Guardians won't be called the Cleveland Crushers anytime soon.
Yet somebody has to lead the team in home runs, so in 2023, who would you wager that will be? The odds-on favorite has to be Ramírez. He led the club in 2022, and besides his talent, his availability created more opportunities. Ramírez also led the team in games played at 157, ahead of Naylor's 122. Ramírez has only finished one season since 2016 with less than 20 homers. His consistency with the long ball, and the team's latest emphasis on lineup protection, gives him the lead as the early team favorite to be the home run champ of Cleveland in 2023.
Selecting the runner-up or the main competition for Ramírez is where things get tricky. In 2022, we'd have told you that Franmil Reyes made sense. Well, he didn't even finish the season in Cleveland. So let's hope for better preseason projections.
My front-runner to push Ramírez is Josh Bell. Coincidentally, he should be protecting Ramírez in the lineup most days. However, like Ramírez, Bell is extremely durable. Last year, while splitting time between Washington and San Diego, Bell played in 156 games, and 144 the year before. His home-run numbers are sporadic, and switching leagues into the AL for the first time in his career could pose problems for his power.
Regardless, he had a 37-homer season in 2019, and in each MLB season in which Bell hit under 20 home runs, he went over the 20-homer mark the following year. In 2022, he totaled 17 home runs, which trends for him to hit north of 20 homers in 2023. Lineup protection and the adjustment to new AL pitchers will be a challenge, but Bell is already leading the Guardians this spring with four home runs.
The next submission to potentially lead the Guardians in home runs is last year's runner-up: Josh Naylor. As stated, Naylor was working his way back from a bad leg injury from 2021, which may have limited some of his games, but he still got 20 homers and was extremely durable. In 2023, Naylor will have everyday at-bats, a healthier offseason, and more lineup protection. Where Naylor is placed in the lineup will be interesting, but he's likely to consistently bat with runners on base, and maybe with another power threat in Mike Zunino behind him. What makes Naylor more of a long shot than Bell is simply the lack of data and consistency to say his 20-homer showing is a lock to repeat or improve. His power will always be there, and it wouldn't shock anybody for him to crack the 30-homer mark in 2023.
Outside of the top three candidates, there are some dark horses that present interesting intangibles that, if all things go right, could shock Jose Ramirez and be the new home-run king of Cleveland. Zunino isn't far removed from a 34-homer season in 2021. He had another 30+ home-run season in 2017, showing that his power is very real, and can change the game at any time. However, he had injuries in 2022, and is coming off a season in which he only played 36 games, so he'll need to show early that he's regained his 2021 form.
Lastly, there is Oscar Gonzalez. Sure, he only had 11 home runs in partial time in 2022, but his power is evident. What is also evident is his high strikeout rate. The strikeouts are what may prevent Gonzalez from getting enough at-bats to compete for a team lead in home runs. In 2022, the Guardians were starving for power, or the mere threat of power. In 2023, the new additions and increased depth in the outfield may prevent Gonzalez from having as many at-bats if his strikeout rate remains significantly high.
So in conclusion, Ramírez is the clear favorite if you were betting on the 2023 home-run king of Cleveland. Yet, there are long shots worth noting. Bell and Zunino have 30-homer seasons under their belts, and Naylor and Gonzalez have the raw power to have 30-homer seasons should they get the at-bats to do so.
Who do you wager will lead the Guardians in home runs in 2023?