Though not all hope is lost for the organization - and I'd expect them to be right back in the postseason mix next year - the 2023 season was no doubt a disappointment for the Cleveland Guardians.
And while some things did go well and there is hope for the future, plenty more went wrong in this lost season. Here are five of the most disappointing things about the Guardians' 2023 season.
Not making the playoffs
This is, of course, the goal for every team (allegedly) every season, and to miss out on the playoffs is always a disappointment. But for the Guardians, it hurts just a little bit more to fall short in a tremendously weak AL Central and not give manager Terry Francona the send-off he deserved. The Minnesota Twins were simply the last team standing among a pile of wreckage, and Cleveland had every opportunity to take the division. But the fact is, the Guardians were too inconsistent a team and made too many unforced errors in player evaluation to give themselves a chance, and for that, a long, hard look in the mirror is required this offseason.
Not giving the young guys more of a chance
In 2022, the Guardians debuted 17 rookies on their way to the ALDS. And I know what you're thinking - plenty of young players found their way to Cleveland this year, too. But the utilization of some of them was baffling, and only leaves more questions heading into 2024.
The Guardians want to be absolutely sure on Gabriel Arias before either moving on or committing to him in some capacity moving forward. That much I get. But it's fairly clear what type of player he is likely going to be at the major-league level. In 402 career plate appearances now, Arias is slashing .207/.282/.348 with 11 home runs, 16 doubles, 31 RBI, 129 strikeouts, and a 76 OPS+. His tantalizing power and great defense will give him a role on the team, but it would be wise to give guys like Brayan Rocchio and Tyler Freeman more at-bats at short moving forward.
As for Bo Naylor, well, he showed in September why the Guardians should have called him up sooner and simply given him the everyday catching role. Naylor ended the year with a September slash line of .304/.444/.607 with four home runs, five doubles, 13 RBI, four stolen bases, and 14 walks to ten strikeouts in 72 plate appearances.
Watching the bullpen implode
The Cleveland Guardians tied for first in blown saves this season with 34. Most concerning here is that Emmanuel Clase (12) and Trevor Stephan (eight) ranked first and third in blown saves, respectively. A big part of the back-end of the bullpen's struggles is the fact that Cleveland played in a ton of close games, going 27-32 in one-run games. That's 58 one-run games, second only to Cincinnati's 63. Being in so many tight contests puts a lot of stress on a bullpen each and every day, with very little room for error.
So on some level, one could look at the struggles of the bullpen as a byproduct of a struggling offense and too many close games. But Clase and Stephan will have to tighten things up regardless if the Guardians want to have any shot at contention again next year.
Watching cast-off players excel elsewhere
Nolan Jones, Will Benson, and Junior Caminero. Those are three players the Guardians could desperately use right about now, all of whom were dealt away by Cleveland for what essentially amounts to nothing at the moment, no matter how strongly you feel about Juan Brito's future. It's incredibly tough to watch Jones get Rookie of the Year votes, or to see Benson finally tap into his potential with the Reds. And Caminero, well, he became one of the most electric players in the minors this season, and now finds himself on the Tampa Bay Rays' postseason roster.
Losing all three of them makes ones start to question the player development and evaluation arm of the Guardians' organization, at least from an offensive standpoint. What is it about these other teams that were able to help these young players take their game to the next level, and how could the Guardians not see it themselves? Every team is allowed to whiff on a move here and there, but at the moment, this is an egregious lack of player development that played a large part in the team's struggles this season.
The disappointing Josh Bell signing
The Guardians signed Josh Bell to a two-year, $33 million deal last offseason, and it looked like Cleveland found another power bat to help give Jose Ramirez some protection in the lineup. But Bell struggled with the Guardians, hitting just .233/.318/.383 with 11 home runs and 48 RBI in 347 at-bats. Bell was eventually traded to the Marlins for one-time top prospect Khalil Watson in what was essentially a salary dump, ending yet another underperforming free agent's tenure in Cleveland.
The fact is, not everything will go perfect in a baseball season. All teams make personnel mistakes and even the best teams make plenty of missteps along the way. But the Guardians consistenly operate with a razor-thin margin of error, and it bit them in the behind terribly this season. Hopefully, Cleveland recognizes this and works harder to put the team back on a playoff course in 2024. Even with a roster that is still so young, there is plenty of talent - especially on the pitching side. It's probably best to look forward to that than continue dwelling on another year without a World Series title.