What’s Next for the Cleveland Guardians?
The MLB Winter Meetings are in the books, and the Cleveland Guardians went about addressing a couple of their biggest needs of the offseason in a typically under-the-radar way.
After missing out on first baseman Jose Abreu, who signed a three-year, $58 million contract with the Houston Astros, the Guardians pivoted to Josh Bell, who may actuall be a better fit anyway, and might also offer higher upside. This addresses their need for increased power, allows them to continue to play Josh Naylor against right-handed pitching, and brings a veteran presence with playoff experience onto a very young roster.
Veteran leadership is valued by Terry Francona, which seems a little odd considering the Guardians played with the youngest roster in baseball last year. However, the team relied heavily on veterans Shane Bieber, José Ramírez, Bryan Shaw, and Austin Hedges. Bell and newly signed catcher Mike Zunino will continue to give a young roster the veteran leadership Francona seeks. Bell is a two-time Roberto Clemente Award nominee and will immediately increase the production from Cleveland's first base and DH slots, even if he does not return to his superstar level of 2019, when he hit 39 home runs and 39 doubles.
Similarly, after missing out on catcher Sean Murphy, who was an ideal fit, Cleveland patiently waited as other teams filled their needs before signing Zunino to a one-year, $6 million deal. Zunino is coming off thoracic outlet surgery in his non-throwing shoulder and only saw limited action in Tampa Bay last season, but has traditionally offered above-average offensive production with excellent defense. He is a perfect fit for a transition to prospect Bo Naylor, as he should be able to handle full-time catching duties until Naylor is ready, and then move to a timeshare, and eventually a backup role if Naylor’s performance dictates it. On a short-term deal with a relatively low base salary, it is another quality signing that is likely under-appreciated at this point.
The Guardians are not done, and what they do moving forward could be bigger than what most of us are expecting. They have shown a willingness to spend more dollars in the past – this is evident by a competitive multi-year offer to Jose Abreu before he signed with the Astros. They are also loaded with minor-league talent who will not all find homes in Cleveland.
The Guardians have recently resisted trading prospects and it has created a constant stream of high-end talent onto their major-league club. However, they have also missed out on trading prospects at their peak and lost value on players who did not have a major impact for them; just consider the returns on the Nolan Jones and Owen Miller trades. I would look for them to swing at least one impactful trade for a major-league player using multiple prospects this offseason, and they have two obvious areas where they still should be looking to improve.
Where Else Can the Guardians Improve This Offseason?
Cleveland should be looking to upgrade offensively in center field. This could be accomplished by adding a center fielder via trade, or by adding a left fielder either by trade or free agency and shifting Steven Kwan to center, where his defense would certainly play. Trading away Myles Straw as part of a package, or in a different trade, could help to clear some payroll and open a roster spot. Some possible options they may explore include trading for the Pirates' Bryan Reynolds, who would give them another dynamic weapon in their lineup, or signing Michael Conforto, who is looking for a short-term deal to re-establish his value and return to the free-agent market again next year.
The Guardians could also benefit from upgrading the third spot in their rotation. They should be looking to trade from their plethora of position player talent for a younger, controllable starting pitcher, such as the Marlins’ Pablo López or Tampa Bay’s Tyler Glasnow. Both the Rays and Marlins are working within payroll constraints and value young position player talent, and the Guardians could offer Cal Quantrill or Zach Plesac back in a deal in order to offset the loss to their rotation.
There are a variety of other options across a wide range of costs, both in terms of dollars and/or prospects that it would require to obtain players. Regardless, the Guardians have had a great start to an offseason coming off of a surprisingly successful season in 2022. It is exciting to think about what the future holds as they become more willing to add to their payroll, and leverage the prospect capital they have built up to improve an already excellent and deep major-league team.