A new name represents a new era in Cleveland baseball, and the club will look to mark their inaugural season as the Guardians with a return to playoff contention.
Arbitration-eligible players (projections from MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
After eight consecutive winning seasons, the Guardians finally dropped under the .500 mark with an 80-82 record in 2021. With the lineup still producing runs at an inconsistent rate, Cleveland couldn’t make up the difference thanks to some injury absences in its rotation. Simply getting Shane Bieber, Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac healthy and productive for all of 2022 will likely do more to boost the team’s chances than almost anything it could do on the transaction front, but the Guardians now face an interesting set of decisions this offseason.
Or, maybe, it just boils down to one overarching decision — how much are the Guardians willing to spend? Jose Ramirez represents the lone guaranteed contract on the books, and the arbitration class projects to earn $23.5M, and even that total could be reduced by a non-tender or two. Between that group and the pre-arbitration players on the rosters, Roster Resource estimates roughly a $49.2M payroll for the Guardians next season, which is well below the $124M spent in 2019. A return to the (comparatively) big expenditures of 2017-18 may not happen until a new minority owner is found, but both team chairman/CEO Paul Dolan and president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti have said the Guardians will have a larger payroll to work with in 2022.
Even if spending rises to just around the $100M mark, that gives Antonetti’s front office some real leverage in building around a strong core. Ramirez is one of the game’s best players, Franmil Reyes boasts tremendous power, Emmanuel Clase emerged as a strong closer, Amed Rosario and Myles Straw look like quality everyday regulars and the rotation is one of baseball’s best when healthy. If anything, Cleveland’s rotation might even be deeper than usual — Cal Quantrill and Triston McKenzie each had some quality outings while filling in for the injured starters in 2021, so either or both could build on this experience to take another step forward as the fourth and fifth starters.
Cleveland usually doesn’t spend much on its rotation due to the team’s knack for developing homegrown arms, but in the wake of 2021’s injuries, investing on a low-cost veteran might not be a bad idea. Eli Morgan and Logan Allen are already on hand as more starting depth, but a Wade LeBlanc-esque swingman type could also work, as that pitcher could then also help out a bullpen that will need to cover some innings.
Bryan Shaw, Blake Parker and Nick Wittgren are all headed for free agency, representing 183 1/3 frames of work out of last year’s pen. As with the starters, the Guardians aren’t prone to making any big outlays for relief pitching, so it’s probable to expect some minor league signings competing with the team’s in-house pitchers come spring training. It also isn’t out of the question that the Guardians could target a younger and more promising relief candidate as part of trade talks with other clubs a la how they landed Clase from the Rangers as part of the 2019 Corey Kluber deal.
Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger and Carlos Carrasco have all been traded over the last few years, so it can’t be ruled out that the Guardians could look to deal another starter in exchange for a top-tier younger bat. However, the circumstances are a little different now, as while those past starters were all becoming increasingly expensive, Cleveland’s current rotation group is still pretty affordable. Bieber and Quantrill are the only ones who have even reached arbitration eligibility, and Bieber is projected for a $4.8M salary in his first trip through the arb process. This is significantly below what Bieber would have earned if he’d been able to follow up his 2020 Cy Young Award-winning campaign with a similar season, so his injury-plagued year cost him both on the field and in the pocketbook.
In the wake of such a year, could Bieber perhaps be more open to a contract extension? The ace right-hander turned down the Guardians’ offers last spring, but there would seem to be room for a deal considering how the team has no official money committed for the 2023 season and beyond. If not Bieber, expect the Guardians to look into extensions for any of Civale, Plesac, Quantrill or McKenzie, given how the organization has long prioritized locking up talent earlier in their careers.
Since Bieber is under control for three more years at arbitration-controlled prices, he isn’t the star whose future has drawn the most speculation. Ramirez is under team control for only two more seasons (2023 via another club option) and is already making a significant salary, even if $12M is a bargain for the third baseman’s outstanding production. 2024 will be Ramirez’s age-31 season, so even if the Guardians are open to a splurge on what would easily be the biggest contract in franchise history, the question remains if they would take that plunge for Ramirez specifically, even if he isn’t showing any signs of decline.
Extensions talks with Ramirez have yet to yield any progress, and any number of teams are ready and willing to step up with huge trade offers if Cleveland did decide to move their superstar. Like with the starters, however, the timing doesn’t seem quite right for a Ramirez trade, since his contract isn’t prohibitive and the Guardians are planning to contend next year. Barring a ridiculous trade offer that was too good to ignore, the Guardians are more likely to deal Ramirez next winter, if they end up dealing him at all.
With this in mind, expect Ramirez to return as the linchpin of a Cleveland lineup that underwhelmed in 2021 and was no-hit on three (or, unofficially, four) separate occasions. Despite the lack of overall punch, some interesting pieces are already in place — Ramirez is set at third base, Reyes will mostly serve as the DH and play some corner outfield, Straw will be the everyday center fielder, Bobby Bradley is slated for at least a share of first base duties and Rosario will play somewhere, provisionally at shortstop for now.
We’ll begin with the unsettled middle infield, as Rosario might end up as the regular shortstop or be used in a super-utility role that would see him also get time in the outfield or as part of the crowded second base mix. Rosario’s future at shortstop may hinge on how quickly prospect Gabriel Arias is able to develop his bat to match his already-excellent defense, and Arias took a nice step forward by hitting .284/.348/.454 with 13 home runs over 483 plate appearances at Triple-A last season. If Arias still needs more seasoning, Andres Gimenez could also get more shortstop time if he hits as he did during his 2020 rookie season with the Mets, as opposed to his disappointing numbers with Cleveland last year.
Gimenez joins Owen Miller, Yu Chang and Ernie Clement in the second base mix, with some type of platoon likely. (Gimenez is a left-handed hitter, and the others are righty bats.) Top prospect Tyler Freeman will make his Triple-A debut in 2022, so he is expected to factor into the big league roster sometime closer to the end of the season. There is enough volume at the position that a veteran offseason addition probably isn’t likely, since the Guardians will use spring training and the season itself to see what they have with this collection of players, with Freeman tentatively penciled in as their second baseman of the future.
While adding a regular middle infielder might not be feasible, adding a regular to the middle infield group could be more of a fit. Chris Taylor would be a nice addition to just about any team’s roster, but he might fit particularly well onto a Guardians team looking for stability in the middle infield and at both corner outfield slots. If Taylor is too expensive, a veteran utility type like Josh Harrison or Leury Garcia could provide some of the same versatility (if much less of a hitting ceiling) at a far lower price.
Since Cleveland’s biggest-ever free-agent signing is still Edwin Encarnacion’s three-year, $60M pact from the 2016-17 offseason, it remains to be seen if the Guardians are willing to spend to the level necessary to land a notable free agent even in the second tier of this year’s market. Looking at some potential outfielders who could be on the Guardians’ radar, Taylor (projected for four years and $64M), Kyle Schwarber (four years, $70M), and Seiya Suzuki (five years, $55M) would all likely require contracts that might be out of the team’s comfort zone. Avisail Garcia, Mark Canha or perhaps even Michael Conforto could be more viable options; but signing Conforto would require Cleveland to surrender a draft pick via the qualifying offer.
Again, the lack of future money on the books could make the Guardians more willing to stretch the budget to include a premium bat. The Encarnacion signing came about due to something of a perfect storm of circumstances — there wasn’t a ton of interest in Encarnacion’s market, and Cleveland felt the time was right for a big strike having just lost a heartbreaker of a World Series in 2016. Coming off a rare losing season, and with some financial flexibility, and with the wholly unique environment of debuting a new team name, Cleveland could again see the winter as a unique opportunity to land a big name.
Conversely, spending on multiple needs is a viable and maybe more realistic strategy than acquiring only one high-priced player. Landing two starting corner outfielders, for instance, would perhaps be the swiftest way of solving an outfield depth problem that has plagued Cleveland for years. Straw does represent one box checked, as the trade-deadline acquisition offers on-base ability, speed and a solid glove that should play well as the Guardians’ center fielder.
As for the other members of the 2021 outfield, it seems like the Guardians are trending toward more or less cleaning house. Daniel Johnson has already been designated for assignment, while Bradley Zimmer is a non-tender candidate and Oscar Mercado is also no guarantee for the Opening Day roster. Assuming at least one more full-time outfielder is acquired to join Straw in the everyday lineup, Cleveland can still potentially fill the rest of the outfield depth from within. Factors to consider include Rosario’s utility value, how much time Reyes might see outside of the DH spot, prospect Nolan Jones’ development as an outfielder and Josh Naylor’s readiness in the wake of major ankle surgery.
The Guardians declined their club option on Roberto Perez, so the two sides might now be parting ways after Perez’s eight seasons in Cleveland. Austin Hedges represents a cheaper in-house option as a similar glove-first, light-hitting catcher, and while Perez’s $7M price tag was too rich for the Guardians’ blood, a reunion at a lower salary could be possible. With Hedges and prospects Bo Naylor and Bryan Lavastida in the pipeline, Cleveland is likely to consider only shorter-term veterans like Perez for its needs behind the plate, unless the front office feels a more bold long-term answer is required. Catching depth isn’t exactly easy to find, but speculatively, teams like the Blue Jays (who are often linked to Cleveland on the rumor mill) or the Braves line up as trade partners.
First base could also be a position of need, depending on how comfortable the Guardians feel about Bradley. In his first season of regular playing time, Bradley hit 16 homers but batted only .208/.294/.445 and struck out in 99 of his 279 plate appearances. To begin the season, Cleveland could let a platoon of Bradley and Chang or Miller handle first base duties, then perhaps look for first base help during the year if an upgrade is required. If the club wants to move now, however, someone like Anthony Rizzo might fall within the Guardians’ price range in free agency, and the likes of Matt Olson, Luke Voit or J.D. Davis could be available targets on the trade market.
Even considering the extra payroll space involved this winter, it’s probably safe to assume the Guardians will stick largely to the trade route rather than free agency, considering how Antonetti’s front office has generally found quite a bit of success in swinging trades over the years. Rival clubs will surely ask about Freeman, Arias, Jones and other top minor leaguers in negotiations, and Cleveland will be hesitant about moving any of the names at the top of its board just because of how much emphasis the team puts on building from within. Since several of the Guardians’ most notable prospects will likely hit the majors within a year or two, it does give the team some flexibility in deciding who to keep or who to dangle as a trade chip, especially since most teams prioritize big league-ready young talent.
No shortage of options are available to the Guardians this winter, which is why any thoughts of dealing Ramirez or Bieber to spark a rebuild seem extremely premature. While the AL Central promises to be more competitive in 2022, the Guardians certainly must feel like winning the division crown is possible, and even having a healthy rotation last year would’ve gone a long way toward reducing the 13-game gap between Cleveland and the first-place White Sox. If you’re looking for a metaphor for the launch of the Guardians name, maybe 2021 was the bridge year necessary to get the team past the pandemic and back to some semblance of business as usual, since the Guardians are likely to be aggressive in getting back to winning baseball.