The 2022 Guardians skated to a division title in the American League Central and did so with a lineup unlike any other in MLB. Cleveland’s offense was a triumph for fans of small ball and the older-school game that relied far less on the long ball than today’s brand of three-true-outcomes offenses. The ’22 Guardians put the ball in play more than any other team in baseball, and it wasn’t close. Their 18.2% strikeout rate was the lowest in MLB and made them one of just four teams shy of 20%. The others — the Astros (19.5%), Mets (19.7%) and Cardinals (19.9%) — weren’t particularly close. Cleveland ranked 15th in the Majors in runs scored despite ranking 29th in home runs. Their 119 steals (a number that seems pedestrian in light of this year’s rule changes) ranked third in MLB.
Fast forward a season, and the lineup has a similar complexion but staggeringly different outcome. The 2023 Guardians are MLB’s most punchless team, ranking dead last with 24 home runs — just eight more than Pete Alonso has by himself. Cleveland’s 150 runs scored entering play Friday led only the Tigers (143), and the Guards had played two more games than Detroit. Cleveland enters play ranking 28th in the Majors with a .228 batting average and .302 on-base percentage, and 30th out of 30 teams with a .341 slugging percentage.
As The Athletic’s Zack Meisel pointed out Wednesday (Twitter link), Cleveland catchers have been astonishingly anemic at the plate. Prior to Cam Gallagher’s single yesterday, the Guardians hadn’t received a hit from their catcher since the calendar flipped to May; Gallagher was hitless in 32 at-bats entering play yesterday, while Zunino is currently 0-for-27 with 21 strikeouts this month.
The Guards opened the season surprisingly carrying three catchers: Mike Zunino, Gallagher and Meibrys Viloria. Even after designating Viloria for assignment, they added another catching option in 27-year-old David Fry. The Guardians have gotten less production from behind the dish than any team in the American League. Zunino, Gallagher, Viloria and Fry have combined for a .127/.225/.231 slash (29 wRC+) while serving as catcher, striking out in 38.4% of their plate appearances.
All of this comes at a time when Cleveland has one of baseball’s top catching prospects thrashing Triple-A pitching. Bo Naylor has appeared in 39 games with Columbus, taken 180 turns at the plate and batted .264/.400/.521 with nine home runs, eight doubles, a triple, a sky-high 18.3% walk rate and a 22.6% strikeout rate. The bar he’d need to clear in order to be an upgrade could scarcely be lower, yet he’s still in the minors while Cleveland backstops endure a nearly three-week-long hitless streak.
The problem isn’t confined to the team’s catching corps, although that’s the most glaring weak point in the lineup. Still, here are the Guardians’ position-by-position rankings, in terms of wRC+, at the other positions on the diamond: first base (90, 21st in MLB), second base (86, 19th in MLB), shortstop (79, 23rd in MLB), third base (116, sixth in MLB), left field (97, tied for 13th in MLB), center field (74, 28th in MLB), right field (37, 30th in MLB), designated hitter (80, 26th in MLB).
Jose Ramirez (.285/.364/.457) remains excellent and is the one still decidedly above-average hitter on the roster, although even he’s having a down year by his MVP-caliber standards. Steven Kwan has been solid in left field (.269/.356/.353) but not as good as during last year’s sensational rookie campaign. No other player who’s taken 20 plate appearances for Cleveland this season has been better than league-average at the plate.
Some of this was to be expected. The Guardians surely weren’t hoping to get much offensive production from catcher — though they hoped for more than this — and knew Myles Straw’s contributions would come more from his elite center field defense and baserunning. But every hitter on the roster has taken a step back from last season’s performance.
The offseason signing of Josh Bell to a two-year, $33MM deal looks regrettable with the Guardians getting closer to the Padres version of Bell from 2022 than the Nationals version. In 177 plate appearances, Bell is walking at a huge 14.7% clip but has batted only .227/.339/.3535 with three home runs. His 19.8% strikeout rate would be the second-highest of his career, and his .127 ISO (slugging percentage minus batting average) is 33 points south of the league average and 67 points below his own career mark. Bell is hitting the ball on the ground at a staggering 58.6% rate. He can opt out of his contract at season’s end, but it would take a drastic turnaround for that to seem realistic.
Meanwhile, Cleveland has optioned last year’s primary right fielder, Oscar Gonzalez, to Triple-A after he followed up last year’s .296/.327/.461 debut with a .192/.213/.288 start to his sophomore season. MLBTR’s Anthony Franco has already outlined shortstop Amed Rosario’s struggles, and Josh Naylor hasn’t been any better at first base. Will Brennan, called up to replace the demoted Gonzalez, has barely been an improvement.
The Guardians’ commitments to defense-, contact- and/or speed-oriented players at multiple positions isn’t inherently flawed, but it only works if the rest of the lineup is capable of supporting players like Straw and Zunino (or, in last year’s case, Austin Hedges). That hasn’t been the case in 2023. The Guardians’ team strikeout rate is up nearly two percentage points (from 18.2% to 19.8%), while their team BABIP is down 20 points (from .294 to .274).
That might not seem like much — perhaps an extra strikeout and one extra ball in play turned into an out per game — but the margin for error is thin when there’s practically no one on the team with even average power. The Guardians are completely reliant on balls in play to manufacture runs, which leaves them at the mercy of sequencing and hitting when it counts. Entering play Thursday, they’d batted .228/.296/.325 as a team with men on base. Last year, they hit .258/.319/.394 in such situations.
These struggles all come in spite of remarkably good health among the team’s collection of position players. The Guardians don’t have a position player on the injured list at the moment and in fact haven’t placed a hitter on the Major League injured list all season. They’ve still had injury troubles — Triston McKenzie, Aaron Civale and Sam Hentges have most notably been sidelined — but they’ve come exclusively on the pitching side of the roster.
As for how they can turn things around, the avenues to doing so aren’t plentiful in mid-May. The trade market simply isn’t active this time of season — and that was true even before an expansion to a 12-team playoff field likely further emboldened fringe contenders to take a wait-and-see approach to trade deadline season.
Over the past half decade, there have been just two mostly regular position players who were traded in May and had not first been designated for assignment. The Rays shipped Willy Adames and righty Trevor Richards to the Brewers for right-handers Drew Rasmussen and J.P. Feyereisen back in 2021. Tampa Bay was also involved in a 2018 swap with the Mariners, centering around Denard Span and Alex Colome. That’s not to say a deal can’t and won’t happen, but history tells us it’s overwhelmingly unlikely. Cleveland can certainly monitor the DFA and waiver market, but with a 20-23 record they’re not close to top waiver priority right now.
If the Guardians are going to right the ship, they’ll need to promote from within. Bo Naylor is an obvious candidate to join the big league roster and quite arguably should already be there. Tyler Freeman hit .329/.468/.482 in 109 Triple-A plate appearances before being called up to the roster but is being used in a bench role. He’s not a home run threat himself and the team isn’t going to bench Andres Gimenez seven weeks into a seven-year extension, but there are still ways to get Freeman into the lineup more regularly. Top outfield prospect George Valera only just made his season debut in Triple-A a week ago, as he missed the first several weeks of the year recovering from hamate surgery. If he’s able to approximate the .264/.367/.470 output he showed in Double-A last year over even a small sample, there’s good reason to give him a look in right field over both Brennan and Gonzalez sooner rather than later.
The Guardians are rather fortunate that they’ve managed to remain as close to .500 as they have. They’re sitting on a -31 run differential, while the Pythagorean win-loss system and BaseRuns both put their expected record at 18-25. Their sub-par run differential and sub-.500 record come despite the fact that Baseball-Reference grades their strength of schedule to date as the third-easiest in MLB.
Cleveland has already gone full speed ahead with a youth movement in the rotation, giving prospects Tanner Bibee, Logan T. Allen and Peyton Battenfield prominent rotation spots. Some of that’s been necessitated by injury, but the Guardians weren’t shy about optioning one of their most experienced starters, Zach Plesac, to Columbus when he wasn’t performing up to expectations. Given the state of their lineup, it shouldn’t be long before they take a similar approach on the position-player side of the roster. And, if some of those young bats don’t break through, the Guardians ought to be on the lookout for controllable bats heading into the trade deadline — particularly with so much young pitching at their disposal. The schedule is only going to become more difficult from here on out, and the current group of hitters gives little reason for optimism.
Curly Was The Smart Stooge
Move the franchise to Baltimore!…..Oh wait, been there, screwed that up. Sometimes the disbelief never goes away
Well they won me $100 today. Bet 20 for kopech uver 5.5 ks. Bet Cleveland to win and bet stros to win. For $180 if my bet worked. Kopech had 5 ks, Cleveland was winning and astros were up 2-1. Fhe app offered me to cash out now for $102 and im happy i did
What are they going to be called when they move to Charlotte? On the bright side, at least it won’t be the Guardian’s.
Cleveland just signed a new 15 year lease in 2021 to stay in Cleveland through 2036. The Guardians will remain the Guardians and in Cleveland.
They used this time to find out about some guys. They found out Brennan is likely not an mlb player. Arias had a good day yesterday and will play more im sure. They found out Gimenez and straw may be flukes but they signed them long term and cannot bench them. Bell still shows enough signs so far to keep playing him. Bringing Bo Naylor up to at least catch part time and DH other times seems like the best boost they have. Can’t be afraid to make a trade. Either prospects or Beiber must be traded for an above average RF.
Have to agree with your assessment about Will Brennan. Great attitude and personality, but he just can’t hit – period. Might as well just bring Brad Zimmer back. Bieber will be their best trade chip, and I could see them sending him to STL for Tyler O’Neill and a couple prospects. Like I told a fellow CLE fan earlier this week – they could add Judge and Betts to this lineup, and it still wouldn’t be enough.
Cleveland would have little interest in Tyler O’Neil. He is a short term asset, always hurt, and hasn’t been good since 2021.
The team is lacking power but they also have been unlucky with a 274 babip and their power will also get better when the weather heats up.
I’m not saying the offense will be good but they still can make contact (3rd lowest k rate in majors) and I feel their power won’t be that bad (still bottom 5 but not by far last) and overall I think their offense could be about average if some of their good players are heating up.
I can’t fathom why any MLB franchise believes Gallagher is a MLB-calibre player.
Their organization expects very little offensively from their catchers, but what they’ve gotten this year falls way below even that benchmark. They just don’t value power, and for that reason they have to make up for it in many different ways. They’ll have to bring up Naylor soon and toss Gallagher back onto the scrap heap, but I’d be surprised if they make a trade for anyone who has even like 25 HR/year power.
I still think Rafael Marchan would be a good fit for CLE when he gets healthy.
While not the dreaded IL, Jose Ramirez has been on the bereavement list sine the 14th of May.
I was surprised Kwan’s line was league average exactly. I thought the league average numbers were probably up this year but I guess not. At least not by much
While the Guardians certainly have been frustrating this year, I don’t think it is quite time for an overhaul. The team usually waits until the end of June to make moves when they think a player has a chance to pull it together. If they get to July 1st and still can’t hit, though, I think they will likely make some moves.
Terry Francona’s Cleveland teams seem to do much better in the second half of the season – that is what happened last year. We should get a sense where they stand going into the second half then make decisions.
These articles are always so well-researched and we’ll-written. A pleasure to read. Thanks!
Motor City Beach Bum
You are going to be stuck fighting all season long with my Tigers for 2nd place and finishing above .500. Sure didn’t see that one coming but I’ll take it.
Unfortunately this pretty much mirrors exactly what Guardians fans have been saying all year. They’re probably stuck with Zunino because I can’t see them DFAing him after giving him a guaranteed deal over the offseason. He was brought in to provide good defense behind the plate and to add some power, and he’s done neither so there’s no point to still keep him. Today is the second day in a row Gallagher is starting instead, and he can at least call a good game behind the plate but his offense is also generally terrible. I really can’t think of a single reason Naylor hasn’t been called up yet other than trying to milk any possible value they can from Zunino. But let’s face it, it’s a sunk cost.
Most improvements (if any) will just have to come from guys hitting better. Rosario has at least been a little better lately and he’s a notoriously slow starter anyway (I’d still rather play Rocchio though), and I think Gimenez can pick it up too but won’t be getting benched anyway. Bell has been a little better since the first week or two but he needs to step it up. The Angels series might have been what Josh Naylor needed but even at his best he’s a streaky hitter who’s unplayable against lefties. Kwan isn’t too far from where he was expected to be, but his approach is always the same and he still makes great contact so I think he can figure it out. I’ve liked Brennan but he hasn’t been it so far, and they’ve been experimenting with Gabriel Arias in right as a result.
What’s most frustrating is that Francona hasn’t used the bench very much. Guys like Freeman and Fry (as well as Arias) could be serviceable contributors if they were getting consistent at bats, but for the most part they’ve been left rotting on the bench. I’ve said for a while now that they can’t just keep everyone and hope things figure themselves out, because they have a ton of young guys for a few spots so it’s hard for any of them to figure things out when they’re all sitting on the bench or toiling away in AAA. They need to stop hoarding all the prospects and try to move a few for someone who can help them now. It’s not doing anyone a bit of good to keep everyone in limbo.
One minor correction to point out: Will Brennan has been on the roster all year and wasn’t promoted to replace Gonzalez. They were in a platoon beforehand.
I would bring up naylor too. Not sure if he can really catch but I think he can hit. he has allowed 41 stolen bases with just 6 CS this year in AAA so that might be an issue and maybe he is Carlos Santana and has to move off catcher quickly but you have to try it.
You’re right – Brennan has been on the roster since opening day. The organization thinks highly of him and want him to be a regular in the lineup, but he needs to go down to find his bat. Too many times we see teams pitching around those ahead of him, and he ends up striking out. Arias MIGHT give them more offense, but the absolute fact is there is no one in the organization who can fix the problem in RF any time soon.
Yeah I agree. I still like Brennan (he’s one of those guys who I just like more than I should), but if we’re being honest he’s probably a fourth outfielder. Especially considering they need a power bat with Kwan and Straw in the same outfield. But I do think a quick reset in Columbus could be really good for him.
Their only immediate options to fix right field would be Brennan suddenly figuring it out, Arias hitting like he has the past few games over a prolonged period of time, and Oscar Gonzalez coming back up and immediately picking up where he left off last year. None of those scenarios seem very realistic. Maybe Arias can keep hitting and he definitely has the arm/athleticism for right, but it’s hard to expect a guy to stay at a position he just started playing.
Maybe Valera eventually comes up and takes the job, but I think we’re a few weeks from that being a possibility since he just came back from injury and he needs a lot of at bats to get caught up.
Play the Game
This team will win the Central
They very well might, if they can get to .500
that’s all it might take on the year.
Bo Naylor is a good example of philosophical differences between the Guardians and say the Angels. If he were part of the Angels, he would’ve already gotten the starting job by now and hyped as the next Mike Piazza. I’m sure the Guardians are doing the right thing.
It’s the catching aspect that the Guards want him to improve on.
They don’t want Gary Sanchez behind the plate.
You could have used this title for the past five years. (Ok, I guess it would’ve been a different team name)
Guards & O’s could lineup on a deal at some point. Too much hitting in Baltimore & a surplus of pitching in Cleveland once the rotation gets healthy.
The only caveat is that most of the bats we could send to Cleveland are left handed. Which isn’t ideal for them. Colton Cowser is playing his way into a ML job but there’s not one available in Baltimore at the moment.
Signing Zunino and Straw to multi year deals is a puzzle for me. Must be some analytical analysis done that only the Guardian front office was privy too