The Guardians have called up catching prospect Bo Naylor to the 26-man roster, according to MLB.com’s Jesus Cano (Twitter link). Naylor is scheduled to play on Sunday, as Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer writes that Naylor will be behind the plate for Tanner Bibee’s start against the Diamondbacks.
This is the third time Naylor has been called up from Triple-A, as he appeared in five games last season and one game earlier this season as the extra 27th man for a doubleheader. The 23-year-old is still looking for his first hit after going 0-for-10 against MLB pitching, yet Naylor surely now seems to be poised for a much longer stint as a regular in the Guardians’ catching mix.
Naylor’s brief cup of coffee during the 2022 season seemed to hint that he’d be part of Cleveland’s lineup as early as Opening Day 2023, especially since the Guardians non-tendered Luke Maile and let Austin Hedges depart in free agency. However, the Guardians looked elsewhere for catching during the offseason, getting involved in the Sean Murphy trade talks before ultimately signing Mike Zunino to a one-year, $6MM deal, and Cam Gallagher and Meibrys Viloria to minor league deals.
This trio and utilityman David Fry have seen almost all of the action behind the plate for the Guardians this season, with disastrous results. Cleveland’s catchers have combined to hit a measly .168/.238/.270 over 248 plate appearances, translating to a league-worst 40 wRC+. Viloria was already released in May, and the bigger move came yesterday, when Zunino was designated for assignment (thus clearing a roster spot for Naylor).
It’s safe to assume that Gallagher or Fry will still get some playing time as Naylor acclimates to the majors, and Cleveland’s coaching staff might also want a first-hand look at the defensive adjustments Naylor has been working on at Triple-A. Questions about Naylor’s glovework have been asked for much of his pro career, yet scouts and pundits have generally been impressed with his improvements. This season at Triple-A Columbus, Naylor got off to a rough start in terms of throwing out baserunners, and has allowed 55 steals in 66 chances to date.
The Guardians have strongly prioritized defense from the catcher position in recent years, as the team has been willing to accept little to no offensive production from the likes of Hedges or Roberto Perez as long as the backstops kept delivering Gold Glove-caliber work. That being said, with Zunino struggling so badly both offensively and defensively, the Guards may have decided that even if Naylor’s defense is still something of a work in progress, it’s worth the tradeoff of getting his bat into the lineup.
There isn’t much left for Naylor to prove at Triple-A, after hitting .255/.379/.507 with 28 homers over 560 PA with Columbus over the last two seasons. While naturally Naylor won’t be expected to immediately replicate that production against Major League pitchers, it’s hard to imagine he won’t be some kind of an upgrade over the mediocre numbers posted to date by the Guardians’ catchers. In the bigger picture, the Guards’ lineup is struggling on the whole, which is the primary reason for the club’s uninspiring 32-37 record. However, Cleveland remains only 2.5 games out of first place in the weak AL Central, so there’s still plenty of time for the team to mount a turn-around.
If Naylor remains on Cleveland’s roster for the remainder of the 2023 season, he’ll bank 107 days of big league service, giving him 113 days of MLB service time in total. This means that in calling him up on June 17, the Guardians will likely have prevented Naylor from reaching Super Two status, and Naylor won’t receive an extra year of arbitration eligibility. It’s safe to assume that this played a role in the team’s decision to promote the catcher, considering how cost-controlled young talent has been the foundation for the traditionally low-spending Guardians.