Guardians first baseman Josh Naylor drew trade interest from the Cubs, Mariners, and Pirates during the Winter Meetings, Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports. There is no indication that the Guards were in serious talks about a deal, and as Hoynes notes, “for an offensively challenged club, it seems strange that they’d consider trading [Naylor]. But…it never hurts to listen.”
The 26-year-old Naylor hit .308/.354/.489 with 17 homers over 495 plate appearances last season, marking his second straight year of quality production. The first baseman has a 124 wRC+ in 993 PA since Opening Day 2022, and this past season saw Naylor develop into more of a well-rounded hitter than just a power bat. Naylor’s average and OBP increased greatly from 2022, and Naylor also cut back on his strikeouts without losing any of his power. While he doesn’t walk much, that approach isn’t unusual for a Cleveland team that prioritizes contact above all.
It seems quite possible that Naylor hasn’t yet reached his ceiling, given that his early-career development was stunted by both the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and then a nasty fractured ankle that cut short his 2021 season and cost him a bit of time at the start of the 2022 campaign. Naylor also missed about a month due to an oblique strain in 2023, and still generated positive numbers despite a very slow start over the season’s first six weeks.
Naylor’s 128 wRC+ actually outpaced Jose Ramirez’s 123 mark for tops among all Guardians regulars, and Josh’s younger brother Bo Naylor also delivered a 124 wRC+ in the smaller sample size of 230 PA. These were among the few highlights in an overall dismal year at the plate for the rest of Cleveland’s roster, as the lack of hitting and multiple injuries in the rotation left the Guardians with a mediocre 76-86 record in Terry Francona’s final season as manager.
As Hoynes noted, moving Naylor would seem counterintuitive for a Guardians team that is seemingly looking to upgrade the lineup. However, as is often the case with the Guards’ moves, there is a financial element at play. Naylor is projected to earn $7.2MM in the second of three arbitration years, and he is eligible to hit free agency after the 2025 campaign. While Ramirez is a notable exception, the Guardians generally doesn’t try to retain star talent unless they’re locked up to extensions earlier in their careers, so Naylor could potentially join a long list of notable Cleveland players who were dealt with at least one year remaining of team control.
Just this offseason, it is widely expected that the Guardians will deal Shane Bieber since the former Cy Young Award winner will be a free agent in the 2024-25 offseason. Cleveland has already moved Cal Quantrill to the Rockies in a salary dump type of trade, and this winter in particular carries extra financial uncertainty for the small-market Guardians since the Diamond Sports Group’s bankruptcy proceedings could see the team lose their TV deal. Since their payroll isn’t expected to go up, that leaves the front office with some tricky decisions to make in figuring out how to improve the roster as a whole.
With this in mind, Naylor becomes a very interesting possible trade chip in an offseason market thin on big bats, particularly in free agency. Any number of teams would certainly have interest in a 26-year-old who might not have hit his offensive peak yet, and a new club would have two years to perhaps ink Naylor to an extension.
Based on what Cleveland usually seeks out in such trades of established talent, the Guardians could try and obtain an MLB-ready who can help the team in 2024, as well as a longer-term prospect or two. Turning to the clubs in Hoynes’ report, the highly-ranked farm systems of the Pirates and Cubs could certainly have the assets to fit what would surely be a big asking price from the Guardians.
Acquiring Naylor would instantly fill the Cubs’ needs at first base, and provide a nice pivot after Chicago missed out on Shohei Ohtani. Cubs GM Carter Hawkins is very familiar with Naylor, as Hawkins previously worked in Cleveland’s front office before heading to Wrigleyville following the 2021 season. As much as Jed Hoyer’s front office has been hesitant about dealing from its stash of young talent, two years of relatively inexpensive control over Naylor is a tempting proposition, and it would allow the Cubs to then devote extra dollars to free agency.
There is some irony in the Pirates looking to land a player from another team looking to cut costs, given Pittsburgh’s long history of low payrolls. However, the Bucs have a clear need at first base, and acquiring Naylor would also be another major sign that the team is preparing to finally return to contention. That push might even come as early as 2024, given the NL Central’s state of flux.
The Mariners are looking for a particular kind of offensive upgrade, as Naylor would fit Seattle’s prioritization of good contact hitters. The M’s have already parted ways with Teoscar Hernandez, Eugenio Suarez, and Jarred Kelenic in their pursuit of more contact, and acquiring Naylor could also give the Mariners cover to trade current first baseman Ty France.