The Guardians have long run a payroll at or near the bottom of the league, with a payroll in the bottom third of the league in each of the last four seasons and eleven of the last fourteen years per Cot’s Baseball Contracts. 2023 was no exception to that, as the club’s payroll sat at just $89MM, the sixth-lowest figure in the majors. Zack Meisel of The Athletic reports that the austerity of recent seasons isn’t expected to change in 2024, as the club expects to run a payroll at a similar level next season.
RosterResource projects the Guardians for a $94MM payroll in 2024 as things stand, meaning that Cleveland essentially has no room for further additions without cutting costs elsewhere on the roster. As Meisel notes, further additions are all but necessary in the outfield if the Guardians hope to compete in 2024 following a 76-86 performance that saw them finish ahead of only the lowly White Sox and Royals in the notoriously weak AL Central. Those struggles can primarily be traced back to the club’s woeful offense, which produced a wRC+ of just 92 in 2024, MLB’s ninth-worst figure. Those offensive struggles, in turn, connect back to a disastrous outfield situation; Cleveland’s outfielders slashed just .253/.312/.344 in 2023, with a 84 wRC+ that narrowly avoids being the worst in the majors thanks to Kansas City’s figure of 82.
With no payroll space remaining and a projected outfield of Steven Kwan, Myles Straw, and Ramon Laureano headed into 2024, Meisel suggests that Cleveland brass may have their hand forced into freeing up payroll space with a trade of longtime ace Shane Bieber or even shopping closer Emmanuel Clase, whose $20MM extension prior to the 2022 season has become one of the league’s best values thanks to back-to-back All Star campaigns the past two seasons. MLBTR’s Matt Swartz projects Bieber for a $12.2MM salary in his final trip through arbitration this offseason, while Clase is slated to earn $2.9MM in 2024.
Trading Clase, Meisel notes, would require the Guardians to be “overwhelmed” by an offer for the 25-year-old. That’s hardly a surprise, given the five seasons of affordable club control remaining on the closer’s contract and his resume over the past three seasons, which includes a sterling 1.97 ERA and 110 saves in 131 chances. That being said, it’s worth noting that the Guardians swung a deal earlier this offseason to acquire Scott Barlow from the Padres. Though Barlow is coming off a down year split between the Royals and Padres in 2023, the righty was among the better closers in the game for the Royals in 2021 and 2022, with a 2.30 ERA and 3.13 FIP. Speculatively speaking, the addition of Barlow could make the Guardians more amenable to dealing Clase, as they would have a clear internal option for the ninth inning with closing experience lined up to take over for him headed into next season.
Bieber, on the other hand, would not be as difficult to pry away, as Meisel suggests that Bieber’s trade value has depreciated in recent years and the Guardians would be “selling low” on Bieber in any trade. From 2019-22, Bieber was among the league’s most effective starters with a 2.91 ERA and 2.95 ERA across 588 1/3 innings of work. Things took a turn for the worse this year, however, as the 28-year-old made just 21 starts due to struggles with elbow inflammation that left him shut down for much of the summer. What’s more, Bieber’s results were diminished when he was able to take the field: his 3.80 ERA and 3.86 FIP, while still above average, were pedestrian by his standards and he posted a career-worst 20.1% strikeout rate. Those potential red flags haven’t stopped teams from showing interest in Bieber’s services, as at least the Cubs and Reds have both inquired after the right-hander this winter.
That said, with arms such as Dylan Cease, Tyler Glasnow, and Corbin Burnes rumored to be available this offseason, it’s easy to see why Bieber may be a less appealing trade target than the aforementioned names. A strong start to the season from Bieber could substantially improve his stock on the trade market, meaning it could make plenty of sense for the Guardians to hold onto the righty entering the season before re-evaluating at the deadline. Such a plan, however, would likely require the club to get creative in their search for outfield solutions. While the club has a surplus of young infield options, Meisel suggests that the club is reluctant to thin out its depth in that area of the roster.
Meisel does note one potential ray of hope for the Guardians regarding their payroll situation: their broadcasting revenue situation. The Guardians are one of many teams thrust into an uncertain revenue situation by the bankruptcy of Diamond Sports Group, and a report last month indicated the Diamond could drop the Guardians from their broadcasting deal headed into 2024. While that could leave the club without as much as $60MM in broadcast revenue next season, Meisel also notes that the club could find itself with enough additional room in its baseball operations budget to make some minor upgrades to the roster without cutting additional salary as they “gain additional clarity” on their broadcasting situation.