The Guardians announced Tuesday that they’ve signed right-hander Ben Lively to a one-year, Major League contract. Zack Meisel of The Athletic reports that Lively will be guaranteed just north of the league minimum on the deal, earning a $750K salary in 2024. Lively is represented by Meister Sports Management.
Lively, 31, spent the 2022-23 seasons with the Reds after a three-year run with the Samsung Lions of the Korea Baseball Organization. The entirety of that 2022 campaign was spent in Triple-A, but Lively was selected to the Majors early last season and pitched 88 2/3 innings for the Reds, starting a dozen games and making another seven relief appearances. He posted an unsightly 5.38 ERA in that time, although a disproportionate amount of the damage against him came in one start on Aug. 1, when the Reds left him out there to take an eye-popping 13-run shellacking at the hands of the Cubs.
Lively’s 20.6% strikeout rate was a bit south of the league average this past season and he averaged just 90.9 mph on his fastball. However, he also issued walks at a tidy 6.5% clip, and the Guards are probably less concerned with his 2.03 HR/9 mark than other teams might’ve been, given the spacious nature of their home park. Lively still seems likely to struggle with the long ball at times, but pitching half his games at Progressive Field should help mitigate some of those struggles.
The signing of a Lively is in some ways out of character for the Guardians, who haven’t inked a free-agent starting pitcher to a Major League contract since signing Gavin Floyd to a one-year deal nearly a decade ago. Lively could well be viewed as a swingman and may not even be a lock to make the Opening Day roster, however, as he also has a minor league option remaining. Cleveland has been able to eschew free agent starting pitching entirely for the better part of a decade, thanks largely to the organization’s nearly unrivaled pitching development prowess.
Lively’s role with the Guards likely depends on how the remainder of their offseason shakes out. As it stands, he’d likely serve as a swingman or sixth starter behind Shane Bieber, Tanner Bibee, Triston McKenzie, Logan Allen and Gavin Williams. However, it’s also quite possible that Cleveland trades Bieber between now and Opening Day, as is the organization’s tendency with notable starting pitchers who are approaching the open market.
For instance, Bieber will reach free agency next winter, and the team has previously traded top starters like Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Mike Clevinger before any qualified to become free agents. Trades of Bieber, closer Emmanuel Clase (on whom the Guardians are reportedly willing to listen) and/or other members of the roster could net further competition for the back of the rotation, as could future free-agent signings. For now, however, Lively joins that mix. No team makes it through a full season with only five starters anyhow, and both Bieber and McKenzie missed substantial time in 2023 due to elbow injuries. Even if he opens the year as a long reliever, Lively has a good chance to start games at some point, as injuries arise.
While it’s commonplace for players returning from the KBO or from NPB to have clauses in their contracts allowing them to become free agents despite lacking six years of MLB service time, MLBTR has confirmed that that’s not the case with Lively, because of the fact that he’d already spent a year back in the big leagues. As such, he’s now under Guardians control via arbitration for another five seasons. If he spends the entire year in the Majors, he’d likely be arbitration-eligible next offseason as a Super Two player. Lively is currently at 1.133 days of MLB service time, and this year’s Super Two cutoff was 2.118. It’s feasible he could spend a week or two in the minors and still reach Super Two status, but he’d be right on the bubble with even a brief stay in the minors.