First baseman Josh Naylor has been a mainstay of the Guardians’ lineup for the past two seasons but free agency isn’t far over the horizon. He’s now over four years of major league service and slated for the open market after 2025. He was recently asked at Guards Fest about the possibility of an extension and it doesn’t appear as though there’s much smoke there.
“I’m going to leave that to them. You can ask them that question,” Naylor said, per Ryan Lewis of the Akron Beacon Journal. “Obviously, Cleveland’s an incredible place to play. I love my teammates, I love my coaches and, yeah, my brother’s here, too, which is awesome.”
Naylor, 27 in June, has hit 37 home runs over the past two seasons. His 7.2% walk rate is subpar but he’s been tough to strike out, with a 14.9% rate in that department. He slashed a combined .282/.336/.471 over those two campaigns for a 124 wRC+, indicating he was 24% better than league average over that span. He was also given solid grades for his glovework at first, helping him tally a combined 4.3 wins above replacement over those two years, in the eyes of FanGraphs.
Looking at the standard operating procedure of the franchise, there’s more precedent for a trade than an extension in this situation. As they look to continually compete with small budgets, the club has often traded players approaching free agency, bringing back younger and cheaper players. That’s how Naylor came to the club in the first place, as the Guards flipped Mike Clevinger and two other players to the Padres for a six-player package that included a young Naylor. In addition to Clevinger, they have also traded players like Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Francisco Lindor and others as their club control was dwindling.
They have given some extensions over the years, but usually for players earlier in their careers. Players like Andrés Giménez, Emmanuel Clase, Trevor Stephan and Myles Straw have signed extensions with the club in recent years, but each of those guys agreed to their deals before reaching arbitration when their earning power was still fairly low. Naylor qualified for arbitration a year ago and made a salary of $3.35MM in 2023. He’s already agreed to a $6.5MM salary this year and will be slated for one more raise next year.
The notable exception to these trends is José Ramírez, who signed a second extension to stick with the club instead of getting traded or becoming a free agent. That seems to have been a perfect storm situation, with Ramírez having admitted that he was told the club couldn’t pay him what he was worth. But since he was happy in Cleveland and wanted to stay, he decided to leave money on the table and accept an extension rather than winding up on the trade block like so many others before him.
Those circumstances all suggest Naylor is more likely to be traded than extended. Beyond his contractual situation, there’s also the fact that the club may have a ready-made first base replacement. Kyle Manzardo was acquired from the Rays in last summer’s Aaron Civale deal, yet another instance of an arb-eligible player being shipped out of Cleveland for prospect help. Manzardo is a first baseman who has yet to make his major league debut but has hit well throughout his minor league career thus far. Like Naylor, he is generally tough to strike out with the ability to hit a few bombs.
The club doesn’t have a strict designated hitter at the moment, so both could fit into a lineup. That will likely be the plan if Manzardo hits well in Spring Training this year or early in the 2024 season. But if he is able to successfully prove himself as a capable big league bat, it would fit with Cleveland’s typical M.O. for the Naylor trade rumors to pick up steam. This winter, he’s already reportedly drawn trade interest from the Cubs, Mariners and Pirates.