The Guardians hit the All-Star Break on a high note, sweeping the Tigers in a weekend series to pull to 46-44. Coupled with a slump from the Twins, Cleveland moved within two games in the AL Central standings and pulled to within 2 1/2 in the Wild Card race. They’ve outscored opponents by five runs over the course of the year, about what one would expect from a team that’s two games above .500.
Slightly above-average play is enough to hang around the playoff picture, particularly for a team in the sport’s weakest division. The team has done enough the front office is likely to explore ways to add over the coming weeks, particularly if they hold their own during the next three series. Cleveland comes out of the break with sets against the White Sox, Red Sox and Rays — each of whom is a direct competitor in the Wild Card race (with Chicago obviously also a division threat).
The Guardians have been a middle-of-the-pack team in most areas. They rank 17th with a 99 wRC+, with their .249/.314/.384 slash line checking in a percentage point below average. They’re a matching 17th in runs scored (391) and in rotation ERA (4.00) and strikeout/walk rate differential (13.4 percentage points). The bullpen and defense each check in around the back half of the top ten by most metrics.
Despite their generally well-rounded nature, a few positions stand out as areas for possible upgrade. Like most contenders, they could look to add some help at the back-of-the-rotation. Aaron Civale has been hit hard and went on the injured list last week after spraining his wrist; sixth starter Konnor Pilkington has struggled, and Zach Plesac has been just alright over the past two seasons after his excellent 2020 showing. There’s room for a back-end pickup, particularly if Civale is set to miss an extended stretch, but the Guardians have an abundance of pitching prospects and a strong developmental track record that could reduce their urgency to play for a top-of-the-market arm.
On the position player side, both center field and catcher have been offensive black holes this year. Neither seems like an area the Guardians will feel they have to address, though. Myles Straw signed a long-term extension just last winter. He’s not hitting, but he’s at least playing excellent defense that’ll keep him towards the bottom of the order on a regular basis. That’s even more true of Austin Hedges, but Cleveland has long prioritized a catcher’s work behind the plate than what he does at it. They’d probably be interested if the A’s made controllable defensive stalwart Sean Murphy available. A deal for the top rental, bat-first Willson Contreras, feels less characteristic, although one can make an argument for the Guardians to make an earnest pursuit of the Cubs backstop.
Even if they sit out the center field and catcher markets, the Guardians should be in on the top corner bats available this summer. They’ve gotten decent production out of the corner outfield, with rookies Steven Kwan, Óscar González and Nolan Jones all hitting the ground running. Cleveland doesn’t have to push any of them out of the lineup immediately, but there’s enough uncertainty with each that regression in any case wouldn’t be a huge surprise. Kwan has settled in as an average hitter after an otherworldly first week. González, who has missed the past three weeks with an intercostal strain, has solid numbers and obvious physical tools but has chased over 40% of pitches he’s been thrown outside the strike zone through his first 32 MLB games. Jones has an excellent minor league track record but just ten games of big league experience thus far.
Each of Kwan, Jones and González (when healthy) has done enough to stay in the lineup, but adding a complementary veteran with a longer track record would still fit. In the near term, that player could step in at designated hitter and cut into the playing time of Franmil Reyes, who is having by far the worst season of his career. Through 243 plate appearances, Reyes owns a .216/.259/.357 line. He’s hit eight home runs but is striking out at a 39.9% clip that ranks as the highest rate of any player with 200+ trips to the plate. That’d be insufficient production even were he bringing other value to the table, but it’s particularly striking for a player who’s primarily limited to designated hitter duties.
There are reasons for the Guardians to hold out some hope for Reyes to get back on track. He’d been an above-average hitter during each of his first four big league seasons, including a 37-homer campaign back in 2019. He’s still posting huge exit velocities and hard contact numbers, no surprise for a player of his strength. Reyes is swinging and missing more than ever this season, but he’s never been a good contact hitter. He’s thrived in the past in spite of strikeouts based on his power, and his numbers have ticked up since he returned from a three-week injured list stint. After hitting .195/.255/.278 through mid-May, Reyes owns a .245/.265/.468 showing over the past month.
He’s still struck out in 40 of his 98 plate appearances since returning, however, drawing only three walks over that stretch. With the Guardians right on the fringes of contention, they may not be able to afford him too much leeway to cut his swing-and-miss to more manageable levels. Adding a veteran bat would allow manager Terry Francona to reduce Reyes’ immediate playing time while guarding against regression elsewhere around the diamond. An outfield-capable player may be ideal given the limited track records of González and Jones, but were the team to add a DH/first base-only type, Reyes himself could be a corner outfield option if he can get on track. Josh Naylor has been excellent at first base this season, but he entered 2022 with an inconsistent MLB track record. As with the outfielders, there won’t be any thought of replacing Naylor right now, but some insurance in case he tails off in the second half could be welcome.
As far as potential targets, Josh Bell is one of the game’s most obvious trade candidates. The Nationals are sure to move him, although the Guardians could balk at taking on the approximate $3.9MM remaining on his salary from the deadline onwards. Trey Mancini is having a nice year and would draw interest if the Orioles deal him, but Baltimore’s recent run of solid play at least raises a question about his availability. The Marlins could fall far enough out of the picture to deal Garrett Cooper, who’ll only make around $1MM for the stretch run and is arbitration-eligible for a final time next winter. The D-Backs are willing to trade Christian Walker. He’s not much costlier than Cooper and can be kept around for two more years via arbitration.
None of that group is likely to require an overwhelming prospect return, and the Guardians abundance of pitching prospects and upper minors infielders could allow them to part with an interesting player or two from the middle tier of the farm system. None would burden the long-term payroll outlook, and they’d go a long way towards fortifying a solid 2022 roster that finds itself right in the thick of the playoff race with two and a half months left.