The Guardians surprised most onlookers by sprinting to an AL Central title last season, pulling away from the Twins and White Sox with an excellent September. Cleveland quickly dispatched the Rays in the Wild Card series before losing a closely contested Division Series against the Yankees.
There were myriad reasons for the Guardians’ success. Recurring themes were plus defense around the diamond and a general willingness to trust young position players to run with their opportunities. That was also the case in the outfield, a unit that was average overall but had a couple standout players.
Cleveland seems mostly content running things back with the same group. The Guardians have added at catcher and first base, bringing in Mike Zunino and Josh Bell via free agency. They’ve not gone outside the organization for an outfielder to this point. One could argue for adding a veteran bat considering most of the in-house candidates have limited MLB track records, and perhaps Cleveland eventually adds a lower-cost depth type like Chad Pinder or Robbie Grossman. There’s probably not an impact player coming, though, so it’s worth looking through the numerous in-house options who could vie for playing time on the Progressive Field grass.
Kwan is the most established of the Cleveland outfielders after a stellar rookie season. He hadn’t been a top-tier prospect early in his professional career but continued excellence as a minor leaguer garnered him a spot on FanGraphs’ top 100 going into last season. Kwan even exceeded those expectations, hitting .298/.373/.400 with more walks than strikeouts over his first 638 MLB plate appearances. He paired that with elite defensive marks in left field, earning a Gold Glove and a third-place finish in Rookie of the Year balloting in the process. Kwan has below-average power but does everything else so well he looks like a perfect top-of-the-lineup option for manager Terry Francona. So long as he’s healthy, the Oregon State product is the Guardians left fielder.
Straw seems likely to get another crack in center field, at least initially. Acquired from the Astros at the 2021 trade deadline, Straw stepped in as Cleveland’s primary center fielder from there forward. He’s an elite defender and baserunner and looked to have taken a step forward offensively that season, combining for a .271/.349/.348 slash between the two teams. The Guardians rewarded him last spring with a $25MM contract extension that runs at least through the 2026 campaign.
The 28-year-old’s first full season in Cleveland was mixed. He continued to play excellent defense, with Statcast crediting him for 13 outs above average for his work in center field. Like Kwan, Straw secured his first Gold Glove. The offensive output plummeted though. He hit only .221/.273/.291 across 596 plate appearances. By measure of wRC+, only Jonathan Schoop and Geraldo Perdomo were less effective hitters (minimum 500 PA’s).
Straw posted some of the league’s worst batted ball metrics and didn’t connect on a single home run. His defense and baserunning means he doesn’t need to hit much to be a worthwhile everyday player, but the Cleveland front office is surely hoping for a little more output at the plate. Straw doesn’t seem in imminent danger of losing his job, but posting another sub-.600 OPS through the All-Star Break could lead the front office to consider deadline possibilities to add a little more offensive firepower in center field.
Gonzalez, who turns 25 today, was yet another success story in a loaded Cleveland rookie class. The right-handed hitter posted a .282/.308/.506 line through 41 games at Triple-A Columbus to earn his first MLB call in late May. He stuck in the majors from then on and immediately hit the ground running. Over 382 trips to the plate, Gonzalez hit .296/.327/.461 with 11 home runs and 27 doubles. He had a couple heroic moments in the playoffs as well, connecting on the walk-off home run to eliminate Tampa Bay and a game-winning two-run single against the Yankees. Those clutch hits overshadowed a mediocre .226/.250/.323 overall batting line in 32 postseason plate appearances.
It was a strong enough season to put himself on the map as a potential long-term piece in the Cleveland outfield, and he’s the likeliest player to open the year in right. Yet there’s a fair bit less certainty in Gonzalez sustaining his excellent rookie form than there’ll be in Kwan’s case. Gonzalez has never been a favorite of most prospect evaluators thanks to questions about his aggressive approach and below-average corner outfield defense. Cleveland left him unprotected in advance of the Rule 5 draft as recently as the 2021-22 offseason as a result.
Gonzalez’s great year quiets those concerns to some extent, but they’re not completely answered. He swung at nearly half the pitches outside the strike zone he saw as a rookie, placing him near the top of the league in that regard. His 3.9% walk percentage was among the lowest in the game. Perhaps Gonzalez has special enough hand-eye coordination and power that it won’t matter. He’ll need to prove it in a second extended run against MLB arms.
If Kwan, Straw and Gonzalez is Cleveland’s Opening Day outfield, Brennan seems the player most likely to break into the mix off the bench. The left-handed hitter fits the Guardians’ mold of high-contact bats, having never struck out at even a 17% clip at any minor league stop. He went down on strikes just 12.2% of the time at Triple-A last season, hitting .316/.367/.471 with nine home runs and 15 steals across 433 plate appearances. He earned a late-season MLB look and played well in his first 11 games.
Baseball America ranked Brennan the #10 prospect in a deep Cleveland farm system this offseason. The outlet praises his contact skills, athleticism and arm strength but questions his power potential. Brennan can play center field but BA suggests he’s probably a stronger defensive fit in the corner outfield. It’s easy to point to some similarities between him and Kwan, although the latter’s minor league track record was a little better. Brennan’s likely a better hitter than Straw right now and could be a candidate to take increased center field reps if Straw continues to struggle offensively — particularly since Straw can come off the bench later in games when the Guardians are looking for their best defensive unit to protect a lead.
A bat-first utility option, Palacios also made his MLB debut in 2022. He didn’t break in as well as most of the other Cleveland rookies, hitting .232/.293/.286 without a longball in his first 123 trips to the dish. It wasn’t a great first look but Palacios had a quality .279/.371/.458 line with better than average strikeout and walk marks through 45 games at Triple-A. He can play the corner outfield spots and offer some depth on the right side of the infield.
Valera, 22, is more likely a midseason possibility than a candidate to break camp. He’s on the 40-man roster but only has 42 games of Triple-A experience. After a strong Double-A showing, he hit .221/.324/.448 with nine homers in 179 plate appearances at the top minor league level, walking at a quality 12.3% clip against a 25.1% strikeout rate. Valera is the #4 prospect in the organization at BA and regarded as a potential high-OBP corner outfielder at his peak; whether he’ll be ready to contribute to a win-now Cleveland club at any point in 2023 depends on how well he shows in his first full season at Triple-A.
A former first-round draftee, Benson is a high-risk upside play at the back of the 40-man roster. His minor league track record has been wildly inconsistent. He’s coming off a great 2022 showing in Triple-A, where he mashed at a .278/.426/.522 clip with 17 homers and 16 steals through 401 plate appearances. He earned a brief MLB look but sputtered to a .168/.252/.200 line over 28 games. The left-handed hitter has always intrigued with massive power potential in a 6’5″ frame and a very discerning eye at the plate. That’s been paired with huge strikeout tallies at times throughout his minor league career, although he only fanned in a roughly average 22.7% of his trips in Columbus last year.
That’s seven players, all of whom are on the 40-man roster and controllable for a long while. Cleveland’s particularly deep in left-handed options (only Straw and Gonzalez hit from the right side). There was enough depth in that regard the Guardians felt comfortable sending Nolan Jones — another lefty bat who profiled as a corner outfielder with José Ramírez entrenched at third base in Cleveland — to Colorado for infield prospect Juan Brito.
While there’s an abundance of interesting controllable outfield options in Cleveland, none has a lengthy track record of big league productivity. Kwan looks like the safest bet after his fantastic rookie year. Everyone else comes with question marks of varying degrees.
Straw and Gonzalez seem likely to get the first crack at jobs alongside Kwan again, though they’ll have some intriguing young players on hand as contingency plans. Supplementing the group with a veteran righty bat could be a nice luxury addition for president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and his staff before the season gets underway. Any pickup would figure to be a low-cost complement to Cleveland’s various in-house young players, who’ll again be entrusted with significant roles as they look to repeat as division champs.