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Offseason In Review: Cleveland Guardians

The Guardians kicked off the offseason with a name change and did little else until April rolled around, when they locked up some key talent to extensions. The team will try to vie for a playoff spot on the strength of a homegrown rotation and one of the youngest rosters in the game.

Major League Signings

Options Exercised

  • Exercised $12MM club option on 3B Jose Ramirez (2022 salary is now $22MM under terms of contract extension)

Trades and Claims

Extensions

  • Signed 3B Jose Ramirez to a five-year, $115MM extension
  • Signed RHP Emmanuel Clase to a five-year, $20MM extension (deal also includes a pair of club options on Clase’s first two would-be free agent seasons in 2027 and 2028)
  • Signed CF Myles Straw to a five-year, $25MM extension (the deal, which wasn’t finalized until a few days into the 2022 season, also includes a pair of club options on Straw’s first two would-be free agent seasons in 2027 and 2028)

Notable Minor League Signings

Notable Losses

A new era of Cleveland baseball began last November in dramatic fashion, as the team officially declared itself the Cleveland Guardians on November 19. The name change ratcheted up expectations, with many fans hoping their club’s offseason would be every bit as busy as the team’s new logo. The Guardians’ offseason activity does bear some resemblance to the team’s rebrand, but not exactly in the “busy” sense. Instead, the Cleveland’s winter moves were like its rebrand in that they were thoughtfully executed, but far from a home run with much of the fanbase.

The Guardians wound up being largely inactive, but few would have predicted that based on the team’s November 19 activity. That’s not just because that date coincided with the team’s official reboot, but because of the huge roster churn that took place on the same day. For the league at large, November 19 served as the deadline to protect eligible players from the Rule 5 Draft that typically takes place during December’s Winter Meetings. To protect a player from being snatched by another team in the draft, they must be added to the Major League team’s 40-man roster. Usually this means a few highly regarded prospects and maybe an upper-level reliever or two near their debuts are squeezed onto the 40-man roster. Cleveland, however, added a whopping 11 young players to its roster.

With turnover on more than a quarter of the team’s total roster, some risks needed to be taken. The first risk came when Cleveland designated seven players for assignment to make room for their protected minor leaguers. Among those designated, several remain in the organization; most however, do not. Among the group of exiled players was outfielder Harold Ramirez, who produced at replacement level while starting the majority of the team’s games in the outfield last season. President of Baseball Operations Chris Antonetti did swing cash considerations from the Cubs in a deal for Ramirez, at least, and was likely betting on a younger player to exceed the departing outfielder’s production.

The second, bigger risk taken by the Guardians’ front office was protecting this many minor leaguers at all, considering the Rule 5 Draft was in jeopardy (along with the 2022 season itself) thanks to the league’s implementation of a lockout. Hindsight is 20-20 and it’s hard to fault a team for guarding players it believes in, but the Rule 5 Draft ultimately was scrapped this year after a new CBA was agreed upon.

This development means that Cleveland now has a huge contingent of players on the 40-man roster who didn’t need to be protected and who are devoid of Major League experience coming into 2022. These players are unlikely to be jettisoned so quickly after being protected, and that may put Cleveland in a bind when they need to make a roster move during the season. One could certainly argue this stiff roster construction is why veteran catcher Sandy León, who signed a minor league contract with the team on November 22 (and would eventually need a 40-man roster spot) didn’t make the Opening Day roster. 

Slightly alleviating the tight roster situation is the fact that three of the team’s protected youngsters— Steven Kwan, Bryan Lavastida, and Konnor Pilkington— proved advanced enough to make the Major League team. As some of the trio get demoted, as two members already have, Cleveland’s roster situation will further stiffen. None of this trio figured to shoulder a full workload on the team however (Kwan is penciled in for a platoon role, Lavastida is the backup catcher, and Pilkington is a long reliever/ depth starter), which should minimize the team’s need to find outside help to supplant them. 

This roster turnover was one of the main storylines for Cleveland before the lockout began in December simply because there weren’t many other Guardians-themed storylines to follow before then. Transactionally, most of the team’s early offseason moves pertained to non-player personnel, as the club saw Assistant GM Carter Hawkins depart for the Cubs, assistant pitching coach Ruben Niebla depart for the Padres, and Chris Valaika of the Cubs replace Ty Van Burkleo as the team’s primary hitting coach. That last hiring is perhaps the most interesting personnel change to follow throughout the 2022 season, as the Van Burkleo-tutored team of 2021 was a bottom-half unit in the eyes of most offensive metrics. The veteran hitting coach helped coax numerous offensive breakouts during his nine-year tenure as Cleveland’s hitting coach, but that responsibility will now shift to the 36-year-old Valaika.

Beyond those moves, there were some minor league deals doled out in Cleveland, including accords for the aforementioned Sandy León and ex-Phillies reliever Enyel De Los Santos. Additionally, some of the players jettisoned off the roster as Rule 5 protection collateral were scooped off of waivers by other teams. A minor trade with the Rays for right-handed pitcher Tobias Myers, plus a deal with Milwaukee that would ultimately net the team versatile catching prospect David Fry, served as the team’s only action on the trade market. In house, the team also made swift decisions to decline catcher Roberto Perez’s club option and pick up the $12MM club option on their best player, Jose Ramirez. 

Picking up the club option on Ramirez was largely a formality, and very easily could’ve acted as a precursor to an offseason trade of the third baseman. Both the Blue Jays and Padres were teams known to have been aggressive in acquiring the switch-hitting MVP candidate, who remained under team control through 2023 via another affordable club option. Instead, the team doubled-down on their commitment to Ramirez and signed him to a five-year extension on the eve of Opening Day. The terms of the extension exercise and rework the club option salaries a bit, and amount to Ramirez being owed $141MM over the next seven seasons. 

Despite this being the first nine-figure deal to ever hit Cleveland’s books, the extension does appear to be something of a bargain for the club. Ramirez will make no more than $25MM in any year of his deal, and in the first two of his would-have-been free agent years will make less than $20MM. The three time All-Star is signed through his age-35 season and of course may succumb to injury or decline throughout the deal’s tenure. If he keeps up anything close to his 162-game pace of 5.8 bWAR, however, Cleveland should continue to reap surplus value from their star player.

Keeping Ramirez in the fold through 2028 is a huge boon to a Guardians lineup that has plenty of options but little certainty in the other eight spots. Looking at Ramirez’s companions around the infield is likely to yield some puzzled expressions from fans, as none of these players come anywhere close to the third baseman in terms recognizability or production. That said, the team did spend in March to bolster one position, catcher, with veteran talent via free agency. 

The rub, though, is that the catcher was 31-year-old veteran Luke Maile, who signed for just under $1MM to back up defensively-gifted starting catcher Austin Hedges. As a fellow right-handed hitter, Maile won’t make for an ideal platoon-mate with the offensively-limited Hedges. Offense is hardly Maile’s calling card either, as his career .568 OPS is a notch beneath Hedges’ career .590 OPS mark. Both players figure to at least form a strong defensive unit behind the plate, but Maile will need to put a hamstring strain incurred during spring training behind him for the tandem to last on the team’s active roster.

Elsewhere on the diamond, no infield position appeared more up for grabs heading into the 2022 season than first base. Former third-round pick Bobby Bradley manned the position 68 times last season and showed prodigious pop (16 home runs in 74 total games), but struck out at an untenable 35.5% clip and struggled against lefties.  Just yesterday, Bradley was designated for assignment. Josh Naylor remained on hand as another left-handed option, but was recovering from a rough 2021 ankle injury and entered the offseason as perhaps the team’s top choice in right field. Owen Miller and Yu Chang are right-handed hitting complements to both Naylor and Bradley, but neither showed much in 200 plus plate appearances last season and may ultimately settle in as utility infielders.  Miller is doing the most he can, as he’s off to a scalding start through 63 plate appearances.

It’s not a group without promise, but Cleveland’s passivity with regard to first base may loom largest if this trio fails to build on their 2021 performances. That’s because the trade market had no shortage of first base alternatives, headlined by new Brave Matt Olson, for who Cleveland was reportedly “in the mix.” Additionally, Mets corner infielder J.D. Davis was thought to be on the trading block after they bolstered their defense this offseason. Meanwhile, Yankee-turned-Padre Luke Voit was traded for a modest return after the team re-signed Anthony Rizzo. Davis and Voit both sport a 128 OPS+ over the past three seasons and come with three more seasons of control, but there was no indication Cleveland targeted either player.

While a lack of movement at first base may seem dubious, the same can’t be said for the middle infield, where Amed Rosario and Andrés Giménez currently head the team’s depth chart. Neither player lit the world on fire with their 2021 performances, but both players have shown above average skills at the MLB level and possessed a fair bit of hype when they were in the Mets’ system. Their primary backups, Chang and Ernie Clement, don’t carry strong offensive track records, but they, along with Miller, should offer solid enough depth if Rosario begins to see more work in left field or either starter needs to sit for an extended stretch. Even if the team lacks faith in the collection of middle infield talent at the major league level, they have a wealth of highly regarded infielders in the upper minors. Gabriel Arias, Tyler Freeman, and Brayan Rocchio each frequent numerous top prospect lists and should continue along their path to Cleveland’s infield of the future if they aren’t traded first to patch holes elsewhere.

Like first base, the outfield group is short on stability, but apparently not enough to deter Cleveland’s front office from rolling with it. Kwan and Naylor are set to see the bulk of work in the outfield corners, with Rosario and Oscar Mercado picking up reps along the way. Franmil Reyes too may see some outfield starts, even if he’s best limited to DH duty. The main story in the incumbent outfield group though is the team’s early April extension of center fielder Myles Straw. The speedy outfielder’s five-year, $25MM extension contains two club options that may keep him on Progressive Field’s grass through 2028. The 27-year-old Straw, owner of nine professional career home runs, isn’t likely to add much offense to an outfield that has a questionable amount of it, but he should provide above-average base running and glovework, at worst, for the duration of his new contract.

Extension aside, the lack of activity on the outfield front is glaring. It wasn’t for a total lack of trying though, as the team had reportedly been looking to trade some of its prospects for an established outfielder since the middle of last season. One trade target of the team’s was left fielder Jesse Winker, who was ultimately dealt to the Mariners. Cleveland’s inability to absorb third baseman Eugenio Suarez’s contract, as the Mariners did, undoubtedly played a role in trade discussions falling through.

Free agency remained a means for outfield help, but to that end the team is only known to have expressed interest in Joc Pederson, who later signed with the Giants. Evidently Pederson and other free agent outfielders didn’t represent enough of a value play over Kwan, Naylor, or interesting prospects like George Valera to entice the team to splurge. General manager Mike Chernoff spoke in March about his desire to create opportunities for younger players as opposed to signing a veteran name just to provide some perceived stability. That philosophy is certainly easier on the team’s bottom line, but it does hold some merit considering the team signed the typically-steady Eddie Rosario during the previous winter only to watch him produce at a career-worst rate for the team. 

Eschewing free agency upgrades in favor of young in-house talent was a similar theme for the team’s pitching staff as well. The club’s entire stable of pitchers features just two veterans over the age of 30, one of them being infielder-turned-flamethrower Anthony Gose. The other veteran is 34-year-old right-hander Bryan Shaw, who returned to the club on a $3MM deal after he parlayed a 2021 minor league deal with the team into a bounce-back campaign. 

Cleveland also acquired right-handed pitcher Anthony Castro in a cash-positive deal with the Blue Jays. Like their acquisition of Tobias Myers, this trade for a 20-something pitcher is more of a depth move than a genuine shake-up to the team’s pitching staff. A lack of veteran depth may affect the team as the season wears on, but the club’s current staff, including top depth options Eli Morgan and top prospect Daniel Espino, offer enough upside that outside expenditures may be viewed as luxury for a tight purse string club like the Guardians.

The only matter of business to pursue on the pitching staff, it seemed, was to lock in the talent that already resided on it. Closer Emmanuel Clase signed a five-year $20MM deal with two club options to anchor the team’s bullpen through 2028, potentially. Long-term deals with relievers are rife with risk given the volatility of the position, but the commitment has the potential to be a shrewd signing given the right-hander was one of the best pitchers on the planet after returning from a 2020 suspension last season. Staff ace Shane Bieber hinted back in 2021 that extension talks might take place during the 2022 offseason, but that was prior to a shoulder injury that likely dimmed his bargaining power. Bieber, along with the team’s other starting pitchers, all remain controllable through at least 2024, affording the club some leeway to pursue more extensions during a future offseason.

Maintaining a lean club payroll was certainly a factor in the Guardians’ very limited spending this offseason. Currently, Cot’s Contracts estimates the team’s payroll at $68MM, about half of their franchise record $135MM payroll in 2018. It’s not clear why the team’s spending has dropped so precipitously in recent years, a trend that started before the COVID-19 pandemic affected ticket revenues across the league. Moreover, it’s not apparent how quickly the club plans to expand payroll again, if at all. It’s worth noting that the team only just recently snapped an eight-year streak of above .500 ball, a span that mostly featured yearly payrolls beneath the $100MM threshold. With increased odds to make the expanded playoffs and a potential ownership transition to minority owner David Blitzer on the horizon, it’s possible the Paul Dolan-owned club feels less pressure to spend now than ever.

Minimal spending won’t do the new-look Guardians many favors competing with division rivals that were more than happy to spend this offseason. Zigging when others zag has proven to be wise on occasion, and it’s possible that Cleveland will have more mid-season capital to spend than their division mates. That said, it’s far from a lock that Cleveland’s team as constituted will be in the thick of a pennant race come July. With better health, some young players taking a step forward, and a few lucky breaks anything is possible. But this is a team that struggled to win games outside its division last season en route to a 80-82 record, and the matchups within the division only figure to be more difficult this year. 

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