The 2022 Guardians skated to a division title in the American League Central and did so with a lineup unlike any other in MLB. Cleveland’s offense was a triumph for fans of small ball and the older-school game that relied far less on the long ball than today’s brand of three-true-outcomes offenses. The ’22 Guardians put the ball in play more than any other team in baseball, and it wasn’t close. Their 18.2% strikeout rate was the lowest in MLB and made them one of just four teams shy of 20%. The others — the Astros (19.5%), Mets (19.7%) and Cardinals (19.9%) — weren’t particularly close. Cleveland ranked 15th in the Majors in runs scored despite ranking 29th in home runs. Their 119 steals (a number that seems pedestrian in light of this year’s rule changes) ranked third in MLB.
Fast forward a season, and the lineup has a similar complexion but staggeringly different outcome. The 2023 Guardians are MLB’s most punchless team, ranking dead last with 24 home runs — just eight more than Pete Alonso has by himself. Cleveland’s 150 runs scored entering play Friday led only the Tigers (143), and the Guards had played two more games than Detroit. Cleveland enters play ranking 28th in the Majors with a .228 batting average and .302 on-base percentage, and 30th out of 30 teams with a .341 slugging percentage.
As The Athletic’s Zack Meisel pointed out Wednesday (Twitter link), Cleveland catchers have been astonishingly anemic at the plate. Prior to Cam Gallagher’s single yesterday, the Guardians hadn’t received a hit from their catcher since the calendar flipped to May; Gallagher was hitless in 32 at-bats entering play yesterday, while Zunino is currently 0-for-27 with 21 strikeouts this month.
The Guards opened the season surprisingly carrying three catchers: Mike Zunino, Gallagher and Meibrys Viloria. Even after designating Viloria for assignment, they added another catching option in 27-year-old David Fry. The Guardians have gotten less production from behind the dish than any team in the American League. Zunino, Gallagher, Viloria and Fry have combined for a .127/.225/.231 slash (29 wRC+) while serving as catcher, striking out in 38.4% of their plate appearances.
All of this comes at a time when Cleveland has one of baseball’s top catching prospects thrashing Triple-A pitching. Bo Naylor has appeared in 39 games with Columbus, taken 180 turns at the plate and batted .264/.400/.521 with nine home runs, eight doubles, a triple, a sky-high 18.3% walk rate and a 22.6% strikeout rate. The bar he’d need to clear in order to be an upgrade could scarcely be lower, yet he’s still in the minors while Cleveland backstops endure a nearly three-week-long hitless streak.
The problem isn’t confined to the team’s catching corps, although that’s the most glaring weak point in the lineup. Still, here are the Guardians’ position-by-position rankings, in terms of wRC+, at the other positions on the diamond: first base (90, 21st in MLB), second base (86, 19th in MLB), shortstop (79, 23rd in MLB), third base (116, sixth in MLB), left field (97, tied for 13th in MLB), center field (74, 28th in MLB), right field (37, 30th in MLB), designated hitter (80, 26th in MLB).
Jose Ramirez (.285/.364/.457) remains excellent and is the one still decidedly above-average hitter on the roster, although even he’s having a down year by his MVP-caliber standards. Steven Kwan has been solid in left field (.269/.356/.353) but not as good as during last year’s sensational rookie campaign. No other player who’s taken 20 plate appearances for Cleveland this season has been better than league-average at the plate.
Some of this was to be expected. The Guardians surely weren’t hoping to get much offensive production from catcher — though they hoped for more than this — and knew Myles Straw’s contributions would come more from his elite center field defense and baserunning. But every hitter on the roster has taken a step back from last season’s performance.
The offseason signing of Josh Bell to a two-year, $33MM deal looks regrettable with the Guardians getting closer to the Padres version of Bell from 2022 than the Nationals version. In 177 plate appearances, Bell is walking at a huge 14.7% clip but has batted only .227/.339/.3535 with three home runs. His 19.8% strikeout rate would be the second-highest of his career, and his .127 ISO (slugging percentage minus batting average) is 33 points south of the league average and 67 points below his own career mark. Bell is hitting the ball on the ground at a staggering 58.6% rate. He can opt out of his contract at season’s end, but it would take a drastic turnaround for that to seem realistic.
Meanwhile, Cleveland has optioned last year’s primary right fielder, Oscar Gonzalez, to Triple-A after he followed up last year’s .296/.327/.461 debut with a .192/.213/.288 start to his sophomore season. MLBTR’s Anthony Franco has already outlined shortstop Amed Rosario’s struggles, and Josh Naylor hasn’t been any better at first base. Will Brennan, called up to replace the demoted Gonzalez, has barely been an improvement.
The Guardians’ commitments to defense-, contact- and/or speed-oriented players at multiple positions isn’t inherently flawed, but it only works if the rest of the lineup is capable of supporting players like Straw and Zunino (or, in last year’s case, Austin Hedges). That hasn’t been the case in 2023. The Guardians’ team strikeout rate is up nearly two percentage points (from 18.2% to 19.8%), while their team BABIP is down 20 points (from .294 to .274).
That might not seem like much — perhaps an extra strikeout and one extra ball in play turned into an out per game — but the margin for error is thin when there’s practically no one on the team with even average power. The Guardians are completely reliant on balls in play to manufacture runs, which leaves them at the mercy of sequencing and hitting when it counts. Entering play Thursday, they’d batted .228/.296/.325 as a team with men on base. Last year, they hit .258/.319/.394 in such situations.
These struggles all come in spite of remarkably good health among the team’s collection of position players. The Guardians don’t have a position player on the injured list at the moment and in fact haven’t placed a hitter on the Major League injured list all season. They’ve still had injury troubles — Triston McKenzie, Aaron Civale and Sam Hentges have most notably been sidelined — but they’ve come exclusively on the pitching side of the roster.
As for how they can turn things around, the avenues to doing so aren’t plentiful in mid-May. The trade market simply isn’t active this time of season — and that was true even before an expansion to a 12-team playoff field likely further emboldened fringe contenders to take a wait-and-see approach to trade deadline season.
Over the past half decade, there have been just two mostly regular position players who were traded in May and had not first been designated for assignment. The Rays shipped Willy Adames and righty Trevor Richards to the Brewers for right-handers Drew Rasmussen and J.P. Feyereisen back in 2021. Tampa Bay was also involved in a 2018 swap with the Mariners, centering around Denard Span and Alex Colome. That’s not to say a deal can’t and won’t happen, but history tells us it’s overwhelmingly unlikely. Cleveland can certainly monitor the DFA and waiver market, but with a 20-23 record they’re not close to top waiver priority right now.
If the Guardians are going to right the ship, they’ll need to promote from within. Bo Naylor is an obvious candidate to join the big league roster and quite arguably should already be there. Tyler Freeman hit .329/.468/.482 in 109 Triple-A plate appearances before being called up to the roster but is being used in a bench role. He’s not a home run threat himself and the team isn’t going to bench Andres Gimenez seven weeks into a seven-year extension, but there are still ways to get Freeman into the lineup more regularly. Top outfield prospect George Valera only just made his season debut in Triple-A a week ago, as he missed the first several weeks of the year recovering from hamate surgery. If he’s able to approximate the .264/.367/.470 output he showed in Double-A last year over even a small sample, there’s good reason to give him a look in right field over both Brennan and Gonzalez sooner rather than later.
The Guardians are rather fortunate that they’ve managed to remain as close to .500 as they have. They’re sitting on a -31 run differential, while the Pythagorean win-loss system and BaseRuns both put their expected record at 18-25. Their sub-par run differential and sub-.500 record come despite the fact that Baseball-Reference grades their strength of schedule to date as the third-easiest in MLB.
Cleveland has already gone full speed ahead with a youth movement in the rotation, giving prospects Tanner Bibee, Logan T. Allen and Peyton Battenfield prominent rotation spots. Some of that’s been necessitated by injury, but the Guardians weren’t shy about optioning one of their most experienced starters, Zach Plesac, to Columbus when he wasn’t performing up to expectations. Given the state of their lineup, it shouldn’t be long before they take a similar approach on the position-player side of the roster. And, if some of those young bats don’t break through, the Guardians ought to be on the lookout for controllable bats heading into the trade deadline — particularly with so much young pitching at their disposal. The schedule is only going to become more difficult from here on out, and the current group of hitters gives little reason for optimism.
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