Rival Preview: An very strong pitching staff keeps Cleveland as an under-the-radar possibility to win the AL Central

Photo credit:© David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
Evan Stack
29 days ago
The Terry Francona era is complete in Cleveland, and former MLB catcher Stephen Vogt has taken the reins. He takes over a team that looks very similar to last year’s squad, something that comes with pros and cons. However, there is still some potential with this group in a still very winnable division, making Vogt an intriguing first-year manager.

2023 Recap

For the first time since 2015, the Guardians finished less than second place in the AL Central, ending last season with a 76-86 record. They spent 12 calendar days in first place, but they spent the good majority of the season in second place behind the Twins. A 12-16 record in September and October, coupled with a late-season surge from the up-and-coming Tigers, ultimately dropped Cleveland to third place to end the season.
Offense: The Guardians were one of the most underwhelming offensive units in the entire league last season. They finished last in the MLB in home runs (trailed the next worst team by 27), 28th in RBIs, and 27th in OPS. To their credit, however, they did finish 13th in total hits and batting average. They also ranked fifth in stolen bases with 151, including four players stealing at least 20.
Naturally, they were led in several statistical categories by 3B Jose Ramirez, who was named to his fifth career All-Star game and received MVP votes for the seventh time in eight seasons. Ramirez played in 156 games last season, and he posted a .282/.356/.475 slash line with an .831 OPS, 24 home runs, 80 RBIs, and 36 doubles. His strikeout percentage has decreased after each of the last four seasons, and it’s the lowest that it has been (10.6%) since 2016.
Behind Ramirez, Cleveland got a good chunk of their offence from Josh Naylor, Andres Gimenez, and Steven Kwan. Naylor played in over 120 games for the second consecutive season, and although he didn’t qualify for the MLB stat leaders in batting average, he still deserves some credit for posting a solid number of .308. He also held a career-high OPS (.842) and RBIs (97), which were both team-bests. On the advanced metrics side, he put up an impressive .351 batting average against 4-seam fastballs last year, as well as a strikeout percentage that finished in the top 6% of the league. Oh yeah, he also knocked Tim Anderson out with a nasty right hook.
Gimenez posted a 5.0+ WAR for the second straight season, although most of his stats (including his WAR) fell short of his outstanding 2022 campaign. He slashed .251/.314/.399 with a .712 OPS, 15 homers, 62 RBIs, and 30 stolen bases. He also captured his second consecutive Gold Glove award and finished third in the MLB with 23 Defensive Runs Saved.
Like Gimenez, Kwan also took a step back in his offensive production, but he still collected his second straight Gold Glove award. The 2022 Rookie of the Year finalist hit .268 with a .710 OPS, 5 homers, 54 RBIs, and 21 stolen bases.
Cleveland sold a few pieces at the trade deadline, dealing 1B Josh Bell and SS Amed Rosario to multiple contenders. The Guardians took fliers on veteran outfielders Kole Calhoun (acquired from the Dodgers for cash) and Ramon Laureano (DFA’d by the A’s) in early August in an attempt to give the offence a jolt, but it wasn’t enough to move the needle for the team’s postseason chances.
Lastly, the Guardians got a significant look at young catcher Bo Naylor, Josh’s younger brother. Naylor was so-so for the bulk of the year, but he finished the season on a high note with a .304/.444/.607 slash line with a 1.052 OPS, 4 homers, and 13 RBIs in September/October. The Naylor brothers pulled off an impressive feat on July 14th of last year, as they both hit a home run in the same inning. It was the eighth time in history that brothers have homered in the same inning since 1900 and the thirteenth time that it has happened in the same game.
Pitching: Now this, ladies and gentlemen, this is Cleveland’s bread and butter.
The Guardians finished ninth in the MLB in ERA, and while that may not knock anyone’s socks off, they did it without a couple of starters that they expected to play a major role last season. We’ll begin with Triston McKenzie, one of their youngest stars who posted a sub-3.00 ERA in 2022. McKenzie was limited to only four starts last season due to a right teres major strain and a right elbow strain. They also lost Cal Quantrill, another young arm, to multiple shoulder injuries, however he recovered in time to make 19 starts.
They also cut ties to young righty Zach Plesac only five starts into his season. Plesac had owned a 7.59 ERA and a 1.97 WHIP in those five starts before he was DFA’d, and he went unclaimed and sent back to the minor leagues for the remainder of the season.
The pitching factory that is the Cleveland Guardians simply retooled their rotation and called up three rookies to carry them through the rest of the season. The most impressive of the bunch was Tanner Bibee, who finished second in Rookie of the Year voting. Bibee started 25 games and finished with a 10-4 record, 2.98 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and an 8.9 K/9. He only had two outings in which he gave up four earned runs or more and he pitched into the sixth inning or longer in 15 of his starts. Bibee’s “stuff” won’t jump off the page on Baseball Savant, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with being as effective as he was. He also had proficient numbers versus lefties.
6’6” righty Gavin Williams also impressed in his inaugural season in the big leagues. Williams made 16 starts and pitched to a 3.29 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP. Much like Bibee, Williams has a mid-90s fastball and similar secondary pitches and simply proved to be effective. His walks were rather high, and he doesn’t generate a lot of swing-and-miss, but those are things that can be cleaned up after a rookie season plus an offseason to improve.
The last rookie to highlight is Logan Allen, who had a 3.81 ERA through 24 starts. The biggest difference between Allen and the two aforementioned rookies is that Allen is a lefty, and he was able to keep left-handed hitters significantly quieter at the plate than righties, allowing only a .205 batting average and a .650 OPS against southpaw hitters last year. His most effective pitch is his changeup, a weapon that placed him in the 91st percentile in offspeed run value.
One of the familiar names in Cleveland’s rotation, Shane Bieber, made 19 starts before missing two months due to shoulder inflammation. He was able to make two starts in late September, finishing his year with a 3.80 ERA and 1.23 WHIP. He did have the lowest strikeout rate of his career. However, he still entered the offseason as a rumoured trade target.
The Guardians traded starter Aaron Civale at the trade deadline, but they acquired two starters, Noah Syndergaard (for Rosario) and Lucas Giolito (put on waivers by LAA), either at or after the deadline. Unfortunately, neither of the two was very productive, but they were two low-risk, high-reward guys who were worth the chance, in my opinion.
The Guardians possessed a top-10 bullpen last season, spearheaded by their closer, Emmanuel Clase. The flame-throwing righty appeared in 75 games this season and registered an MLB-best 44 saves with a 3.22 ERA. However, the baserunners allowed were up a tick or two, and he led the league in blown saves, so it was definitely a step back from his ridiculously good ’22 season.

Offseason Moves

Cleveland’s biggest move of the offseason was trading RP Enyel De Los Santos to the Padres in exchange for RP Scott Barlow. Barlow was dealt from the Royals to the Padres near the end of the trade deadline last season. After posting back-to-back seasons of sub-2.50 ERAs, Barlow struggled out of the gate in 2023 through his first 38 games, sitting on an ERA of 5.35 and a BB/9 of 5.1, a figure that was almost doubled from his ’22 campaign. He bounced back after he was sent out west, as he finished up the year in San Diego with a 3.07 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and a lowered BB/9 of 3.7. Again, he’s been extremely effective in recent seasons, so Cleveland’s bullpen definitely got a shot in the arm with this acquisition.
Without context, a swap of two right-handed relievers sounds pretty bland, but Barlow will enter free agency after the 2024 season, and the Padres continued to endure payroll constraints. Ultimately, trading Barlow (who signed for $6.7 million to avoid arbitration) in exchange for another reliever with another three seasons of team control made a lot of sense for the Padres.
The Guardians continued to work under the radar with trades when they surprisingly designated SP Cal Quantrill for assignment in mid-November. Quantrill had been a mainstay in Cleveland’s rotation during the 2021 and 2022 seasons making 22 and 32 starts, respectively. Both seasons included sub-4.00 ERAs and at least 149 innings pitched. He was unfortunately plagued with shoulder injuries last season; through 19 starts, Quantrill held a 5.24 ERA with a shrinking strikeout rate from previous seasons. The numbers hide what he was able to do in September, however, as he got healthy and had a 2.76 ERA through six starts. The DFA option was a risk given that they may not have been able to get anything back for him, but thankfully, Colorado knocked on the door.
The Rockies decided to pounce on Quantrill by trading catching prospect Kody Huff to Cleveland to acquire him. Huff will be entering his third year of minor league action but only his second full season of professional ball. He played in 86 games last year with Single-A Fresno, where he slashed .262/.357/.374 with a .731 OPS, 5 homers, 36 RBIs, and 14 doubles.
Cleveland also dealt reliever Cody Morris to the New York Yankees in exchange for OF Estevan Florial. Florial was a consistent top-10 prospect in New York’s pipeline between 2018 and 2021, so it will be interesting to see if a “change of scenery” was all he needed. He struggled immensely during his time in the major leagues; across 48 total games with the Yankees, Florial posted a .209/.313/.296 slash line with one home run, 11 RBIs, and 5 doubles.
The Guardians brought in several veteran pitchers on minor league deals with spring training invites, such as Carlos Carrasco, Jaime Barria, Anthony Banda, and Tyler Beede. Carrasco is quite a familiar name with Cleveland, as he spent 11 years with the team between 2009 and 2020. He may not be as dominant as he used to be, but he could still be an effective spot starter if he does not make the rotation out of Spring Training. Barria is a name that could easily end up on the major league roster, whether it’s a starting or relieving role. Barria spent six years pitching in a multitude of roles with the Los Angeles Angels.
Finally, Cleveland signed veteran C Austin Hedges to a one-year, $4 million deal. Hedges actually spent parts of three seasons with the Guardians a short time ago, and the team has made it known how much his veteran presence meant to the club. Hence, he will serve a critical role playing behind Bo Naylor.

My take on Cleveland’s 2024 outlook

The Guardians are bringing back almost the same team they had last year, and while the old saying still goes, “If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse,” Cleveland’s player development might be all they need to improve.
On the offensive end of the ball, Ramirez needs help, and it’s one of the biggest reasons why he’s led the league in IBB each of the past two seasons. While the typical suspects – Gimenez, Naylor, Kwan, etc. – will be called upon to do their part, the Guardians could be debuting some of their top prospects in order to boost the offence. We’re talking about guys like Kyle Manzardo, Brayan Rocchio, and Chase DeLauter, with Manzardo and DeLauter off to a great start in Spring Training.
Much like the Rays, no one seems to be talking about Cleveland, but maybe that’s just what they want. This pitching staff is good enough to keep things interesting in the AL Central, and it’s a trait that has won them division titles before. However, the offence has one too many question marks, especially if they aren’t able to get instant production from their up-and-comers.


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