Coming off a year that saw them fall one game short of advancing to the ALCS with one of the youngest rosters in baseball, the Cleveland Guardians took a step back in 2023.
Of course, the Guardians battled the injury bug this season and went long stretches without some of their top contributors, but when all was said and done this year, they simply didn’t score enough runs.
In 2022, Cleveland found offensive success by striking out the least in MLB, despite finishing bottom-five in isolated power. However, in 2023, a similar formula didn’t get the job done. The Guardians’ wRC+ dropped from 101 to 92, and they scored 36 fewer runs.
The good news in Cleveland is that its pitching staff finished top-10 in runs allowed for the second straight season, and a number of young arms emerged as reliable long-term options.
While the Guardians don’t have many players coming off the books, the team is guaranteed to have a new look in 2024.
With Terry Francona announcing his retirement, Cleveland will enter Spring Training with a new manager for the first time in 11 seasons.
With all that said, let’s dive into what decisions the Guardians face this offseason and what they can do to make a run back to the postseason next year.
Starting off with who will run things from the dugout, whoever takes over will have some pretty big shoes to fill.
Along with being one of the most well-liked managers in recent history, Francona racked up a 921-757 record over his 11 campaigns with the Guardians, including six trips to the playoffs and the 2016 AL pennant.
ESPN‘s Jeff Passan reported that former big league All-Star Stephen Vogt has emerged as a serious candidate for the position.
If Vogt does end up getting the gig, Cleveland will land someone who has been long touted as an eventual big league manager. Currently serving as the Seattle Mariners’ bullpen and quality control coach, the 38-year-old played in parts of 10 MLB seasons with the San Francisco Giants, Oakland Athletics, Arizona Diamondbacks, Tampa Bay Rays, Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Brewers.
It has also been reported that Giants bullpen and catching coach Craig Albernaz, Guardians minor league field coordinator John McDonald, Los Angeles Dodgers first base coach Clayton McCullough and Chicago Cubs bench coach Andy Green have interviewed or will interview for the position.
Zack Meisel of The Athletic reported that former Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell also met with the team about the position.
With Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo López, Kole Calhoun, Daniel Norris and Zack Collins the only five players who appeared with the Guardians in 2023 set to become free agents, Cleveland should be able to withstand any of them signing elsewhere.
The team also has 10 arbitration-eligible players, who are projected to make the following amounts next season (all projections via MLB Trade Rumors):
- Shane Bieber (5.097 years of service time): $12.2M
- Cam Gallagher (5.073): $1.3M
- Ramon Laureano (4.165): $4.7M
- Cal Quantrill (4.132): $6.6M
- Josh Naylor (4.127): $7.2M
- James Karinchak (3.099): $1.9M
- Triston McKenzie (3.074): $1.8M
- Enyel De Los Santos (3.015): $1.2M
- Sam Hentges (2.157): $1.1M
- Nick Sandlin (2.157): $1.1M
Outside of Gallagher — who finished the season with a -17 wRC+ and -1.0 fWAR in 56 games — there aren’t any obvious non-tender candidates. And even for Gallagher, at $1.3 million, his above-average value behind the plate might make it worth bringing him back.
Internal options for 2024: Shane Bieber, Triston McKenzie, Tanner Bibee, Logan Allen, Gavin Williams, Cal Quantrill, Xzavion Curry, Hunter Gaddis, Daniel Espino
With successful rookie seasons from Bibee, Allen and Williams, the Guardians rotation is seemingly set for the years to come.
Their emergence has also made moving Bieber a possibility. Rumored to be available at the deadline this past season, right elbow inflammation threw a wrench into what could have gotten Cleveland a solid return.
Now, the Guardians will have a decision to make with their former Cy Young winner this offseason. Does one season of Bieber, who has struggled to stay on the field in two of the past three seasons, get them an everyday position player in a deal?
He’s not the same pitcher he used to be, with declining velocity and strikeout rates, but as a veteran arm with a proven track record, he would still be an appealing addition to any rotation that is in need of bolstering.
Looking at teams that will likely be adding pitching this offseason, the St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds all could be a potential trade partner. All three clubs finished bottom-10 in starter ERA and have some position player depth that could be of interest to the Guardians.
A Bieber deal would certainly make sense for Cleveland if they could land an offensive contributor, but it could leave them an arm short in the rotation.
Potential free agent targets: Lucas Giolito, Martín Pérez, Alex Wood, Rich Hill, Kyle Gibson, Michael Lorenzen, Frankie Montas, Seth Lugo, Jake Odorizzi, Kenta Maeda
It seems unlikely that the Guardians will make significant additions on the starting pitching front this offseason. Even if they deal Bieber, they will enter 2024 with a rotation of Bibee, Allen, Williams, McKenzie and Quantrill with depth options in Curry and Gaddis and pitching prospects Joey Cantillo and Daniel Espino as potential mid-season options — depending on their progress in the upper minors.
|Returning Rotation Options||IP||ERA||FIP||SIERA||K%||BB%|
With that said, no Cleveland pitcher topped 142 innings in 2023. Even accounting for a full season from McKenzie and Quantrill and a natural second-year leap in workload for their trio of rookies, the Guardians may still look for help at the lower end of the market in free agency.
The team, of course, could look at bringing back Giolito, who it picked up from the Los Angeles Angels off waivers in hopes of chasing down the AL Central title. Instead, the 29-year-old pitched to a 7.04 ERA with Cleveland while giving up 11 home runs in 30.2 innings.
Outside of Giolito, having so much starting pitching depth might make someone with experience pitching in a starting/bulk relief role make sense for the Guardians. Of course, that’s exactly what Curry did for them in 2023, pitching to a 4.07 ERA over nine starts and 32 relief appearances.
However, Curry’s peripherals suggest that he may have outperformed his expected results, and with a 16.6% strikeout rate, an external add might benefit Cleveland in that role. Some free agents that might fit the bill are Pérez, Lorenzen, Lugo and Maeda.
Internal options for 2024: Emmanuel Clase, Sam Hentges, Trevor Stephan, Enyel De Los Santos, Nick Sandlin, Eli Morgan, James Karinchak, Xzavion Curry, Hunter Gaddis, Cody Morris, Michael Kelly, Tim Herrin
After running out one of the most dominant bullpens in MLB in 2022, the Guardians relief corps took a slight step back in 2023. While still a top-10 group, Cleveland relievers’ ERA- rose from 80 to 90, which lines up with their increased ERA, FIP and SIERA and decreased strikeout rate.
All five of Clase, Hentges, Stephan, Morgan and Sandlin all had worse seasons in 2023. That group accounted for 321 innings this past season and had their struggles at inopportune times for the Guardians, as only Hentges finished with a positive rating via FanGraphs’ clutch metric.
This led the team to add López and Matt Moore alongside Giolito when the Angels decided to waive the white flag. After falling far enough out of the AL Central race, Cleveland let Moore go but hung on to López, who would make sense as a potential piece to bring back.
Despite the off-year for nearly every member of the bullpen, all of the Guardians’ potential relief options are under 30 (other than Kelly). It seems like a bounce-back season could be in the cards for most, if not all, of the high-leverage arms. And while López turns 30 in January, he seems like a solid fit with the group Cleveland is set to run back in 2024.
|Returning Bullpen Options||IP||ERA||FIP||SIERA||K%||BB%|
|Enyel De Los Santos||65.2||3.29||3.48||4.06||23.7||9.5|
With seven spots likely locked down for 2024, barring injury, re-signing Lopez if he doesn’t price himself out of the Guardians’ range, plus some depth additions, is the most likely outcome for Cleveland this offseason.
As mentioned earlier, it would make sense for the Guardians to add some type of bulk arm that can pitch as a starter and in relief. But outside of someone with that profile, it is tough to say which potential free agents Cleveland would look to add to its already solid core of relievers.
Internal Options for 2024: Bo Naylor, Cam Gallagher, Josh Naylor, Kyle Manzardo, Andrés Giménez, Brayan Rocchio, José Ramírez, David Fry, Gabriel Arias, Tyler Freeman, José Tena, Juan Brito
With Bo Naylor finding his footing down the stretch, posting a 186 wRC+ in the final month of the season, boosting his season-long mark to 124, the Guardians have long-term answers at four of the five infield spots.
Between Bo’s older brother Josh and Manzardo at first, Giménez at second and Ramírez at third, Cleveland can focus on adding a shortstop into the mix for 2024.
Between Arias, Freeman, Rocchio and Tena, the Guardians have some options that can play the position, but none of the four inspired all that much confidence in manning the position after Amed Rosario was dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
|Internal SS Options||G||PA||AVG||OBP||SLG||wRC+||SS DRS||fWAR|
Giménez may be the best shortstop on the Guardians roster, owning seven career DRS in 634.1 career innings at the position, but with the club’s unwillingness to slide him over, it seems like he will stay at second base.
While the four in the table above all spent time at short in 2023, it would make sense to see Cleveland take a shot on the free-agent market.
Potential free agent targets: Amed Rosario, Enrique Hernández, Alberto Mondesi, Yu Chang, Brandon Crawford, Tim Anderson, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Elvis Andrus
OK, maybe there isn’t a ton to be excited about in this shortstop class. However, many of the options listed above won’t cost a ton and may be worth taking a shot on for a team like the Guardians.
But which shortstop would fit best?
It’s probably fair to rule out Crawford, who may be in a San Francisco-or-nowhere type of situation, and Anderson, who has a team option and doesn’t seem like he’d be all that welcome in Cleveland.
Other than those two, Rosario and Hernández likely don’t have the defensive chops to be the No. 1 choice at short, Mondesi is too much of a wild card with his injury history and Chang is coming off a 39 wRC+ season.
That leaves Kiner-Falefa and Andrus. While much has been made of his inability to hit, Kiner-Falefa may be the best defender on the board, and his 82 wRC+ in 2023 would fall right in line with the Guardians’ internal options.
Andrus, meanwhile, wasn’t any better with the bat and wouldn’t be an upgrade defensively.
It’s not the sexiest of moves, and it seems more likely that Cleveland would try and get more out of its internal options, but Kiner-Falefa may be the best the Guardians can do this offseason.
With the Naylors, Giménez, Ramírez and Manzardo figuring to take up most of the playing time in the infield and in the designated hitter spot, Cleveland will likely just be making smaller moves to bolster that group.
Internal Options for 2024: Steven Kwan, Myles Straw, Ramon Laureano, Will Brennan, George Valera, Oscar Gonzalez
This is where the Guardians can make the biggest changes to their roster.
In 2023, Cleveland got 3.0 fWAR from its outfielders, and the group hit just 18 home runs, by far the fewest in MLB. The Washington Nationals finished second last with 46.
You can lock Kwan into left field for 2024, but everything should be on the table when it comes to center and right. Laureano was a nice pick-up off waivers, posting a 106 wRC+ in 41 games and playing solid defense.
Other than that, the Guardians got next to nothing offensively from Straw or Gonzalez, who both had a sub-70 wRC+.
While Straw plays a great center field, it might be time to find someone who can hit a little bit more to take his spot.
Luckily for Cleveland, there is a decent crop of sluggers available this offseason that might help them insert some power into the lineup.
Potential free agent targets: Jorge Soler, Teoscar Hernández, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Tommy Pham, Andrew McCutchen, Jesse Winker, Adam Duvall, Randal Grichuk, Hunter Renfroe, Michael Conforto
|Lourdes Gurriel Jr.||145||592||.261||.309||.463||24||.201||106||2.1|
The top-end free agents here may be a little out of the Guardians’ price range, but after they signed Josh Bell last offseason, we know there should be some money that can be thrown at some of the outfielders in the middle of the market.
With so many numbers to sift through, it should be simple enough to look at who Cleveland can add that will pack some punch in the middle of its order. Zeroing in on Gurriel, Pham, Duvall and Grichuk would make sense.
They’re the four hitters — outside of Soler — on the list above with an ISO above .190. All either hit left-handed pitching extremely well in 2023 or have a track record of doing so and won’t cost as much as Soler or Cody Bellinger will.
If the Guardians are looking for someone who can play a little bit of center field as well, Duvall and Grichuk both have spent time there in the past two seasons, albeit to varying levels of success.
It seems almost certain that Cleveland will add a hitter from this group or trade for an outfielder with a similar profile. The lineup needs some power, and there are more than enough options for the Guardians to make a splash.
The Guardians have the pieces to be a contender. With a strong rotation, a bullpen that seems capable of returning to the top of the league and an infield led by a potential MVP candidate in Ramírez, it shouldn’t take much this offseason for Cleveland to make a return to the playoffs in 2024.
With an obvious need in the power department, the Guardians front office should have a pretty straightforward winter.
If they get some internal bouncebacks and continued progression from their young talent, the Guardians should be right back near or at the top of the AL Central if they pull the right strings this offseason.