Is It Time for the Guardians to Trade Emmanuel Clase?

Emmanuel Clase is one of the game’s best closers, and he could bring back an absolute haul for the Guardians in the right trade.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 14: (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT) Emmanuel Clase #48 of the Cleveland Guardians in action against the New York Yankees during game two of the American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium on October 14, 2022 in New York, New York. The Guardians defeated the Yankees 4-2 in ten innings. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

The Cleveland Guardians are in a bit of a predicament.

The club is coming off a 76-win season, their worst since 2012. Future Hall of Fame manager Terry Francona has now ridden off into the sunset of retirement. They do not have an influx of cash to augment their roster through free agency. And on top of all that, former AL Cy Young winner Shane Bieber has one year left on his contract before hitting the open market.

The Guardians do have some core pieces in place for the long haul. It all starts with José Ramírez, of course, but one can also point to Andrés Giménez, one of the best defenders in the sport, as well as Steven Kwan and Bo Naylor, while top prospect Kyle Manzardo is knocking on the big league doorstep.

Complementing those position players are sophomore staters Tanner Bibee and Gavin Williams on the mound. In addition, Triston McKenzie should be ready to handle a full-season workload again in 2024, and Logan Allen will be fresh off a sturdy rookie campaign in his own right.

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But is that enough to compete for a championship like the Cleveland team that won 90-plus games in five of six full seasons from 2016 to ’22? It feels like the overall talent falls short. The Guardians certainly don’t need a full-on rebuild, but a re-tooling feels in order.

If they can’t spend their way to the execution of this plan, that leaves the trade route. And who could be this team’s best trade chip?

What about an elite closer, the kind who could thrive in the postseason but isn’t currently getting them any closer to the Fall Classic without enough support around him?

Emmanuel Clase has been one of the game’s best in the ninth inning for three seasons in a row now. He has already strung together two seasons with an ERA below 1.50, made back-to-back All-Star Games, tallied 110 saves across a trio of campaigns, and finished top-five in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2021.

His two-pitch combo of a cutter and slider is borderline unhittable, with the cutter consistently reaching triple digits and the slider preventing batters from ever hitting above the .200 mark (opponents’ average against the breaking pitch has sat at .110, .119, and .190 each year from 2021 to ’23, respectively).

While Clase is entering just his age-26 season, he is legitimately on pace for Cooperstown if he can maintain a level of dominance anywhere close to what he has displayed so far.

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Additionally, he has three years of club control remaining before free agency. That could bring back an absolute haul in a trade, the type of package filled with exciting, controllable players that could get Cleveland back to the top of the AL Central. 

So what should the Guardians do? Truthfully, there are arguments on both sides of this coin. Let’s evaluate them.

The Case for Keeping Clase

Over much of the Guardians’ prolonged run of success, top-end bullpen talent was a staple in Cleveland. In recent years, it stops and starts with Clase. He has not been without reinforcements, such as when James Karinchak, Trevor Stephan and Eli Morgan were at their best, but Clase is the alpha. 

Clase is comparable in a lot of ways to who Josh Hader was for the Brewers over a four-year stretch from 2018 to ’21; both shortened ballgames for a mid-to-low-market team with a small budget that had sustained success.

When teams with low payrolls have success, it is often predicated on pre-arb players finding success early on, complemented with a sturdy bullpen group year over year. That’s how the Rays have found so much success as of late, that’s how the A’s thrived before their fire sale ahead of the 2022 season, and that is a large part of how Cleveland has made it work.

The list of relievers who have flashed the dominance of Clase over the last three seasons is minimal. The only others who even hold a candle are Devin Williams and Edwin Díaz, but there is a real case for Clase to take the top spot in this ranking.

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The Case for Trading Clase

This will tie back to an earlier point: Do the Guardians feel like they have the roster to truly contend going forward? If Chris Antonetti feels as if the team is in need of its fair share of reinforcements, the most logical route is to trade the guy who throws one inning a night with three years of control.

If you want to nitpick, Clase did have a down year for his standards in 2023. He surrendered a career-high 3.22 ERA and 1.15 WHIP, with his strikeout rate and K/9 each reaching a career low (21.2% and 7.93, respectively). 

Relievers can be fickle, and throwing up a 1.30 ERA every year is nearly impossible. After all, other Guardians relievers have had trouble with consistency, too. Karinchak was sent to the minors for a portion of the year after an overpowering 2022, and neither Stephan nor Morgan was able to repeat their success from two years ago, either. It just goes that way with bullpen arms sometimes.

However, if the Guardians believe 2023 was the start of a downward trend for Clase as opposed to a one-off, they would be smart to sell sky-high.

Take the Mariners/Mets trade of Díaz for example. Seattle got back outfielder Jarred Kelenic, a top-five prospect when he debuted, along with right-hander Justin Dunn, another top-100 prospect by most accounts at the time. And that haul for the Mariners was on top of the Mets agreeing to take on nearly all the money remaining on Robinson Cano’s albatross contract. 

Teams will pay a high price for elite, controllable bullpen arms. The Guardians could reshape their future if they execute on a trade for Clase.

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Which Way Should the Guardians Go?

As gut-wrenching as it would be, it feels as if trading Clase for a haul is the best move for the Guardians. 

Now, they should only do it if they are truly excited, perhaps even blown away, about the package they are getting back – and there is a world in which they don’t find a trade partner that gives them what they are looking for. But if they can get a couple of controllable bats with high upside along with an additional arm, it could do wonders for them.

To ballpark a trade package, let’s use the Dodgers as an example; they have been lightly linked to Clase. If L.A. were to trade James Outman, Michael Busch and Gavin Stone back to Cleveland, that would be a very solid return. 

Outman would be more than capable of playing all three outfield spots but would likely find himself in center field or right field with Kwan occupying left. Giménez could slide over to shortstop full-time with Busch playing second. Finally, Stone could start down in Triple-A with five viable big league starters currently ahead of him on the depth chart, but he would be the next man up in case of injuries or a Bieber trade. At the very least, he should be set to join the rotation by 2025, when Bieber will likely be pitching in a new uniform.

Because bullpens vary in efficiency from year to year, Cleveland can take the route of finding low-cost arms with good stuff and intriguing data to fill their bullpen, along with the handful of regular relievers already set to return. In all likelihood, the Guardians will find at least a couple of pitchers that stick. 

This move could make Cleveland uncomfortable in the moment. But just because there is discomfort, that doesn’t mean it is unwise.

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