It was July 31, 2016. Trade Deadline Day. The then- Indians beat the Oakland A’s 6-3 and improved their record to 59-42. The organization attempted to bolster the lineup by acquiring Jonathan Lucroy from the Milwaukee Brewers, but he vetoed the deal. This did not stop President of Baseball Operations Chris Antonetti from making another win-now move as Cleveland acquired left-handed pitcher Andrew Miller from the New York Yankees in exchange for Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield, and two more minor league pitchers. Miller, who was under team control until 2018, was a major factor for the team during their 2016 World Series run, winning the ALCS MVP.
Cleveland has been in “re-tool” mode since 2017 when the Tribe were eliminated in the first round after blowing a 2-0 lead to the Yankees in the ALDS, a disappointing outcome for a team that was supposed to be better than the 2016 AL Champions. However, the team has not been conceding over the last five seasons.
They have been making smart moves, keeping them in playoff contention consistency with moves being made for both the short and long-term. They’ve also drafted well. All this has led to a great problem to have: Too many highly touted prospects and not enough positions. They have done all this while continuing to remain competitive, only missing the playoffs twice since 2016.
We are in the midst of the inaugural Cleveland Guardians season. This past offseason was derailed thanks to the MLB lockout. As expected, the team did not engage in the flurry of activity right before the lockout began in December.
I, as well as many Guardians fans, expected the team to be busy post-lockout after adding 11 prospects to the 40-man roster prior to the lockout to protect them from the Rule 5 draft, which never happened. Many wondered how the Guardians could open the season with 17 infielders, and a bunch of guys who have never played at the MLB level. Surprisingly, the team remained mostly quiet after the lockout, making only minor additions, including Luke Maile, David Fry, and bringing back Bryan Shaw (for way too much money in my opinion).
Throughout the offseason, Antonetti has continued to preach that they are in position to add payroll, so why the lack of moves? The inactivity sends a clear message to the fans: This season is about evaluating all of the young players.
The “kids” if you will have been the story of the 2022 season. Steven Kwan burst onto the scene out of spring training, hitting .354 with a .459 on-base percentage (OBP). Other players, including catcher Bryan Lavastida, shortstop Gabriel Arias, infielder/outfielder Richie Palacios, outfielder Oscar Gonzalez and left-hander pitcher Konnor Pilkington made their MLB debuts in this first half of the season, and all of them have found success at the big league level, even in small sample sizes.
Watching these kids play has made a season with low expectations fun to watch. Other young guys such as Owen Miller and Andres Gimenez are making a name for themselves after previously struggling at the MLB level. Triston McKenzie is showing when he believes in himself, he could be the ace of this starting rotation in the future.
While there has been a ton of success from the kids early in this 2022 campaign, it has not been all sunshine and rainbows for the Guardians. The youngest team in baseball has also had their fair share of growing pains, which can be frustrating at times for both the fans and players. They are in the midst of a grueling 162 game season. Baseball is a game of adjustments, and the league is starting to adjust to these young players. Guys like Kwan and Miller have been slow to adjust back to the league, which has led to many offensive struggles for the team in the month of May.
Even with the struggles, the Guardians currently sit at 23-24 as of June 4th, good enough for second in the AL Central. They have locked up their franchise cornerstone in Jose Ramirez for the next seven years, and they have a surplus of highly touted prospects that other teams drool over. While fans spent the offseason grumbling about cheap ownership, and a lack of moves, the organization had a clear plan in place. They were going to spend the first half of the 2022 season evaluating the young players they already had on the roster. If the team found a way to stay in contention, they knew they would be primed to bolster the team at the 2022 trade deadline. After all, they have another host of young talent that needs to be added to the 40-man roster this offseason such as right-handed pitchers Peyton Battenfield, Xzavion Curry, Nic Enright, Hunter Gaddis and Nick Mikolajchak, catcher Bo Naylor, shortstop Angel Martinez and outfielders Will Brennan and Micah Pries.
The team is currently in a stretch where their next four series’ are against teams under .500 before heading into LA on June 17th to open up a weekend series with the league-leading Los Angeles Dodgers. If the Guardians can take care of business during this stretch, I expect them to be aggressive at the trade deadline.
We all know the needs of this team: A power hitting corner outfielder, a catcher and some relief pitchers. Here are five names to look out for as the trade deadline rapidly approaches:
Catcher Willson Contreras and outfielder Ian Happ - Chicago Cubs
I have been preaching for a Contreras/Happ combo deal from the Cubs all offseason, especially considering former Guardians front office member Carter Hawkins is now the GM of the Cubs. This trade would kill two birds with one stone. The Guardians might balk at this deal, considering Contreras is a free agent after the season. On the season, Happ is hitting .256 with six homers and 27 RBI’s. Contreras is hitting .278 with nine dingers and 21 RBI’s.
Catcher Sean Murphy - Oakland A’s
In comparison to Contreras, Murphy is under team control until 2026, which is much more attractive to a team like the Guardians who prefer to go for guys with years of control if they are going to give up talented prospects. Austin Hedges’ bat is not consistent enough to be an everyday hitter, despite his above average defense. This season, Murphy is struggling in a bad A’s lineup, hitting only .201 with 5 five homers and 22 RBI’s. Last season, Murphy hit .216 with 17 homers, 59 RBI’s and 14 doubles. That is a lot more offense than the Guardians have had from the catcher position in recent years. He would also do much better with guys like Jose Ramirez, Josh Naylor, and Owen Miller hitting around him. The question is: Does he have too much control remaining with guys like Bryan Lavastida and Bo Naylor rapidly rising through the system?
Outfielder Andrew Benintendi - Kansas City Royals
Benintendi is a guy who I wanted Cleveland to trade for while he was a young outfielder with the Red Sox. He is another impending free agent, which could be a deal breaker. This dude can straight up hit the baseball, though! Left field has been a hole in Cleveland since Michael Brantley left as a free agent after the 2018 season. Benintendi would instantly change that narrative. This season, he is slashing .327 with a 128 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS+). Last season, Benintendi hit .276 with 27 doubles, 17 home runs and 73 RBI’s while winning a gold glove in LF. We all know how the Guardians value outfield defense.
Outfielder Bryan Reynolds - Pittsburgh Pirates
Reynolds might cost an arm and a leg, but he is worth it, and the Guardians have the trade chips to make it happen. He is the Pirates best player, so it makes sense the price would be high. Last season, Reynolds hit .302 with 24 dingers, 90 RBI’s, 35 doubles and eight triples.
Right-handed pitcher Corey Knebel - Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies continue to be a team that spends a lot of dumb money for pieces that do not fit together. Once again, they are going nowhere fast this season as they fired Manager Joe Girardi and could be looking to unload some salary to make up for their spending spree in the offseason. Knebel is a veteran, late inning reliever with postseason experience who could be a trusted arm in a bullpen with not much experience. This season, he has a 3.27 ERA with 20 strikeouts in 22 innings pitched. He also has nine saves. He is making $10 million this season on a 1-year deal.
This is just a sample of the multiple trades the team could explore at the MLB trade deadline. The important thing to keep in mind is the team has the trade chips, and they continue to reiterate that they are in a position to add payroll. In addition to the surplus of prospects, they also have major league players in Amed Rosario and potentially Zach Plesac who could be moved. If the Guardians stay near the top of the division, they would ideally like to win now while also continuing to build for the future. They are primed to make a long run at playoff success during the remainder of Jose Ramirez’s contract. They are going to look to mix proven major league talent with top prospects set to make their debuts in the near future such as starting pitchers Daniel Espino and Gavin Williams. shortstop Brayan Rocchio and outfielder George Valera. Do not panic if you do not hear the Guardians mentioned in many rumors heading into July. Remember, Antonetti and company usually operate in silence, and they almost never disappoint.