Photo: MLB Pipeline
On November 15th, the Cleveland Guardians made a bevy of roster moves before the Rule 5 Draft on December 7th. They added shortstop Angel Martinez, right-handed (RHP) starter Joey Cantillo and left-handed pitcher (LHP) Tim Herrin to the 40-man roster to protect them from being selected in the Rule 5 Draft. The team also released LHP Kirk McCarty and LHP Anthony Gose (who will be recovering from Tommy John surgery all of 2023) and traded LHP Carlos Vargas to the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for minor league reliever Ross Carver and dealt former No.1 overall prospect Nolan Jones to the Colorado Rockies for in-fielder Juan Brito, who was also added to the 40-man roster.
In my opinion, It hurts losing Jones, who has sky high potential with a batting profile that includes power and a ton of walks. He ended up being the odd man out at third base once Jose Ramirez was signed to a seven-year extension, and he then ended up being the odd man out in a crowded outfield that includes Steven Kwan, who is coming off a third place finish in the Rookie of the Year race, Myles Straw, Oscar Gonzalez, Will Brennan, Will Benson and George Valera approaching rapidly. In 28 major league games, Jones hit .244 with two home runs, and 13 Runs Batted In. In 55 games at AAA Columbus, Jones batted .276 with nine homers and 43 RBI's.
Once the dust settled, most Guardians fans were left with more questions than answers regarding the current state of the team. The team now has 10 middle infielders on the 40-man roster. It was not shocking the team traded Jones, but it was surprising that he was traded for another middle infielder, though Brito is no slouch, as he was a Top 30 prospect for the Rockies at the time of his departure. In 107 games at High-A Fresno in 2022, Brito hit .286 with 29 doubles, six triples, 11 home runs and 72 RBI’s. Maybe most impressive is he has 78 walks and only 71 strikeouts. It is so incredibly rare for a 21-year-old player in A ball to have that level of plate discipline.
On the surface, Brito is exactly the type of player the Guardians would go after. The only issue is he now falls into a long line of middle infielders ready to take the reins behind Amed Rosario and Andres Gimenez. This list of middle infield prospects includes Gabriel Arias, Tyler Freeman, Brayan Rocchio, Jose Tena and the recently added Angel Martinez. To think the roster is anything close to what we will see in Spring Training would be naïve.
So, what could happen between now and Spring Training? That is the million-dollar question.
It is important to remember this front office is notorious for not having any leaks. It would not be abnormal for the Guardians to not be mentioned in much of anything over the next couple months. In the past, sources say the Guardians have been in on Oakland A’s catcher Sean Murphy, who will be a hot commodity on the trade market as the Winter Meetings approach in early December. I expect the team to be heavily invested in the first baseman market in search of a lefty mashing proven power bat.
A name I would like to see come to the Guardians is Jose Abreu, somebody who has killed Guardians pitching as a member of the White Sox for the last decade. As great as Josh Naylor is as a leader inside the clubhouse, he struggles to hit left-handed pitching. In 2022 against lefties, Naylor hit .173 with one home run, and he had a .236 Slugging Percentage (SLG) and a 53 Weighted runs Created Plus (wRC+). In comparison, Abreu hit .340 with six home runs, a .493 SLG and a 158 wRC+. That would be a massive improvement for the middle of the lineup.
In addition to the catcher position, the Guardians could also choose to consolidate some of these middle infield prospects to swing a deal for a top of the rotation starting pitcher to pair with Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie in 2023. Some names to keep an eye on are the Marlins Pablo Lopez and the Brewers pair of Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff. Cal Quantrill is a serviceable arm, but if he does not need to start two games in the American League Division Series, then that can only be a positive for this team because it means they upgraded the starting rotation. Bieber is set to become a free agent in 2025, so it only makes sense the team will look to trade him after 2023 or in the middle of 2024. The window is wide open now for this team to make a run. They need to capitalize while they have Shane Bieber leading the rotation.
The Guardians typically do not make moves until after the Winter Meetings, so it may be a quiet couple of weeks on the Hot Stove. After that, expect President of Baseball Operations Chris Antonetti to be in the lab working his magic, trying to improve this team within the margins. On Episode 52 of the Guardians Of The CLE podcast this past week, Zack Meisel noted a payroll of around $90-$100 million could work really well for this team, taking factors such as attendance and revenue into consideration. With a payroll of just $66 million in 2022, that should theoretically leave plenty of room to improve this team from outside the organization to pair with this talented young core. Of course, there will be increases in salaries for arbitration eligible players as well.
This team blew past all expectations anyone had for them in 2022. The next step forward is to become World Series contenders. To do this, they are going to need to beat the good teams consistently in 2023. This becomes even more important with the balanced schedule set to begin this coming season. It only makes sense for the organization to look to add guys who have been to the playoffs before to help lead the youngest team in baseball to a World Series run.
Questions may remain, but it is only mid-November. Antonetti is the MLB Executive of the Year for a reason. Now, It is time to enjoy the holidays, and let Antonetti work his magic to improve the Guardians for what will hopefully be a long playoff run deep into October in 2023.