The Guardians had a fairly quiet offseason, but splashed out (by their modest payroll standards) on a pair of everyday sluggers to shore up the lineup.
Major League signings
2023 Expenditure: $22.5 million
Total costs: $39 million
Trade & Claims
Notable Minor League Signings
Josh Bell and Mike Zunino have combined for 82 home runs in 1,713 total plate appearances since the start of the 2021 season, while the Guardians have combined for 127 homers over 6,163 PA during the 2022 season. Out of all 30 teams of the Major Leagues, only the Tigers no-hitter went fewer times than the Guardians in 2022, making power the obvious need for Cleveland heading into the offseason.
That’s not to say Bell or Zunino were necessarily at the top of the wish list. Zunino might not even have been the second choice, like catchers like Sean Murphy and Cristian Vasquez he also drew interest from the Guards in both the trade and free agent markets. However, the A’s and Guardians never lined up in a trade for Murphy, and so the backstop ended up with the Braves as part of a three-team, nine-player deal. Vazquez, meanwhile, went elsewhere in the AL Central by signing a three-year, $30 million deal with the Twins.
With other options off the market, Cleveland turned to Zunino on a one-year, $6 million deal — significantly less than the cost of Vazquez’s deal or the prospect cost it would take for the Guardians to beat Atlanta’s bid for Murphy . It’s fair to assume that the Guards’ limited payroll played a role in the front office’s decision to ultimately land Zunino, as well as the team’s relative need to use its minor league system as a steady pipeline of talent.
If Zunino is healthy, the Guardians can reasonably count on the backstop to provide the usual combination of strong defense, lots of power and also plenty of hits at the plate. Health is no guarantee, however, as Zunino’s 2022 season was cut short by surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome in July. TOS surgery is still a new enough procedure that there isn’t much of a proven track record for predicting how well a player (especially a player) might recover afterwards.
In short, it means that the Guardians are somewhat rolling the dice with a position that has been relatively stable for years. Cleveland has long been willing to accept bad offense from its rushers (ie Roberto PerezAustin Hedges or Luke Maile) in exchange for excellent gloves, and yet after Zunino’s surgery, the Guardians don’t really know what they’re getting offensively or defensively behind the plate.
Not surprisingly, the Guards tried to mitigate that risk with other catchers, signing Cam Gallagher, Meibrys Viloria and Zack Collins to minor league deals. This trio and the internal candidates Bryan Lavastida and David Fry they’re all in competition for the backup arrest job, and the Guardians hope so, too Beau Naylor earns another promotion to MLB sometime in 2023. Naylor will begin the season in Triple-A to accumulate more regular playing time, but if Zunino or any of the backup candidates struggle, he could force Cleveland’s hand in with how much more time Naylor spends in the minors.
The catching position had to be addressed with Hedges and Maile entering free agency, and first base also stood out as a position of need considering the Guards’ need for power. The answer was Bell, with whom he will work Josh Naylor (Bo’s brother) on first base/DH timeshare. It is worth noting that Jose Abreu was another prominent name the Guardians looked at, to the point where the Guards reportedly made Abreu a three-year offer before the first baseman opted to sign with the Astros on a three-year, $58.5 million deal that apparently was out of Cleveland’s price range.
Bell’s contract is for a more modest $33 million over two years and could end up being a one-year, $16.5 million deal as Bell has an opt-out after the 2023 season. Size and structure of the contract reflects Bell’s inconsistency over the past four seasons, as other teams may have been wary of giving a longer-term deal to a player with so many extreme peaks and valleys in his production.
The bottom numbers are strong, as Bell has hit .264/.353/.475 with 89 homers in 2,051 PA since the start of the 2019 season, translating to a consistently above-average 120 wRC+. But the 2022 season was a microcosm of Bell’s ability to swing between hot and cold. After crushing the ball with the Nationals before the trade deadline, Bell was dealt to the Padres as part of the blockbuster Juan Soto trade, and the first baseman then struggled badly with San Diego.
On the plus side, Bell’s high-contact, low-strike approach at the plate is a struggle for a Guardians team that adheres to that offensive philosophy. There’s also a chance that Bell’s best power numbers are yet to come if he can get the ball in the air more often and lower his near-league-high totals on the ground.
Bell and Zunino are the big additions to a Cleveland roster that will look very familiar in the 2022 model, and the “if nothing else breaks…” logic can certainly apply to the Guardians’ relatively slow winter. The Guard were the youngest team in baseball in 2022, and yet much of that young talent helped lead Cleveland to the AL Central title and then to the decisive Game 5 of the ALDS against the Yankees. Also, an argument can be made that the Guardians have been ahead of the curve in preparation for the 2023 season, as they have already built a roster built around speed and defense, leading to a season where both aspects of the game will be emphasized by the new rules. (Even adjusting the pitch clock should be less difficult for a team with so many players who have so recently pitched under a clock in the minor leagues.)
President of baseball operations Chris Antonetti left no wiggle room stating that “they have every intention of trying to fight back [in 2023]and trying to win a world series.” However, even if the Guardians did consider trading for Murphy, the idea of packing multiple prospects into a win-now move generally isn’t Cleveland’s style. Likewise, even trading more established players such as Amed Rosario, Aaron Civalethe Zach Plesac Making room for the newcomers might have been a tactic the Guardians would have explored if they didn’t feel like they were really close to competing for a championship. That doesn’t mean one of the starting pitchers or maybe even an everyday arm like Rosario might not be on the trade block by the deadline, but it would mean either the Guardians are out of contention or the team has immense faith that one of the wealth of young pitchers or young middle infielders is ready for a bigger role.
The guards moved some younger players in trades this winter, in part out of a need to make room on the 40-man roster for more up-and-comers. Will Benson, Carlos Vargas, Owen Miller, and Jose Fermin all had good numbers in the minor leagues, and Benson and Miller had made their MLB debuts, but the Guardians moved all four of those players to low-level cash deals or for minor champions who have not yet had to be placed in the 40-yard.
The Nolan Jones-for-Juan Brito trade was a little different, as Brito immediately secured a spot on the 40-man roster. The deal likely came as a surprise to some Cleveland fans who wondered why the Guardians would move a player recently considered among the team’s top prospects after Jones was a regular on top-100 lists from 2019-21. That said, the Guard felt comfortable dealing Jones (coming off his first MLB season) to the Rockies for Brito, a 21-year-old middle infielder who has yet to reach high-performance ball.
It could be that the Guardians were simply taken by Brito’s ability with his strong secondary production and superior defensive profile, or maybe they had concerns about Jones’ high strikeout totals and lack of a clear defensive position. A natural third baseman, he apparently didn’t get any playing time at Cleveland’s hot corner. Given that Jones was ultimately dealt for a prospect and not more of a win-now piece, perhaps other teams shared those concerns about Jones’ viability at the big league level.
More deals could certainly emerge during the season, as the Guardians could be tempted to make a more significant trade for veteran prospects at the deadline in order to bolster themselves for a playoff run. Antonetti and GM Mike Chernoff have set out to make the Guardians perennial contenders instead of a team pushing their chips for a one-off streak, but there may be a little extra pressure to try to win while the Guards still have Bell, Rosario. (set for free agency after 2023 season), Shane Bieber (after 2024), and while Jose Ramirez it is still in its prime. Plus, given how long manager Terry Francona isn’t sure how long his health issues will allow him to continue managing, the organization certainly wants to benefit from having one of the game’s best skippers in the dugout.
We’ve already seen some signs of Cleveland being aggressive in raising their payroll, as the Guardians are set to spend around $90.7MM in 2023. It’s not a high level of payroll, but it’s an increase from the roughly $69MM the guards spent for last year’s player budget. It remains to be seen how much more leeway (if any) Antonetti and Chernoff have for any midseason additions, though it’s probably safe to assume the Guardians aren’t going to suddenly break out in big salaries at the deadline.