When the Cleveland Guardians got to spring training last year, the mantra was that they were going to give the kids a chance. That, rather than sign a bunch of retread veterans to overpriced deals, they would find out if the bumper crop of prospects in their minor league system could hold their own at the major league level.
To say that the strategy worked would be an understatement. Not only did the kids hold their own, but they also won the AL Central and advanced to Game 5 of the division round before falling to the Yankees. The 2022 success breeds huge optimism for the future, but it also brings them right back to the same dilemma as last year.
Cleveland Guardians in similar spot as previous offseason
Namely, do the Guardians sign some depth in the outfield or find out if the .900 OPS that Will Brennan posted in September was real? Do they give Bo Naylor a real shot behind the plate or trade prospects (possibly including Naylor) for Oakland’s Sean Murphy? Do they bring in a right-handed bat to platoon with Josh Naylor at first base, or possibly move Naylor to more of a DH role? Do they bring back Amed Rosario at short or trade him to save payroll dollars and bring up one of the busload of middle infield prospects that they have developed? (Or – my favorite solution – do they exploit Rosario’s huge platoon split and use him as a right-handed first base/DH option?)
It gets even more complicated when you look at the pitching. Cleveland’s bullpen was as good as any down the stretch, but the track record of relievers sustaining a high level of performance is sketchy at best. Deciding who to keep and who to replace with another young arm is mostly guesswork, but guessing wrong would wreck a key pillar of the team’s success.
That brings us to the rotation, the biggest quandary of all. Four of the five starters are eligible for arbitration, the point at which starting pitchers start to get expensive. Add to that the fact that two of those guys – Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale – struggled for most of the season, and that another, Shane Bieber, will soon become prohibitively expensive and would also draw a king’s ransom if he was seriously put on the trade market, and suddenly the idea of Cody Morris or Gavin Williams or even Danny Espino in the rotation sounds reasonable.
But trading Plesac or Civale would be selling low, and Bieber is a guy you have to have if you want to win a playoff series. Ideally, one or more of the prospects develops quickly enough to pitch at an elite level while Bieber is still around, which, along with Tristan McKenzie and Cal Quantrill, would give the Guardians four playoff caliber starters. The reality, though, is that every team is hoping for that, and only a few will see it happen. The rest will either try to buy their way to a playoff-caliber rotation or fire their GM for not pulling it off.
The Cleveland Guardians have done better than just about anyone in building a competitive roster without tanking or spending huge payroll dollars. The division title in 2022 was the best example of that mastery, but maintaining a contending roster will require a similar level of genius.