Cleveland Guardians' best-case and worst-case scenario for pivotal 2024 season

Mar 11, 2024; Goodyear, Arizona, USA; Cleveland Guardians manager Stephen Vogt against the Los
Mar 11, 2024; Goodyear, Arizona, USA; Cleveland Guardians manager Stephen Vogt against the Los / Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Cleveland Guardians fans into numerology are really looking forward to the start of the 2024 season. Since 2016, the Guardians have qualified for postseason action in every even-numbered year.

The question, as is often the case in Cleveland, isn’t whether they have the numbers, but whether they have the slugging. Last year, Guardians batters produced a .381 slugging average, second lowest in the bigs ahead of only Oakland. For comparison purposes, the collective slugging average of the dozen 2023 playoff teams was .433, a gaping 52 percentage point difference.

Cleveland Guardians Best-Case Scenario for 2024

If the Guardians are to rise to the level of AL Central champions – or at least Wild Card challengers – that aspiration begins with their rotation. New manager Stephen Vogt’s staff ranked top ten in both ERA and runs allowed per game in 2023, and the guts of it is back.

Rookie Tanner Bibee was 10-4 with a 2.98 ERA in 25 starts, and veteran Shane Bieber – in what for him was an off season – still produced a 3.80 ERA in 128 injury-marred innings.

Vogt is counting on the continued maturation of second-year starters Logan Allen and Gavin Williams, who combined for 30 starts with ERAs of 3.29 (for Williams) and 3.81 (for Allen).

But the real headline news will be if Triston McKenzie fully bounces back from the arm injuries that sidelined him virtually all of last year.  In 2022, McKenzie had a 2.96 ERA over 30 starts and appeared on course to supplant Bieber as the team’s ace.

Give McKenzie health and give the other four guys repeats of their previous best seasons and the Guardians will be able to throw a competent starter on the mound for virtually all of the 162-game schedule. There are, however, already cautions in that respect; Williams’ spring progress has been slowed by elbow soreness, and he will start the season on the IL.

Then it’s up to the offense, which in Cleveland usually means it’s up to Jose Ramirez. At age 31, he looks as solid as ever, coming off a season in which he hit. .282 with 24 homers and 80 RBI. As usual, he needs help, possibly from first baseman/DH Josh Naylor or his brother Bo, a catcher. Josh hit .308 with 17 home runs and 92 RBI in 2023, but Bo managed nothing better than .237 with 11 homers and 32 RBI.

What would really make Cleveland’s season is if hotshot prospect Brayan Rocchio can take over at shortstop. Rocchio, an MLB top 100 prospect entering camp, batted .280 at Triple-A Columbus last year and .377 in limited play in the Venezuelan Winter League.

Cleveland Guardians Worst-Case Scenario for 2024

In Cleveland, the list of potential nightmares also gets back to pitching. If McKenzie can’t bounce back to his 2022 form, that’s a big issue. If Williams’ arm issues are crippling – Guardians officials don’t think they are, by the way – that would really hurt.

And if Bieber continues his regression toward mediocrity, the Guardians are in deep trouble. During the stunted 2020 season, Bieber had an ERA+ of 236 on a scale where 100 is average. That fell to 136 in 2021, then 131 in 2022, then 110 last season.

It’s hard to see the Guardians succeeding in 2024 if Bieber is average or worse.

Then there’s the open question of who’s playing the most important defensive position on the field, shortstop. What if Rocchio bombs, like even touted rookies sometimes do? Plan B is Gabriel Arias, a 24-year-old backup last season. But Arias only hit. 210 and he struck out nearly one of every three plate appearances.

Finally, there’s the matter of power production. Beyond being 29th in slugging, the 2023 Guardians were last in the majors in homers, 28th in RBI and 27th in runs scored per game. The outfield of Steven Kwan, Myles Straw and Will Brennan combined to gin up just 99 extra base hits last year, only 11 of which were home runs, and the bad news is that outfield is back intact.

Most realistic scenario for 2024 Cleveland Guardians

If Bieber, McKenzie, Bibee, Williams and Allen can combine for 150 starts, 800 or so innings and a group 3.70 ERA, then the Guardians will probably pitch well enough to work around their questionable attack and win the AL Central.

They still have Emmanuel Clase, one of the game’s few dependable closers, for wrapup duty. Last season, Clase led the league in saves for the second straight year (with 44) and covered 73 innings, although there were an unusually frequent 11 blown saves along the way.

The pitching has to come through, because there aren’t many windows for growth in the offense. Rocchio is the only possible addition of significance to a lineup that is – with the notable exceptions of Ramirez and Josh Naylor – both mature and average. That’s a bad combination. Chase DeLauter and Kyle Manzardo are both opening 2024 in the minors.

If the pitching isn’t exceptional, then even numerology might not be enough to win Cleveland its usual even-year postseason spot.

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