In the wake of a handful of blockbuster trades, the Guardians find themselves in a strange middle ground where they have yet to fully commit to a rebuild but have not been serious contenders since 2019.
In the shortened 2020 season they finished a respectable 35-25 and made the playoffs before a quick first-round exit. They then regressed considerably in 2021, finishing 80-82, their first sub-.500 finish since the 2012 season. The downsward trend seems likely to continue in 2022, as little has been done to improve the Major League roster.
This winter, the Guardians have lost Roberto Pérez, Wilson Ramos, Blake Parker, and Bryan Shaw in free agency. They’ve also dealt Harold Ramirez and JC Mejia, receiving nothing that will benefeit the 2022 club (in return they received cash and a player to be named later).
Going back to the beginning of last offseason, Jordan Luplow, Phil Maton, Eddie Rosario, and César Hernández are all names on the list of departed players, as each was traded midseason in 2021.
In that same span, the most significant additions to the roster have been Sandy Leon (free agent signing), Myles Straw (Maton trade), and Pablo Sandoval (Rosario trade). Sandoval was most notable as he was released on the same day as the trade. Leon is a decent enough backup catcher, and Myles Straw has some terrific tools, but this is a roster much worse off than it was a year ago. Not only is this roster worse than previous seasons, but the rest of the division has improved, particularly Detroit (Javier Báez, Eduardo Rodriguez) and Minnesota (Carlos Correa).
All that said, there is still a good amount of talent on this Cleveland team. The rotation is a clear strength of this squad. Shane Bieber has established himself as one of the premier starters in the league. Bieber was phenomenal while healthy last season, sporting a 139 ERA+ and a 24.9 K-BB% across 96.2 innings. The young ace is expected to be ready for opening day. Cal Quantrill (152 ERA+, 149.2 IP) and Aaron Civale (114, 124.1) are also coming off quality seasons. Zach Plesac and Triston McKenzie each struggled last season but have enough tools and flashes of success to get excited. Plesac excelled at limiting free bases (86th percentile walk rate) in 2021, which is what McKenzie struggled with, but he excelled at missing bats, as he rated in the 77th percentile in both chase rate and K%. Youngsters Logan Allen and Eli Morgan will provide depth as needed.
The bullpen doesn’t have the same quality of depth but certainly has some exciting high-potential names, including closer Emmanuel Clase, who has quickly established himself as one of the better closers in baseball thanks in large part to his devastating 100mph cutter. His Baseball Savant page is truly eye-popping, as he ranks in the 96th percentile or higher in each of HardHit%, xwOBA, xERA, xSLG, Barrel%, chase rate, fastball velocity, and fastball spin. What sticks out perhaps more than anything is Clase’s control, ranking in the 86th percentile in walk rate. Control is often the Achilles heel of young flamethrowing closers, but Clase doesn’t seem to have that issue.
James Karinchak seemed like a real weapon out of the bullpen early in 2021, but struggled down the stretch, posting a 7.88 ERA after the All-Star break. Anthony Gose is another exciting name, as he continues his transition from the outfield to the mound. His pitching debut went well in 2021, allowing just one earned run across 6.2 innings of work while punching out nine hitters.
Offensively, the lineup leaves much to be desired. Jose Ramirez is a legitimate superstar, but the supporting cast around him is not enough for serious contention. Ramirez is coming off of a typical J-Ram season: 36 homers, .893 OPS, 6.7 bWAR, all-star honors, and a 6th place MVP finish. If the Guardians are far enough out of it by the trade deadline, a trade of Ramirez seems possible (although far from a guarantee). It would take quite a haul for anybody to add him, as the 29-year-old has a $13 million team option for the 2023 season before hitting free agency.
Franmil Reyes is the next best offensive weapon. He launched 30 bombs with a 127 OPS+ last season. Bobby Bradley, Amed Rosario, Andres Gimenez, Josh Naylor, Myles Straw, and Oscar Mercado all have enough tools and youth that they still have enough upside to potentially be exciting, but they are all far from sure things to be even league-average players (Straw was the only above-average hitter last year by OPS+). If enough of these players suddenly take a step or two forward, the Guardians could very quickly become postseason threats, but that is a massive “if”.
Win Projection: 76-86
The 2021 Guardians were a hair under .500. Essentially nothing has been done to improve the major league roster, while several everyday players have departed over the last year. Combined with their divisional opponents improving (last year Cleveland posted a strong 43-33 record vs AL Central opponents), a worse record seems inevitable. The pitching will be too good for them to be a bottom-tier team, but the offense inspires little hope of postseason baseball in the Guardian’s inaugural season.
Matt O’Halloran is a junior mathematics major at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He works in analytics with the school’s baseball program. He is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and an editor at Diamond Digest. He can be found on Twitter @matto20.