The Guardians had a pretty quiet offseason, but they splurged (by their modest payroll standards) on a pair of everyday sluggers to augment the lineup.
Major League Signings
2023 spending: $22.5MM
Total spending: $39MM
Trades & Claims
Notable Minor League Signings
Josh Bell and Mike Zunino have combined for 82 home runs in 1713 total plate appearances since the start of the 2021 season, while the Guardians had a collective 127 homers over 6163 PA during the 2022 season. Of all 30 Major League teams, only the punchless Tigers went yard fewer times than the Guardians in 2022, making power the obvious need for Cleveland heading into the offseason.
This isn’t to say that Bell or Zunino were necessarily at the top of the wishlist. Zunino might not have even been the second choice, as such catchers as Sean Murphy and Christian Vazquez also drew interest from the Guards in both the trade and free agent markets. However, the A’s and Guardians never lined up on a trade match for Murphy, and thus the backstop ended up headed to the Braves as part of a three-team, nine-player deal. Vazquez, meanwhile, went elsewhere in the AL Central by signing a three-year, $30MM pact with the Twins.
With other options off the market, Cleveland pivoted to Zunino on a one-year, $6MM deal — significantly less than the cost of Vazquez’s deal, or the prospect cost it would’ve taken for the Guardians to top Atlanta’s offer for Murphy. It’s fair to assume that the Guards’ limited payroll played some role in the front office’s decision to ultimately land on Zunino, as well as the team’s related 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 deliver his customary blend of strong defense, a lot of power, and also a lot of strikeouts at the plate. Health is no guarantee, however, since Zunino’s 2022 season was cut short by thoracic outlet syndrome surgery 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 (particularly a hitter) might rebound in the aftermath.
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 subpar offense from their catchers (i.e. Roberto Perez, Austin Hedges, or Luke Maile) in exchange for excellent glovework, and yet in the wake of Zunino’s surgery, the Guardians don’t really know what they’re getting offensively or defensively behind the plate.
Unsurprisingly, the Guards have tried to mitigate that risk with other catchers, signing Cam Gallagher, Meibrys Viloria, and Zack Collins to minor league deals. That trio and in-house candidates Bryan Lavastida and David Fry are all in competition for the backup catching job, and the Guardians are also surely hoping that Bo Naylor earns another MLB promotion at some point in 2023. Naylor will begin the season at Triple-A to amass more regular playing time, but if Zunino or any of the backup candidates struggle, it might force Cleveland’s hand in regard to how much more time Naylor spends in the minors.
The catching position needed 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, who will team with Josh Naylor (Bo’s brother) in a first base/DH timeshare. It is worth noting that Jose Abreu was another prominent name the Guardians considered, to the point that the Guards reportedly made Abreu a three-year offer before the first baseman opted to sign with the Astros for a three-year, $58.5MM deal that was presumably out of Cleveland’s price range.
Bell’s contract is for a more modest $33MM over two years, and it might end up being a one-year, $16.5MM pact since Bell has the ability to opt out after the 2023 season. The contract size and structure reflects Bell’s inconsistency over the last four seasons, as other teams may have been wary about giving a longer-term deal to a player with so many extreme peaks and valleys in his production.
The bottom-line numbers are strong, as Bell has hit .264/.353/.475 with 89 homers in 2051 PA since the start of the 2019 season, translating to a solidly 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 prior to 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-strikeout approach at the plate is a match for a Guardians team that adheres to that offensive philosophy. There is 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 cut back on his near-league-leading grounder totals.
Bell and Zunino are the big additions to a Cleveland roster that will look very familiar to the 2022 model, and the “if it ain’t broke…” logic can certainly apply to the Guardians’ relatively slow winter. The Guards were the youngest team in baseball in 2022, and yet many of these young talents helped lead Cleveland to the AL Central title and then the deciding fifth game of the ALDS against the Yankees. As well, an argument can be made that the Guardians were ahead of the curve in preparing for the 2023 season, since they’ve already built a roster based around speed and defense heading into a season where both facets of the game will be emphasized by the new rules. (Even the pitch clock adjustment should be less difficult for a team with so many players who have so recently competed under a clock in the minor leagues.)
President of baseball operations Chris Antonetti left no wiggle room in stating they “have every intention of trying to contend [in 2023], and trying to win a World Series.” Still, even if the Guardians considered trading for Murphy, the concept of packaging several prospects in a win-now move generally isn’t Cleveland’s style. Likewise, even trading more established players like Amed Rosario, Aaron Civale, or Zach Plesac to create room for the newcomers might’ve been a tactic the Guardians would’ve explored if they didn’t feel they were genuinely close to competing for a championship. This isn’t to say that one of the starting pitchers or maybe even an everyday shortstop like Rosario might not be on the trade block by the deadline, but that would mean that either the Guardians have fallen out of the race, or else the team has immense faith that one of its wealth of young pitchers or young middle infielders is ready for a larger role.
The Guards did move some younger players in trades this winter, partly out of necessity to open up 40-man roster spaces for more up-and-comers. Will Benson, Carlos Vargas, Owen Miller, and Jose Fermin all had some nice numbers in the minor leagues and Benson and Miller had even made their MLB debuts, but the Guardians moved all four of these players in low-level deals for cash or for minor leaguers who didn’t yet need to be placed on the 40-man.
The Nolan Jones-for-Juan Brito trade was a bit different, as Brito did immediately secure a spot on the 40-man roster. The deal probably came as a surprise to some Cleveland fans who wondered why the Guardians were moving a player recently considered among the team’s top prospects, since Jones was a regular on top-100 lists from 2019-21. That said, the Guards felt comfortable in moving Jones (coming off his MLB debut season) to the Rockies for Brito, a 21-year-old middle infielder who has yet to reach high-A ball.
It could be the Guardians were simply taken by Brito’s ability strong minor league production and up-the-middle defensive profile, or perhaps they had concerns about Jones’ high strikeout totals and his lack of a clear-cut defensive position. A natural third baseman, he obviously had no path to playing time at the hot corner in Cleveland. Since Jones was ultimately dealt for a prospect and not more of a win-now piece, perhaps other teams shared these concerns about Jones’ viability at the big league level.
More deals could certainly emerge over the course of the season, as the Guardians could be tempted to make a more significant prospect-for-veteran swap at the deadline in order to bolster themselves for a playoff race. Antonetti and GM Mike Chernoff have set out to make the Guardians into perpetual contenders rather than a team that pushes their chips in for a singular run, but there might be a bit of extra pressure to try and win while the Guards still have Bell, Rosario (set for free agency after the 2023 season), Shane Bieber (after 2024), and while Jose Ramirez is still in his prime. Plus, given how longtime manager Terry Francona isn’t sure how long his health problems will allow him to keep managing, the organization surely wants to capitalize on having one of the game’s best skippers in the dugout.
We’ve already seen some hints of Cleveland’s aggressiveness in its payroll hike, as the Guardians are set to spend around $90.7MM in 2023. It isn’t a top-tier payroll by any measure, but it is an increase from the approximate $69MM the Guards spent on 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 that the Guardians aren’t going to suddenly splurge on any high salaries at the deadline.