The 2023 MLB season is nearly upon us and hope springs eternal for our beloved Cleveland Guardians. Of course, Opening Day brings hope for all teams, but the 2023 season could be particularly promising in Cleveland. 2022 saw the Guardians not only put the league’s youngest team on the field but still excel in the American League Central division despite their youth. They fought and scratched and clawed against the New York Yankees in the AL Division Series before finally being toppled in a win-or-go-home Game Five.
2023 will see the Guards bring back largely the same team that provided youthful exuberance as well as proficiency last season. They have added some much-needed power potential to the heart of their order and find themselves in transition at the catching position. A reliable starting rotation is supported by even a fresh crop of prospect starters ready for their chance while the team will try to repeat as one of the best bullpens in the sport.
Below, I am projecting the Guardians 26-man roster. To be specific, these are NOT the 26 men I think will break camp and head to Seattle for Opening Day. These are the 26 individuals that I think will play the most and have the most impact on the team over the course of the season. I have included some statistical projections as well. These are a mix of doing some math based on historical data and a bit of an educated guess based on how I think the players will respond to a new season. This isn’t Fangraphs. My methods are somewhat rudimentary, so calling them “Dan’s Highly Technical Projections” is a bit tongue-in-cheek.
We starting with the Guards starting lineup.
Batting 1st: LF Steven Kwan
Dan’s Highly Technical Projections: .302/.377/.405 8 HR 41 RBI league-best 8.2% K-Rate 4.7 WAR
The Guardians’ lead-off man is already highly decorated. Gold Glove Award winner. Rookie of the Year finalist. One of the best traditional lead-off men in the game. Guardians Chess Club Ringleader. A new season lends to question if Kwan is a product of beginner’s luck and a sophomore slump is in the offing. Between his temperament, elite bat-to-ball skills and spark-plug nature, I think the answer to that question is a resounding “no!”. With Luis Arraez out of the picture, expect Kwan to be the hardest hitter in the American League to strike out.
Batting 2nd: SS Amed Rosario
DHTP: .275/.305/.408 12 HR 69 RBI 82 R 2.2 WAR
Boot up Guardians’ Twitter on any given day and Rosario’s expiring contract is one of the hottest topics you will find. With a plethora of young middle infielders waiting their turn in the minors, some believe dealing Rosario during the season and getting a return for him is the team’s best course of action. With the Guardians in contention, I’d rather play with a known entity at SS. Rosario may not be an All-Star, but he has been the picture of consistency as a Guardian and is highly respected in the clubhouse. Expect him in the 2-hole day in and day out in 2023 both for his solid production in the lineup and the vibes he brings outside of it.
Batting 3rd: 3B Jose Ramirez
DHTP: .286/.374/.567 38 HR 106 RBI 47 doubles 6.9 WAR
Ramirez sat out the World Baseball Classic to make sure all is right with the injured thumb he played through in 2022 and which was surgically repaired in the off-season. His prudence this spring should mean he has no restrictions come Opening Day. Now coming into his age 30 season, Ramirez will be once again in the mix as the Most Valuable Player in the American League. You can book it. Ramirez might be Cleveland sports’ most underappreciated superstar in history. There isn’t someone else I’d rather have dedicated to the franchise. My only question is if someone further down the lineup could compete with him for MVP of the team (that’s called foreshadowing).
Batting 4th: DH Josh Bell
DHTP: .256/.339/.450 23 HR 96 RBI 11.7% Walk-Rate 2.6 WAR
Bell signed with the Guardians in December and stands to make $16.5 million for his services. He could also return in 2024 if he doesn’t choose to opt-out. Cleveland hopes that Bell can add some much-needed power to the middle of an order that was 2nd last in homers last year. The switch-hitting 1B/DH definitely looks the part. Really, at 6 foot 4 and 260 pounds, he looks like a guy who could suit up on Sundays. Having the look and actually executing are 2 different things though. Bell hit a modest but not awe-inspiring 17 dingers last year and has only hit over 30 once in his career. Still, I think he’s an adequate offensive upgrade for this Guardians team. He walks a lot and puts up good at-bats, but plus-power production isn’t the given you might think it is just by looking at him.
Batting 5th: 1B Josh Naylor
DHTP: .267/.332/.439 19 HR 79 RBI 28 doubles 1.9 WAR
I originally was thinking of Naylor as a possible regression candidate as 2022 stands out as a positive outlier in a young career of bouncing back and forth between the Majors and minors. After further review though, Naylor has four things going for him. First, he’s knocked the cover off the ball this spring. Secondly, he has put a full year between him and the horrific knee injury he suffered in 2021, which should bode well for his consistency and stamina. Thirdly, he’s a pull-heavy hitter that should benefit from the shift ban. And lastly, with Bell and Gabriel Arias on the roster he can be platooned, and not forced to flail away at every pitch from a lefty within a 50-mile radius of home plate. Naylor can barrel balls with the best of them (against righties) when he is hot, and I expect him to be hot a lot in 2022.
Batting 6th: RF Oscar Gonzalez
DHTP: .275/.312/.428 15 HR 63 RBI 26 doubles 1.1 WAR
Gonzalez is another guy whose name has been brought up as a potential regression candidate. My outlook is a little more middling. I don’t expect him to be quite as productive as the guy that burst onto the scene for about 100 games last season and really rescued the Guardians’ outfield production. However, I also don’t think he is going to struggle. Key to his 2023 outlook will be if he can either become more disciplined at the plate or continue to have an uncanny ability to get bat on the ball with two strikes. He’s potentially a .290 hitter if he can resolve this and potentially back in Columbus if he can’t. Again, I think the answer is somewhere in the middle.
Batting 7th: 2B Andres Gimenez
DHTP: .303/.379/.462 23 HR 71 RBI 29 SB 7.1 WAR
One more for the potential regression candidate department, but quite frankly, I don’t see it with Gimenez. In fact, I’m doubling down. By the end of the year, Gimmy might end up with the most productive stat line on the team. The only part I feel uneasy about at all is if he will continue to hit for moderate power or not. Even if Gimenez does take a step back offensively, his foot speed and Gold Glove-level defense easily make him integral to the ball club. Another strong offensive season might just make him rival Ramirez for team MVP. Hitting seventh is definitely conspicuous considering the production I expect, but I don’t see Terry Francona rocking the boat with Rosario. Gimenez could possibly switch with Naylor though.
Batting 8th: C Mike Zunino
DHTP: .185/.257/.426 18 HR 38 RBI 6 Catcher Framing Runs 1.9 WAR
Cleveland’s other December signing will don the tools of ignorance and hold down the fort behind the plate until prospect catcher Bo Naylor is ready to come into the fold. Unfortunately, this means 2023 stands to be another year with a Guardians’ backstop having a sub-.200 batting average. I was initially pretty bullish about Zunino’s addition. Even with a low average, he has more pop than any Guards’ catcher in recent memory and is just as much of an accomplished receiver as the Hedges/Maile combo they had last year. Whether he can bounce back from thoracic outlet syndrome is yet to be seen though. A poor spring at the plate isn’t encouraging, but the bar is pretty low offensively compared to last year.
Batting 9th: CF Myles Straw
DHTP: .247/.323/.313 2 HR 35 RBI 31 SB 2.8 WAR
Straw had a weird 2022 where he was good offensively in April then bad for most of the season before returning to being fairly decent for the back half of August through the playoffs. Regardless of this, he won the Gold Glove for center field and I am personally interested to see how many bags he can swipe in 2023 given the new rules. I went for a conservative estimate here, because we don’t know how things will play out, but I’d expect Straw to be among the league leaders, if healthy. Turning over the order with him, Kwan, Rosario and Ramirez could be absolutely devastating on the base paths and it will be intriguing to see how that plays, especially if Bell hits.
With the starting lineup sorted, we turn our attention to the bench. Listed below are four likely bench guys including an infielder that should platoon with Naylor, the first choice for the outfield if Gonzalez falters, a catcher ready to ascend to the Majors and a young infielder that could provide flexibility.
Bench 1: IF Gabriel Arias
DHTP: .235/.297/.373 6 HR 31 RBI 11 doubles 0.5 WAR
Arias was afforded the opportunity to compete among his young infield peers for a spot on the 26-man roster and he has made the most of it this spring. On the opposite side of things, I wasn’t that impressed with his showing in the Majors in 2022. Not only did he hit .191 with a K-Rate near 30%, but he made some boneheaded plays in the field as well. Perhaps a winter to improve his game has done him well. The Guardians are a much better ball club if they are able to have him productively platoon with Naylor.
Bench 2: OF Will Brennan
DHTP: .275/.328/.381 8 HR 51 RBI 13% K-Rate 1.2 WAR
Conversely, Brennan impressed last year in limited time. How much playing time he gets this year will be heavily dependent on how the outfielders in front of him on the depth chart fare. If any of Kwan/Straw/Gonzalez falter, expect Brennan to be ready to step in. For the first time in literally decades, the Guardians might have outfield depth. I emphasize “might”. With the four outfielders featured here plus Richie Palacios and George Valera ready to go too, certainly, at least three of these guys have to be legit Major Leaguers, right? We’re about to find out.
Bench 3: C Bo Naylor
DHTP: .221/.306/.376 11 HR 45 RBI 15 doubles 1.5 WAR
A couple of things remain unclear after watching Naylor compete for Canada in the World Baseball Classic. For one, his bat is could potentially very real, or could not. He homered off of Astros starter Jose Urquidy during the tournament but otherwise was pretty quiet. The sample is so small though, you might as well throw it out. The real negative I noticed though is that his game-calling and pitcher management could use some work. This is why the Guards have signed Zunino. The best way for this season to go is for Zunino to play well and for the organization to not feel rushed to ascend Naylor. But what happens if Zunino struggles?
Bench 4: IF Tyler Freeman
DHTP: .273/.325/.366 3 HR 37 RBI 18 doubles 1.4 WAR
As a reminder, this exercise isn’t about who will be on the Opening Day roster but who will feature most prominently throughout the season. I really like Freeman under that criteria. I thought he was better than Arias in 2022 and was surprised when Arias made the playoff roster and Freeman didn’t. Arias will be up and with the team to start the year because he can play first and has more power potential. Still, I find Freeman important because he is a Major League-ready right-handed hitting infielder in a sea of left-handed hitting outfield prospects. If nothing else, he could be the standard slick-fielding utility guy.
With the position players out of the way, we turn to the Guardians’ starting rotation. Cleveland is home to an ace who excelled after making needed adjustments last season. He is surrounded by young pitchers that have established themselves at differing levels as legitimate long-term rotation solutions. With just as much young talent on the pitching side as the position player side, the Guardians find themselves with a bevy of options for 2023.
Starting Rotation 1: RHP Shane Bieber
DHTP: 17-5 2.48 ERA 178 IP 204 Ks 4.5 WAR
A full year and a half removed from a shoulder injury that caused him to miss a big portion of the 2021 season, Bieber should come into this season with a completely clean bill of health. Last year saw him gradually get better as the season progressed, culminating in a playoff showdown of aces that he won against the Rays’ Shane McClanahan. Bieber’s velocity was down last season, and I’m not sure we will ever see it come back entirely, but I’m also not sure I’ve seen anyone since Greg Maddux that painted the corners as well as Bieber did down the stretch last year. I’m thrilled to see that version of him for a full season.
Starting Rotation 2: RHP Triston McKenzie
DHTP: 11-9 3.28 ERA 165 1/3 IP 3.83 xERA 3.1 WAR
Another year of experience and another year of getting stronger in the off-season should bode well for Dr. Sticks. McKenzie has come a long way from when he was thrown into Major League action in 2020 after basically not pitching for two seasons. At times last year, he was the best pitcher on the staff, and at minimum, whether or not McKenzie can “make it” as a big league starter seems answered. He’s here to stay. After another off-season to work on his craft and get stronger, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him take another step forward. He’s a potential ace of the future candidate.
Starting Rotation 3: RHP Cal Quantrill
DHTP: 10-5 3.45 ERA 145 IP 2.1 BB/9 1.9 WAR
Let’s get the bad out of the way first. Until his most recent start on Thursday, Quantrill had been horrifically bad all spring, particularly with his command. Additionally, due to his “stuff”, he feels like someone that has pitched above his weight class in his time with the Guardians. Contrarily, he has performed well for long enough at this point that I don’t think regression is a foregone conclusion. He will need to pound the strike zone better than he has this spring, and he ultimately may be better suited as a #4 than a #3, but Quantrill will have given and will continue to give the Guardians quality innings.
Starting Rotation 4: RHP Aaron Civale
DHTP: 7-7 4.08 ERA 129 IP 1.7 BB/9 0.8 WAR
Aaron Civale is a way better pitcher than our most recent memory of him. That 1/3 of an inning he pitched against the Yankees in the playoffs is not a fair indication of some of the quality work he has done over the last few seasons with the Guardians. A bigger concern is if he will be healthy or not. Civale was on the Injury List three separate times last year. At the same time, once he finally remained healthy in August he pitched to a 3.35 ERA through the end of the season. Health and consistency are achievable but will be key.
Starting Rotation 5: RHP Zach Plesac
DHTP: 3-10 4.02 ERA 125 2/3 IP 4.13 FIP 0.7 WAR
So yes, I am going to chalk with my projected starting rotation for this year. There are a lot of Guardians fans that are looking to push Plesac, and even Civale, out of the door in favor of the young crop of talented starting pitchers that the Guardians could ascend to the Majors starting this year. This very well could happen if someone is pitching the lights out at AAA and either incumbent struggles. However, knowing how the Guardians tend to do business, they are going to give the established Major Leaguers at least a chance to fail first. Plesac is more than capable of competing at this level, but this is a sink-or-swim year for him. Given his competitive fire, he isn’t going to go away without a fight. He would still do well to stop creating distractions off the field and quit punching things with his pitching hand.
Lastly, we look to the bullpen. Overall, Cleveland took a lot of non-established pitchers in 2022 and turned them into first-time Major League relievers. The transitions worked brilliantly and supported one of the best closers in the game. 2023 comes with a disclaimer. Bullpens are hard to project year to year and a single season of success doesn’t provide guarantees. Regardless, the Guardians have the building blocks of a dominant bullpen and more options to plug in if any arms his roadblocks.
Long Relief: RHP Xzavion Curry
DHTP: 4.54 ERA 74 IP 0.8 HR/9 0.5 WAR
Curry is among that crop of talent that could be taking up a starting rotation spot if things go awry. He will not start the season on the Major League club, Hunter Gaddis will instead, but I think Curry is a better candidate as the season develops to give length out of the ‘pen or be the go-to guy if a starter gets injured. Konnor Pilkington had filled this role admirably last year as a gutsy competitor, but Curry’s ceiling is presumably higher. Either way, between Curry, Gaddis, and Pilkington among others, the shelves are stocked with versatile backup options for the rotation and bullpen.
Middle-Relief 3: RHP Eli Morgan
DHTP: 4.47 ERA 60 IP 4.01 xFIP 0.9 WAR
Morgan looked like a fringe Major League starter when he came up in 2021, but last season he looked like the real deal coming out of the bullpen. The role suits him better as he is mostly a 2-pitch pitcher. His fastball is decent but really exists to play off of his exquisite Vulcan changeup (which is also my favorite name for a pitch right now). I’m not saying he is Trevor Hoffman-level, but that changeup could be his meal ticket to a long career as a solid bullpen guy. He should eat quality innings for the Guards in 2023.
Middle-Relief 2: RHP Enyel de los Santos
DHTP: 4.34 ERA 48 1/3 IP 66 Ks 0.7 WAR
Last year’s successful reclamation project returns for an encore in 2023. De Los Santos had been a participating member in some awful bullpens in Philadelphia around the turn of the decade but the Guardians liked the raw tools and brought him in as a minor league spring invitee last year. The biggest change seems to have been his gradual increase in the use of his slider. He threw only eight sliders (not eight percent, just eight) in 2018 and it’s become his second most prominent pitch and a real weapon at that. Hitters batted only .174 off of it in 2022.
Middle-Relief 1: RHP Nick Sandlin
DHTP: 3.51 ERA 52 2/3 IP 0.4 HR/9 0.6 WAR
If health and consistency are the keys for Civale, they are the whole door for Sandlin. The side-winding righty can be absolutely dominant when he has his command. 2022 saw Sandlin get sent down to AAA because of wildness early, regain his command and then get injured right before the playoffs. Sandlin would miss the playoffs specifically due to a back/shoulder strain but is healthy coming into the new year. On the positive side, he’s great at keeping the ball in the yard and can miss a lot of bats. If Sandlin can bottle that, look out.
Set-up Man 3: LHP Sam Hentges
DHTP: 4.08 ERA 66 IP 3.44 xFIP 0.9 WAR
I’m taking a gamble here. Hentges will miss the start of the season with shoulder inflammation and there isn’t much news on when he will return at this time. If the tall left-hander can recuperate though, he is an absolute weapon. Hentges, a former starter who dabbled in the Guardians rotation when he first came up, has found a real home for this plus-fastball and wipe-out slider in the bullpen. He is also of high value to the team because he is the only left-handed pitcher with a definitive spot on the 40-man for the year. We should see lefty Tim Herrin early in the year in Hentges’s stead and we will have to see if Herrin can carve out a longer-term role in the time allotted while Hentges is out.
Set-up Man 2: RHP Trevor Stephan
DHTP: 3.07 ERA 71 2/3 IP 85 Ks 1.2 WAR
One of the low-key best moves the Guardians have made in recent memory was selecting Stephan in the Rule 5 Draft after the 2020 season and then having the commitment to keep him active the year. That decision proved fortuitous as he has gradually evolved into a powerful late-inning bullpen option for the Guards over the last two seasons. Quite frankly, there wasn’t a pitcher not named Clase that I would rather have had the ball in the late innings of a playoff game last year. Expect him to pitch a lot, especially in high-leverage situations. He’s practically a security blanket for Terry Francona.
Set-up Man 1: RHP James Karinchak
DHTP: 3.49 ERA 62 1/3 IP 14.3 K/9 0.9 WAR
This will be a very interesting year for James Karinchak. The league itself is at war with him on multiple fronts. First, it was the foreign substance ban. Now, he will not be able to go through his extended pre-pitch routine due to the pitch clock. Karinchak’s results in Spring Training haven’t been great, and that may or may not be because of needing to adjust. He wasn’t very good early last year either, but much like Sandlin, found it after a trip to the minors. I feel much better knowing the Guards have Stephan to fall back on because dominance from Karinchak is not a given, but it is a real possibility.
Closer: RHP Emmanuel Clase
DHTP: 1.81 ERA 75 IP 46 Saves 2.4 WAR
Statistically, Clase is right up there with the best closers in the game. I wouldn’t be surprised if you polled Major League hitters about who the toughest guy to face is and Clase won the poll. That 100+ mph cutter is as devastating as ever. What’s better is that Clase seems to be maturing as a pitcher. He has never struck out quite as many hitters as you would think but continues to get outs. Additionally, he’s been willing to increase his workload. Clase wouldn’t pitch three days in a row before 2022, but now he does. A rubber arm that throws over 100? Sign me up immediately. And don’t forget, Clase has already been extended for the foreseeable future.
We will conclude with final predictions by taking the performance of all 26 men and converting them into team success. Below, is a final prediction for how our 2023 Cleveland Guardians will fare. Among the other changes that occurred over the course of the off-season, it is important to remember that baseball is transitioning to a more balanced schedule. For years, people have claimed that the AL Central has gotten fat on wins because of how often it played itself. With more games against outside competition in 2023, this theory will be tested. I do not think Central teams will be as hurt by this change as some would suspect.
Record: 92-70, 1st in the AL Central
The schedule may get harder, but the Guards will be a year older and have upgraded with Bell and potentially Zunino. These factors should basically come out in the wash as Cleveland nearly matches its 93 wins from last year and once again takes the Division crown.
Defeat the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALDS in 4 Games.
Lose to the New York Yankees in the ALCS in 6 Games.
Speaking objectively, I expect the Guards to take another step forward in 2023 and to show that progress by getting deeper into October. When it comes to competing with the top level of teams in the AL though, I think New York and Houston are still a half step above them.