With a 3-2 walk-off victory over the Oakland Athletics on Friday night, the Cleveland Guardians find themselves in all-new territory. They find themselves in the last playoff spot in the American League Wildcard race.
Admittedly, it’s only mid-June, which means it is way, way too early to be taking Wildcard races seriously. However, some may remember a time that feels like it was ages ago (otherwise known as being as recently as 2019) when baseball used to hold its Amateur Draft right around this time of year. After the draft was complete in those days, there was a natural progression by baseball’s front offices to start focusing on the next task on the calendar- the MLB trade deadline.
Yes, it may be too early to talk Wildcard, but it is not a stretch to suggest that we are entering trade deadline season. It is anybody’s guess what kind of financial support the Guardians ownership is willing to provide in order to add talent to a young, blossoming roster. Even so, it doesn’t feel out of the bounds of the imagination to advocate for the Guards to be buyers.
At the 54-game mark (exactly one-third of the season complete) they find themselves at a record of 28-26, a mere 2.5 games behind the American League Central-leading Minnesota Twins. And yes, if the playoffs were to begin today, they have usurped the Boston Red Sox for the AL’s new-fangled sixth spot in the post-season tournament. Of course, the playoffs don’t begin today, but that isn’t necessarily bad news. The truth is, the best may be yet to come.
Based on run differential, the Guardians’ record is actually an under-performance. Their current Run Differential of +35 is actually greater than that of the Twins (+25) as well as two other current playoffs teams in the Tampa Bay Rays (+22) and Toronto Blue Jays (+30). That same +35 Run Differential translates to a Pythagorean Record of 31-23. In a theoretical world where luck doesn’t exist, the Guardians’ record would be a full three games better than what they have actually posted.
Of course, we play the games for a reason. A better theoretical record is a small consolation for where the Guardians find themselves in the standings (barely in the playoffs). Still, their Pythagorean record is an indicator that if they keep playing as well as they have, they will continue to climb away from the .500 mark. Furthering that point, depending on what website you use as a source, the Guardians have somewhere between the 19th and 25th most difficult remaining strength of schedule in baseball. Most notably, they still get to play the lowly Detroit Tigers 14 more times.
To call the Guardians a competitive ball club feels directly on the nose. To say that things are trending in their direction feels even more true. They’ve gone 10-3 in their last thirteen games dating back to Memorial Day weekend, building momentum along the way. If that momentum can be sustained, as everything I have just stated would suggest, then adding a little additional talent could make Cleveland a legitimate contender in October.
So, what should the Guardians look to add? A lot has changed since preseason predictions suggested the Guardians offense would be more lethargic than Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. The Guardians’ weakness isn’t necessarily as cut and dry as we once thought. In fact, it might be the direct opposite of what we once thought.
Looking at Cleveland’s offensive statistics as a team, they are often ranked in the middle of the pack. Batting Average, On Base Percentage, Slugging Percentage, Runs Scored, weighted On Base Average and Wins Above Replacement have them all ranked 18th or better. They are in the top half of the league in most of these numbers. Their best stats are Batting Average (9th) and WAR (8th). Oddly enough, do you know where they don’t rank 18th or better?
Starting pitcher ERA and starting pitcher Fielder Independent Pitching.
In both cases, the Guardians starters rank 19th. The starters also rank 19th in K-rate and 20th in home run rate. As said before, we are now 54 games into the season. We are now deep enough into the campaign to feel comfortable with the idea that players will continue to play in a way that is similar to their current performance (save things like injuries that may affect them). All of this means that a real argument could be made that the portion of this roster that needs to be supplemented the most is the starting rotation.
Now, that doesn’t mean that the rotation’s situation is entirely dire. Aaron Civale should return from the Injured List after one or two more rehab appearances. While he has struggled so far this season, getting healthy could play a big role in his success. Shane Bieber has a 1.67 ERA in his last five starts and has used Maddux-like precision on the mound to compensate for his decreased velocity. He hasn’t allowed more than two runs in any appearance since early May. Triston McKenzie might arguably be the most consistent starter on the team thus far. Since building up his stamina at the beginning of May, he has pitched six innings or more in every one of his starts. Over the last 13 games, the Guardians starters are a much-improved 9th in ERA (3.28).
But they are still only 18th in FIP (4.31) over the same period, suggesting that their success may not be sustainable. All the more reason to believe that the rotation could use some help. While everything might not be dire, it’s not a guarantee that Civale and his ERA above seven will bounce back. Zach Plesac also hasn’t taken a leap forward in his third full year in the Majors, allowing on the top 15 worst Barrel Rates in the league (among pitchers with at least 100 Balls in Play).
I don’t know if Oakland’s Frankie Montas (who will be on the mound vs. the Guards on Saturday) or Cincinnati’s Luis Castillo or Tyler Mahle will become Guardians, but the inclusion of any of them in Cleveland’s rotation would be incredibly intriguing. They all potentially stand to be among the bigger names that could be dealt by baseball’s cellar dwellers. Still, whether it’s with a blockbuster or a smaller move, the Guardians should genuinely consider buying at the deadline. And believe it or not, adding to their rotation might not only be a good idea, but it might also be where they could get their most room for improvement.