Just a few months ago, there were signs of hope. The Cleveland Guardians may have come into the 2021-2022 off-season with a record below .500 for the first time since Terry Francona was named manager in 2013, but even with the adversity that 2021 brought, there was reason to feel that the team was just a few steps away from competing for the playoffs. A weak division will do that. So will a young, promising starting rotation that will start the 2022 season with a clean bill of health. A bullpen full of young talent that outperformed expectations in 2021 (6th best reliever ERA in baseball) gave even more credence to the optimism. And don’t forget about having arguably the best third baseman on the planet.
Don’t get me wrong, falling below .500 for the first time in nearly a decade was not a fluke. There are holes on the Guardians roster that need to be filled, but this organization contains one of the most qualified and capable front offices in all of baseball. Getting to the playoffs in four of the last six seasons on the type of budget that Cleveland has had doesn’t just happen on accident. So yes, moves needed to be made this past winter to bring the Guardians back to playoff prominence, but fans could feel confident that the execs calling the shots can make all the right moves.
Yet instead, the team has made no moves. Actually, that’s not entirely true. The Guardians did sign catcher Luke Maile to a 1 year, $900,000 deal last Saturday (March 12th). Maile has played 230 Major League games over the course of 6 seasons, accumulating a whopping 0.8 WAR. His most likely landing spot on the roster is as the backup catcher behind starter Austin Hedges.
In short, the Guardians have added a backup catcher and… nothing else. They are coming off of a polarizing re-brand that is a matter of getting used to whether you are a fan that supported the change or not, and the entire league is coming off of an off-putting labor dispute that wasn’t resolved until the eleventh hour, barely securing the entire 162-game season.
Maybe all’s well that ends well in terms of the lockout, but if you’re a Guardians fan right now, it’s hard to get excited. Even as someone who is personally an eternal optimist for this ballclub, it’s really hard to look at the bright side right now.
Arguably the biggest need for this ballclub was to get help in the corner outfield spots. Last week, in talking about Josh Naylor, we highlighted that the Guardians were 28th in OPS in left-field in 2021. As currently constructed, some combination of Naylor, Oscar Mercado, Bradley Zimmer and maybe Franmil Reyes would fit the corner outfield roles. Those four individuals have a combined career OPS of .737. The league average OPS since the start of the 2019 season is .741. That doesn’t seem so bad. Naylor/Mercado/Zimmer/Reyes equates out to about a league-average hitter. But when the highly potent and more likely DH Reyes is taken out of the equation, the other three prospective corner outfielders have an OPS of .677, nearly ten percentage points lower than the league average.
And yet, even with the flurry of activity that has occurred both before and after the lockout, the Guardians have stood pat. Since the Maile signing, they have flirted with both outfielder Joc Pederson and All-Star first baseman Matt Olson, but both players have already found different homes for 2022 through free agency and trade, respectively. The Guardians remain holding the bag.
So, who is left? Four months ago I took an in-depth look at the then lengthy options the Guardians had in terms of outfielders on the free-agent market. Here’s a look again at how I ranked the top 11 outfield free agents, my prediction for a contract the Guardians could offer and what that free agent’s current status is.
1. Jorge Soler
My Prediction: three years, $40 million- should be a competitive offer
Current Status: 3 year, $36 million contract with Marlins
My Prediction: two years, $24 million- should be a competitive offer
Current Status: 4 year, $48 million contract with Marlins
3. Tommy Pham
My Prediction: one year, $14 million- should be a competitive offer
Current Status: Hasn’t had much of a market. Poor 2021 seems to be hampering him. Has suggested he is open to playing first base which could generate interest from the Rays.
My Prediction: three years, $50 million- Conforto would probably decline)
Current Status: Interest from Diamondbacks, Padres, Rockies & Yankees. Terms not known.
5. Mark Canha
My Prediction: two years, $25 million- should be a competitive offer
Current Status: 2 year, $26.5 million contract with Mets
My Prediction: one year, $9 million- should be a competitive offer
Current Status: 1 year, $5 million with Cardinals
My Prediction: four years, $90 million- plausible offer, will probably get outbid
Current Status: 5 year, $100 million contract with Phillies
My Prediction: three years, $60 million- plausible offer, will probably get outbid
Current Status: 4 year, $79 million contract with Phillies
My Prediction: one year, $6 million- probably don’t even make an offer, will probably get outbid
Current Status: 1 year, $8.5 million contract with Brewers
10. Kole Calhoun
My Prediction: one year, $4.5 million- plausible offer, if the Guardians get desperate
Current Status:1 year, $5.2 million contract with Rangers
11. Joc Pederson
My Prediction: not sure I would even provide an offer outside of a minor league contract
Current Status: 1 year, $6 million contract with Giants
So, not to toot my own horn, but I actually feel pretty good on some of these contract figures that I suggested offering. I completely missed Avisail Garcia’s market being so potent and I apparently feel more strongly about Corey Dickerson than even the Cardinals do, but for the most part, I suggested contracts similar to their real-life outcomes. Also, apparently, Marlins GM Kim Ng and I are on the same wavelength in terms of valuing this class of outfielders. I wouldn’t mind moving to Miami… maybe I ought to see if they have any openings.
The players remaining on the board- Pham and Conforto- were both actually in the top half of my preferred free agents. So not everything is dire here. The Guardians still have a couple of opportunities to improve their roster.
Pham has been a strong stick in his career with a lifetime slash-line of .265/.364/.447 and career OPS+ of 120, though he can be a bit of an acquired taste in the clubhouse. He has publicly attributed his inability to find a team to sign with on what he’s himself called a poor 2021 season. Due to that performance, Pham has also openly stated he is looking for a 1-year deal so that he can try to perform better in 2022 and get a better payday next off-season. Perhaps his personality and desire to sign for one year have softened his market, or perhaps general managers (Ng included) just don’t like him as much as I do.
Conforto is a former All-Star who had spent his entire career with the Mets to this point. He was phenomenal in the shortened 2020 season (150 OPS+, .322 AVG) but came back down to earth in 2021 (101 OPS+, .232 AVG). Conforto declined a 1 year, $18.4 million qualifying offer from the Mets and is likely looking for a short deal with a higher Average Annual Value, or a longer contract that just really knocks his socks off. While teams are interested, neither such offer has materialized.
Still, conspicuously absent within rumors on both players is any mention of the Guardians. That isn’t a death knell for any hopes that Cleveland makes an addition, but it certainly doesn’t bode well. At this point, Pham feels like a bit of a distressed asset. The fact he is actively advertising a willingness to be flexible in the field suggests some concern that he isn’t getting what he wants on the open market. If the Guardians’ strategy is to not arm wrestle over any particular player on the outfield market and not get into bidding wars that could drive up prices, then Pham might still be their man. They are just waiting for the writing to be completely on the wall first.
Ultimately, what isn’t known is how much of the Guardians’ inactivity is about distaste for the current rates on the outfield market and how much of it is ownership’s own distaste in spending. Team president Chris Antonetti directly stated that payroll would go up in 2022. That has yet to materialize. Has the right deal not presented itself or was Antonetti asked to make a statement on the payroll in order to quell frustrations during the sea of change that was 2021?
The latest suggestion made by Francona is that Amed Rosario, who dabbled in the outfield in 2021 but mostly played shortstop, could be moved to left-field for 2022. This move would get Rosario out of the playing possibly the most impactful defensive position (outside of catcher) and place him where his weak defensive skills would make less of an impact. Additionally, the Guardians could then promote one of the plethora of young, internal shortstop options that may be ready to ascend from the minors.
This is somewhat promising. The Guardians really can take their pick of the litter from shortstops in their own organization. Whether it is Tyler Freeman, Gabriel Arias, Andres Gimenez, Yu Chang, or someone else, if someone takes the shortstop job by the horns in spring training then the team could still be upgraded by simply shifting of resources.
But this still feels like Plan C. And for an organization that is way too intelligent, qualified and flush with the talent to be waffling in mediocrity, Plan C isn’t going to cut it. Plan C isn’t going to get Francona back to the Series as he draws closer and closer to retirement. Plan C isn’t going to convince Jose Ramirez or Shane Bieber that ownership is serious about winning and that they should make their long-term home here. Plan C isn’t going to compete with the reigning division champion White Sox or even the re-tooled Twins.
Simply put, whether this inaction is the doing of the front office or ownership, this is not good enough.