Naylor Activated; Gonzalez Demoted: What It All Means For a Ballclub Trying to Steal a Division Title

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When the Guardians activated first baseman Josh Naylor from the Injured List on Sunday, the move was a no-brainer. Naylor had arguably been the team’s best run producer through the first four months of the season as he hit .306 with 15 home runs and 79 RBI (a team high) to go along with a slugging percentage of .500 and weighted Runs Created+ of 128 through July 31st. He sat prominently in the clean-up spotting, hitting both righties and lefties and protecting star third baseman Jose Ramirez in the order.

That same formidable lineup presence was greatly missed while Naylor dealt with an oblique injury for the entirety of August. Manager Terry Francona tweaked with the batting order, most notably moving Ramirez to the 2-spot while the front office went to work inserting veterans like Kole Calhoun and Ramon Laureano to the roster to provide further lineup depth and add leadership on the field. While not as blatantly obvious, that additional leadership was likely just as needed as the additional production with Naylor out and other veterans like Amed Rosario and Josh Bell being traded at the deadline.

So after Naylor completed a short stint at AA Akron, there was no hesitation to bring him back into the fold. Not when considering that the Guardians added pitching talent this week in an attempt to stay within range of the American League Central Division race. Not when considering the team’s continued thirst for consistent hitting. And not when knowing what a spark Naylor’s boisterous attitude can be for a clubhouse.

Naylor’s presence was immediately felt on Sunday as he drove in one of Cleveland’s two runs on an RBI single. While he played as the Guardians’ designated hitter in the game, he didn’t seem to miss a beat. One of Cleveland’s most productive offensive players appears to be back in the fold for the stretch run.

 

So Who Got Sent Down and Why?

As is almost always the case, in order to activate Naylor, space needed to be created on the newly expanded 28-man roster. And while the Guardians must feel secure in bringing Naylor back to the Majors, their move move to demote Oscar Gonzalez in order to activate Naylor likely speaks to how they currently feel about Gonzalez as well… not very secure.

Why is Gonzalez the odd man out? The answer really seems simple. He has not helped the Guardians win many ballgames over the course of 2023. This is a stark contrast to last season where Gonzalez featured heavily in Cleveland’s lineup. No one hit in the 5-spot last season more than Gonzalez, as he batted .296 with 11 home runs in 91 games and posted a wRC+ of 125. The exclamation mark on what looked like it could be the start of a blossoming career was his two walk-off hits in the post-season including a series clinching walk-off home run vs. the Rays.

Along with those performances, Gonzalez had a history of minor league success and came into 2023 at just 25 years old. With this all in mind, he appeared to be on the fast track to being a prominent part of future Guardians’ lineups.

Instead, he has struggled every step of the way in 2023, starting with an underwhelming Spring Training followed by playing so poorly early in the year that he was demoted in early May. Gonzalez spent a good portion of the summer in the minors and was recalled on July 27. He had performed better since returning, but in this case “better” is relative, like how spraining an ankle is better than breaking one. Gonzalez hit .232 with an awful .337 slugging percentage in his return. He was ten times more likely to strikeout than walk, as he continues to be heavily plagued by plate discipline issues.

So while youth and potential would be arguments in favor of keeping Gonzalez in the Majors in lieu of other options, Gonzalez’s inability to perform doesn’t seem like it is changing any time this year. Truthfully, if the move to promote Naylor was an obvious one, then the move to have Gonzalez be demoted is nearly as obvious if the Guardians are legitimately not giving up on 2023.

And that’s ultimately what I take out of Gonzalez’s demotion. I do NOT think this is an indictment of Gonzalez’s longer-term future with the team (at least not entirely). He has real problems he needs to solve in recognizing Major League level pitches and laying off the appropriate ones, but he has a successful history to fall back on and is still young. Gonzalez also has two more option years left, meaning the team can send him to the minors for two more years without the risk of having to put him on waivers. This also made him more expendable than some other potential choices to be removed from the roster. Simply put, Gonzalez was demoted because it doesn’t seem like he will have much positive impact on the offense down the stretch and because his demotion would have the least negative impact on the overall team’s roster construction.

 

What Does This Mean For Everyone Else?

This move also does makes some minor statements about where this team stands. For one, if this week’s waiver claims weren’t indication enough, this organization really is being serious about the opportunity to try to steal away an AL Central title at the last minute. The Guardians very well could have punted for next year by giving Gonzalez continual at bats in the Majors hoping that he will figure it out or giving more reps to James Karinchak out of the bullpen rather than new additions Matt Moore and Reynaldo Lopez. Instead, they are making win-now moves, albeit low-risk ones.

Gonzalez’s demotion also speaks to where some of the team’s individual players stand in relation to their greater immediate and future plans. This is most notable for a few other candidates that may have been considered for demotion.

One such option was Calhoun- who at 35 years old has been productive in a short period (.261 AVG, 3 HR, 112 OPS+ in 23 games) but is probably not part of the team’s long range plans. The fact that the Guardians have held onto Calhoun speaks to their desire to win this season as he is a direct example of someone who could have been removed from the roster in order to give Gonzalez more Major League at bats, eschewing 2023 in favor of 2024 and beyond. Keeping him in tow could also mean that the team wants to continue their relationship with Calhoun through next season in a role that would probably sit somewhere between 2013 Jason Giambi and 2016 Mike Napoli. At the least, I wouldn’t be surprised if Calhoun goes to camp with the Guards in 2024.

Another player that may have been given consideration for roster removal would be catcher Cam Gallagher, who is a strong defensive catcher but has been admittedly putrid with a bat in his hands (.136/.168/.184 in 125 PAs). His continued inclusion on the active roster, despite the team already having two catchers in Bo Naylor and also recently activated David Fry, reinforces that the Guardians still believe in the defensive impact of the catcher position. Gallagher started on Sunday, so he will likely continue to get some playing time to impact games with his game-calling and framing skills, but I imagine he is also still in the dugout to mentor Naylor and Fry, who are both rookies.

A final, and seemingly most likely, option for demotion would have been infielder Jose Tena who has only seen spot work in the Majors this season and was selected to be promoted to the minors on Friday over the more prominent shortstop prospect Brayan Rocchio. Tena has only 12 Major League plate appearances in 5 games played but has provided some impact in spurts including a game-tying hit this past weekend. I am probably not speculating when I say that by keeping Tena on the active roster the organization is showing that they are intrigued with what he has to offer right now and would rather see more of him. I am speculating though when I say that his initial promotion over Rocchio means they have seen enough of Rocchio for now and want to give someone else (Tena, in this case) a chance to show what he is made of.

 

In Conclusion

The Guardians have just 25 games left and find themselves with a large hill to climb in order to catch the division-leading Minnesota Twins. Every move a team makes has impact and sends a message; this time of year is especially pivotal. The Guardians have made a very distinct choice in optioning Oscar Gonzalez to the minors on Sunday, a move that tries to maximize their opportunity to still succeed in 2023. A move that sheds light on how they feel not just about Gonzalez, but perhaps some of their other roster options moving forward.

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