As we unofficially laid to rest the Guardians 2023 playoff hopes last week, the next natural thing to do is begin looking to the future. Indeed, 2024 can bring reincarnation and the Guardians have made focusing on the future that much easier but firmly planting their casket into the ground over the last week or so. The team has lost four of their last five and six of their last nine while playing a group of position players both young and old that are competing for spots on the 2024 roster.
Certainly, there is a group of ballplayers on the Guardians that we can comfortably pencil into next year’s lineup. But that group is small enough to count on one hand and consists of Steven Kwan in left-field, Andres Gimenez at second base, Jose Ramirez at third base and Josh Naylor at first, likely in this order in the first four spots of the batting lineup.
The Guardians have to feel good about two Gold Glovers, their MVP candidate third baseman and their clean-up man that was stuffing the box score night after night until an oblique injury sent him to the IL. However, after you get past these four starters, truthfully, every other spot in the batting order is available. That means that the Guardians have more than half of the spots in their everyday lineup remaining uncertain for 2024.
The line of demarcation for this team between competing for this year and trying to answer question marks for next year was the trade deadline. Since that August 1st date, the Guardians have used thirteen different position players outside of Kwan, Gimenez, Ramirez and Naylor, all with the opportunity to audition for the future. Most of these players are the homegrown young guys that spent most of the early part of the season blocked from more regular at-bats by veterans like Amed Rosario and Josh Bell. However, the Guardians also have signed and played veterans Kole Calhoun and Ramon Laureano in order to provide depth, a veteran presence in the clubhouse and potential reclamation projects.
Unfortunately, most of the results for these thirteen ballplayers haven’t been great. The best have probably come from Calhoun, who has provided strong offensive results since being signed onto the ball club. He has hit .315 while slugging .519 within 50 plate appearances. He also had provided strong offensive showings for the Dodgers and Yankees minor league systems this year before the Guardians had picked him up (.297 average, .530 slugging combined). Conversely, Calhoun’s greater Major League career has been one with a reputation of being a glove-first player, his last decent prolonged offensive year was 2019. Additionally, he is 35 years old, so even if the Guardians have found something in a veteran hitter that maybe has figured something out, he isn’t much of a building block for the future.
So, the Guardians’ best hitter from the pile of guys auditioning isn’t a long-term solution. What else do we have?
Honestly? Not much. No other player has had a weighted Runs Created + above the average of 100 since August 1st. Brayan Rocchio has been the closest at 94 in 45 plate appearances. He hit a very respectable .289 in August but has lacked power. He hasn’t barreled a single ball in the month (an indicator of home run potential) and has a Hard Hit % of a paltry 20%. These numbers indicate that his batting average might be inflated, or at the very least, we should expect a lot of singles and not much else- which continues to be one of the biggest offensive deficiencies of this ball club. He has also made some questionable decisions on the bases over the course of the last few weeks, getting thrown out on multiple occasions. Still, Rocchio is one of the most recent call-ups to the team. He has a lot of room to grow.
Another player to mention is Gabriel Arias. Arias has spent the entire season on the 26-man roster but had only played sporadically before the trade deadline despite a prospect pedigree. When Arias has made contact, he has done so with authority. That’s the case whether we are talking about the entirety of 2023 or just August. He has the best Hard Hit% of any Guardian in 2023, meaning he hits balls at an exit velocity of 95 mph+ more commonly than any other player on the team (95 mph is a magic number. Balls hit at that speed or faster have a 50% chance or better of being hits).
The problem is that Arias also swings and misses… a lot. His Whiff Rate is the 18th worst of any hitter on the season (out of 414 hitters with at least 100 plate appearances). Or let me put it this way. Only Mike Zunino struck out at a higher rate than Arias as a Guardian this season. It would be fair to hope that with more consistent playing time Arias would start making more contact, but that has yet to happen and actually, his Whiff Rate is slightly up in August. Arias could totally still be part of the Guardians’ future, he has potential as a slick fielder with a very strong arm, but it will be a must that he finds a way to make more consistent contact while continuing to develop as a potential power threat.
Oscar Gonzalez also returned to the Majors when rosters spots opened up around the trade deadline and has gotten more consistent playing time since his promotion. Gonzalez really struggled in the early going this season after breaking camp with the Major League club. In fact, he was abysmal, slashing .192/.213/.288 before being sent down to the minors on May 6th. Since his return, he has been better, slashing .259/.290/.362, but is still not hitting at the level that he did in 2022. Gonzalez is a known free-swinger with a tendency to chase bad pitches. However, what was most odd about his earlier foray in the Majors this year was that while he was remaining aggressive in swinging at pitches outside of the zone, he was actually swinging slightly less often at balls in the zone than he did in 2022- taking more called strikes while continuing to chase.
To his credit, Gonzalez has self-regulated on this idiosyncrasy since his return to the Majors, he is swinging at pitches in the zone at a clip much closer to his 2022 rate. Still, the difference in his success year-over-year comes down to his success on these pitches in the zone. He hit .372 and slugged .623 on them last season. This year he is hitting .284 and slugging .392 on these pitches, though his average has been much better in August at .344- perhaps this could be something to build off of. Plate discipline is obviously key to Gonzalez’s Major League future, but nothing he has done since his most recent promotion suggests he will be toning down how often he chases pitches out of the zone. To his credit and despite his foibles, only Ramirez and Arias have better Hard Hit rates than Gonzalez for the Guardians since August started.
Disappointingly, the remainder of the group of ballplayers including Laureano, Myles Straw, Bo Naylor, and Will Brennan have done even less to impress. David Fry was putting together an impressive summer offensive campaign but is now on the Injured List. He could be someone to watch out for if he is given a clean bill of health as he has slashed .250/.308/.429 with 4 home runs, 13 RBI and a wRC+ of 102 in 92 plate appearances. He can also play catcher and has better slash-line numbers than the much more lauded prospect behind the plate, Bo Naylor.
But Brennan in particular though has done the least at the plate to encourage the Guardians to want to see more. Of the players vying for a future role, Brennan has gotten some of the most consistent Major League playing time with 352 plate appearances in total this season. He has used this chance to acquire a decent batting average of .251 but pretty underwhelming on base and slugging percentages of .284 and .355, respectively. Over August, he has struggled even more, slashing .171/.190/.244 with a horrific wRC+ of 15. The only thing he really has done well this year is put the ball in play. Brennan has the 14th-lowest K-rate of any hitter with 300 plate appearances or more, but what he hasn’t done is put the ball in play with authority. His Average Exit Velocity is in the bottom 1 percent of the league. His profile suggests a hitter that could hit a lot of singles, but he plays on a team chock full of similar players that already do what he does (and perhaps do it better, if you think of someone like Kwan).
All that being said, both good and bad, there’s only so much you can take out of ¾ of a season, let alone 18 games in August. Last year is a perfect indication of how you can only assume so much from even a full season, considering the modest success the Guardians lineup found last year and how that has devolved over the course of 2023. More directly, 18 games are essentially the blink of an eye compared to the course of a season or a sustained career. This goes even more so for players that are just coming into their own as Major Leaguers.
To drive this point home, here are a few stat lines that all relate to a mystery player’s first (about) 400 plate appearances in the Major Leagues.
Player A: .280/.313/.435 110 wRC+ 11 homers 27 doubles in first 400 MLB PA
Player B: .263/.297/.371 83 wRC+ 6 homers 21 doubles in first 397 MLB PA
Player C: .241/.286/.322 68 wRC+ 3 homers 14 doubles in first 402 MLB PA
Player D: .262/.300/.410 78 wRC+ 9 homers 21 doubles in first 401 PA MLB PA
A few things stick out looking at these profiles. Player A appears to be far and away the best of the four. He literally leads in every statistical category and by wRC+ is the only player with above-average production. Meanwhile, Player C trails in every category with really bad on-base and slugging rates and only 3 home runs in nearly a year’s worth of at-bats. The other two players are pretty comparable with nearly identical batting averages and OBPs while Player D hit a few more homers but has a lower wRC+ due to environmental factors (this is a hint).
Now time for the big reveal. Player A, the best player of the bunch, is Oscar Gonzalez. The comparable Players B and D? B is Will Brennan. D is potential future Hall of Famer Nolan Arenado. Let me say that again for effect. Potential Future Hall of Famer Nolan Arenado‘s first 400 plate appearances is very similar to Will Brennan’s.
And Player C? The player who certainly looked to have the worst offensive career of the group through 400 plate appearances? None other than our franchise player himself, Jose Ramirez.
Now, none of this means that Will Brennan is the left-handed outfield version of Arenado or that Brennan and Gonzalez are poised for careers better than Ramirez. It does mean though that as we go through the end of this season and we watch the Guardians give playing time to this young crop of players, we should remember that a career isn’t made in a handful of at-bats. To cast away potential young talent after a poor showing in these closing months would be incredibly reckless. 400 plate appearances, let alone two months, do not make a career.
There are clear and present weaknesses that ballplayers like Arias and Gonzalez (for example) can improve on, and if they do, they can turn it around. There is a track record for this. Just like Hosey. Just like Arenado.