As baseball’s hot stove begins to simmer, Cleveland’s ball club will look to not be left out in the cold.
The first blow to what could otherwise be a fruitful off-season for the Cleveland Guardians came with news on Monday that former Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu had chosen not to sign with the Guardians, but rather with the Houston Astros. Reports show that both Cleveland and Houston had offered the right-handed slugger three-year deals, however, the Astros contract was apparently more appealing to Abreu, who signed on the dotted line down in the Lone Star State.
— B/R Walk-Off (@BRWalkoff) November 28, 2022
Missing out on Abreu is a loss for a Guardians team that is looking to add power-hitting talent to a lineup that thrived on hitting for contact and smart base-running in 2022. A home run threat of Abreu’s caliber could have been exactly what the doctor ordered for an offense that currently needs to string multiple hits together in order to score. He would have also provided depth to a batting order that was often weak in its bottom third, even during their late-season hot streak and in the playoffs.
All of this makes Abreu’s rebuke disappointing. The newly-minted Astro was top of mind for many fans and prognosticators in terms of potential candidates for the Guardians to bring in and for negotiations to have gone for naught is discouraging.
Truthfully, for nearly two and a half decades now, it has been a struggle to watch Cleveland try to draw free agents to town. For the entirety of the Dolan ownership, free agency has been something the organization dabbles in at most. Further, even when they have pursued free agents, the results often haven’t been ideal. Outside of the Edwin Encarnacion signing before the 2017 season, signing high-profile free agents hasn’t been a successful venture. This is mostly due to a frugal ownership group not exploring many free agent options, but the team has also been burned by deals they have made in the past (for example the 2012-2013 off-season disaster that was adding Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn).
What the organization has been great at though, is acquiring talent via trade. Six of the Guardians’ nine starting position players for their Game 3 ALDS victory vs the Yankees this year were acquired via trade. That includes their All-Star second baseman, clean-up hitter and Gold Glove center-fielder. All-Star closer Emmanuel Clase and starting pitcher Cal Quantrill are the product of player swaps as well.
It is clear then that the Guardians have brought value to their roster through trades. On top of that, players only become eligible for free agency after they have vested six years of service time in the Majors. That means that most free agents are in their immediate prime or starting to hit the back end of their careers when they hit the market. These players are also higher priced than the cost-controlled players that are still working on vesting their six years either at flat rates or through the arbitration process.
This goes to show how free agency can be not just an expensive way to supplement a roster, but far from a fool-proof one. Continuing to use Abreu as an example, he actually had his worst year by slugging percentage in 2022. He has a reputation as a power-hitting first baseman but only hit 15 home runs in over 600 at-bats last season. At 35 years of age, if Abreu continues to regress, then his potential addition to the Guardians would certainly not have had the desired effect. In fact, adding Abreu, in that case, would have not only been unsuccessful at face value but would tie up what little extraneous financial resources the organization has in a non-productive player.
Due to the risk that I have described, I think adding to the roster by free agency may not be what is most advantageous for the Guardians in the first place. Rather, based on their past success, the way that the free agent market works and their current positioning as a young team on the upswing, they may be better served enhancing their roster by trade.
For a long time now, the Guardians front office has pushed a mantra of not competing within a window, but rather, competing in a way that is sustainable in the long term. This is much easier to do with younger players with potential than it is with expensive veteran free agents that tend to age out of their usefulness. By pursuing talent via trade, not only would expensive players in their prime be at Cleveland’s disposal to acquire but also younger players that are cost-controlled. For the right price, the world could be Chris Antonetti’s oyster.
And speaking of what that right price would entail, according to a variety of qualified outlets, the Guardians currently have a top-five minor league system. Simply put, the Guardians are well stocked on potential players to trade away to acquire accomplished talent while their pocketbook to outright sign players by free agency isn’t nearly as robust. The Guardians could take any number of their minor league prospects and present them in a trade to rebuilding teams that don’t feel confident that their few highly talented big leaguers will still be around when their team returns to prominence. Further, those other teams could accelerate their rebuilds by trading one of those few talented ballplayers they currently have for several prospects that they feel confident that they can develop. Even further than that, because the Guardians are so flush with prospects, they could do this without a blemish to their current 26-man roster. Everybody gets what they want. Everybody wins.
With all of that said, baseball’s Winter Meetings begin on Sunday. A few free agents have already started to come off the board. We are beginning to get into the part of the off-season where transactions can get interesting. Now is the time to be tuned in to if the Guardians are able to successfully add talent to their already highly decorated American League Central Division winning roster. The right trade or two could take them from being division winners to truly competing for a World Championship.