November 28, 2021

Projecting the Guardians Best Starting Nine – October Edition

With some distance between us and the 2021 MLB regular season, there has now been time to reflect on the successes and failures in what was the final year of Cleveland Indians baseball. And while the Indians era has come to a close, we do know that baseball in Cleveland will be back in 2022 with a cast of characters both similar and different. Today, we take the opportunity to take inventory of what we just saw from the Tribe in 2021 and project forward. What follows is an attempt to project the Guardians’ best starting lineup for the early part of the 2022 season. But first, the ground rules…

These predictions come in large part based on the experiences of the season that we just witnessed and are limited to the nine position players on the field every day. Before we get to the main subject, one has to feel good about the predictability of Cleveland’s starting rotation in 2022 (BieberCivalePlesacMcKenzieQuantrill in some order). In terms of the bullpen, that will likely need to be fleshed out over the course of the off-season outside of standout building blocks like Emmanuel Clase and Nick Sandlin. For those reasons, we are sticking to the position players for this exercise. This starting nine is briefly followed by observations about who might end up on the bench, plus what positions the team might look for outside of the organization in order to improve. With that potential improvement in mind, the team has stated that payroll will be up in 2022 (I know… how could it get much lower, amirite?) and while that can be the case solely through arbitration payouts that current players will be due, the door is certainly open for free agent signings, trades and the use of the waiver wire. While future iterations of this post may include potential new additions, right now there is just too much noise to say anything distinctive. For that reason, we will stick to known entities.

Without further delay, leading off for the Cleveland Guardians in 2022 will be…

CF Myles Straw

The Indians came into 2021 as a team without a traditional center-fielder on their roster (remember Ben Gamel?) and would ultimately resolve that hole via a trade for Straw, though it would take until the trade deadline to do so. He ended up playing 56 games in center for Cleveland and would use his speed and athleticism to begin to establish himself as one of the best defensive center-fielders in baseball. By the time that the season was complete, he ended up with more appearances in center than any other Indian. Straw also slotted in nearly immediately as the team’s lead-off man, making 55 appearances at the top of the order. Straw has speed, incredible contact skills (in the best 2% of league in Whiff Rate) and a batting eye that rivals Carlos Santana, which are all qualities that make him a perfectly logical choice to lead off. He stole 13 bases in 14 attempts for the Tribe and had a 30 steal season in total between the Astros and Indians. Straw will be 27 in 2022 and will be arbitration-eligible in 2023. He feels like a building block for both the present and future of the team.

2B Amed Rosario

Rosario went from iffy potential platoon center-fielder early in the season to being secured into the shortstop role for most of the summer. He did this by having a solid offensive season that included him leading baseball in 4-hit games and a blistering August that saw him hit .372 with a Weighted Runs Created + of 162 for the month. Rosario had the type of year where the organization can feel like they have a reliable offensive player moving forward. On the flip side, his reputation as a shortstop even before coming over from the Mets was not pretty. He, unfortunately, lived up to that reputation both statistically (-3 Outs Above Average) and by the eye test in 2021. Rosario played shortstop for the Indians in 2021 not because of his prowess on the diamond, but because there was a time where no other option could hit his way out of a paper bag. Rosario hit, and because of that just kinda stuck in the role because it was working offensively and he created one less location on the field to consider a question mark. His placement at the less demanding second base position is understandable in 2022 because of his foibles at short, but is conspicuous because of what it potentially means about shortstop. More to come on that later. For now, Rosario will be arbitration-eligible for the second time this off-season while he is only 25 years old.

3B Jose Ramirez

Cleveland’s offensive star is likely to remain in the 3-spot in the lineup. While the organization is largely forward-thinking, Francona and co. still seem to stick to a traditional approach in filling out the lineup card, specifically with having their most impactful hitter hitting 3rd. Hosey was brilliant again in 2021, finishing in the top ten in baseball in runs scored (111), stolen bases (27), Isolated Power (.272), and Wins Above Replacement (6.3). He remains a power threat from both sides of the plate while being difficult to strikeout. Though he made some errors in the field that stuck out in 2021, he is also generally one of the better third basemen in baseball. Ramirez will be in the final year of his peak prime in 2022 at 29 years old. He is technically a free agent with a $12 million club option for 2022 and has a similar club option coming in 2023. The only way the organization doesn’t pick up those options is if a real-life version of Rachel Phelps buys the team from the Dolans this off-season. Seriously, he is one of the ten best position players in baseball right now making only $12 million a year. Google “no brainer”. The first choice will be the Guardians picking up Jose’s option.

DH Franmil Reyes

La Mole! Franmil hit 30 homers in 2021 despite playing only 115 games largely due to an oblique injury that caused him to miss more than a month. If Reyes can remain healthy for a full 2022, he joins Ramirez as a 40-homer threat in the middle of the Guardians’ order. Statistically, he was the 2nd best hitter on the Tribe in 2021 with a .522 Slugging Percentage pushing him to a Weighted Runs Created + of 125. He also dabbled in right field a little as the season went on and while the team could use some versatility from him, he is a poor defensive outfielder both statistically (-2 Outs Above Average in only 11 games… this is a cumulative stat) and based on the eye test. He’s really suited to be an everyday DH the same way that Travis Hafner was many years ago. Reyes will turn 27 in July and is going to be arbitration-eligible for the first time. There hasn’t been a lot of talk around it, but he is someone Cleveland should look to extend if they have his interest and the appropriate cash flow. He joins Straw and Hosey as a key part of their offensive core.

1B Bobby Bradley

So, let’s get the bad out of the way immediately. Bradley strikes out a lot. Like a lot. Like 4th most often of any hitter in baseball with at least 250 plate appearances in 2021 (35.5% K-rate). The good news though is that in 2021 Bradley proved that when he does make contact against Major League pitching, his power plays against the highest level of competition. As proof, he hit 16 home runs in 74 games played in 2021. With those power numbers, Bradley’s wRC+ was around league average at 99. This comes from a young player with less than 400 Major League plate appearances and clear areas where he can improve. In short, his present is decent and the future holds potential. Defensively, Bradley appears to be just fine at first and appears to be making a trademark out of doing the splits while stretching for throws on close plays. A full slate of at-bats in 2022 will likely tell that tale on if he is a star talent, solid contributor, or one-trick pony in the Majors. He has earned the right to get the chance to prove himself in 2022. He will be 26 years old for most of the season and is not arbitration-eligible until 2024.

LF Josh Naylor/Harold Ramirez

So, there are two names here for a couple of reasons. For one, no one is sure if Naylor will be ready for the start of Spring Training after breaking both his right leg and ankle on a gruesome play in late June in Minnesota this past season. Team President Chris Antonetti is optimistic that Naylor will be ready, but only time will really tell. What’s even more of a mystery is what his mobility in the field will be like on a team where he will likely need to play in the field due to Reyes. Admittedly, Naylor is also a bit of an unknown offensively. He had shown impressive ability at the plate in the minors in past years but was log-jammed in San Diego before being traded to the Indians. He struggled in the 2020 stretch run for the Tribe and in April this past season (.604 OPS between September 2020 and April 2021). What’s notable though is that vs. right-handed pitching, Naylor hit .287 with a wRC+ of 117 in 2021 before his season-ending injury. Against lefties, he hit only .193 with a wRC+ of 41. It’s a small sample, but he seems like a great platoon candidate.

This brings us to Harold Ramirez. Big Harold was added to the organization on waivers before the 2021 season started and didn’t start the season with the team but was added to the 25-man roster in early May. A great June that saw him hit .319 with 4 dingers propelled him to stay with the Major League squad for the rest of the season outside of an IL stint in August. Ramirez hit .288 against lefties for the season with a wRC+ of 112. He makes just as much sense as a platoon candidate as Naylor does and may start every day until Naylor is ready to assume the fat part of the platoon. Ramirez is a perfectly adequate outfielder that played some center without embarrassing himself when the Indians were looking for solutions in 2021. He could be a moderate defensive upgrade late in games over Naylor if Naylor really is problematic in the field. Together they very well may cobble together to be a strong everyday left-fielder.

Naylor will be 25 for most of 2022 and will be arbitration-eligible for the first time. Ramirez will also be arb eligible but will be 27 for most of 2022.

SS Gabriel Arias

Here’s where it starts to get a little tricky. The middle infield positions for the Guardians are absolutely maddening to figure out. Rosario is likely in one of the two roles based on his fine 2021 season. The other spot has a myriad of young but unproven options to choose from. The most obvious options right off the bat are the ones that received time on the Major League squad in 2021: Andres Gimenez, Ernie Clement, Yu Chang and Owen Miller. Gimenez was the gem of the Francisco Lindor trade and played a strong shortstop (3 Outs Above Average) in limited time early in the 2021 season. He’s young, has a prospect pedigree and is probably the smart money. Clement statistically played 2nd base better than Gimenez played shortstop in 2021 (4 Outs Above Average) and hit just as well by wRC+ (72 vs. 73, respectively), but his potential projects to be more of a Jamey Carroll utility man type player. Yu Chang took until August to really start hitting the ball at all (wRC+ of 31 before August and 141 after) and it’s yet to be seen if he can consistently hit Major League pitching. He feels like a little more versatile version of Clement due to his larger body type. Miller knocked the cover off the ball in the minors in 2021 but didn’t reproduce those results in the Majors whatsoever (.204/.243/.309 in the Majors). His long-term dreams aren’t done, but he is probably bottom of the totem in this conversation.

And yet, I’m not picking any of these guys. Honestly, none of them stick out enough. I am going out a bit on a limb by choosing Arias as the Opening Day shortstop. He would be making his Major League debut, but he had a great slash line of .284/.348/.454 with 17 home runs in a 120 game campaign at AAA in 2021. MLB.com lists him as the Indians’ 4th best prospect and marks him as ready for Major League arrival in 2022. Really, he probably doesn’t have much more to prove in the minors and everyone above him on the depth chart has already had a chance. Still, there are so many things that make this prediction muddy. Who is going to survive the Rule 5/40-man roster crunch? There’s clearly a logjam of young middle infielders. Do any of them get traded? Does Rosario’s good season get parlayed into a trade? How do any of these guys play in Spring Training? There’s also another middle infield top prospect in the Cleveland system by the name of Tyler Freeman that probably won’t be ready for Opening Day but very well may be ready in some time in 2022. Oh, and there’s a labor dispute that could change all the roster and financial rules and render all of the above completely irrelevant. Through all the confusion I am going with Arias. He will be 22 in 2022 and would be a pure rookie, the 3rd pure rookie to start for the Indians on Opening Day since 2017 (Yandy Diaz-2017 and Eric Stamets-2019).

RF Bradley Zimmer

Zimmer strikes out at near Bobby Bradley levels (35.1% K-rate) and while he has shown prodigious power at times, he doesn’t display it as often as the Indians’ potential first baseman. However, if Zimmer is to make the Indians’ Opening Day roster it is more likely to be because of his speed and glove than it is to be because of his bat. Zimmer was an excellent defensive center-fielder in his brief time in the position for the Indians in 2021. He was usurped in that role by Straw and ultimately slotted to right-field where only Josh Naylor played more games than him. Bradley has great range and a strong arm. There’s no doubt he can play right-field, if anything, he is overqualified for the position. He also is a base-stealing threat on a team that really started pursuing utilizing its speed as 2021 progressed. If Cleveland returns to that strategy in 2022 Zimmer can have a real niche on this team. The only thing holding him back is that he must hit at some basic level of respectability. Preferably, he would be at least a little better than the .227/.325/.344 slash line he posted in 2021. He needs to use that speed and power to derive more extra-base hits. Unfortunately, his development time is dwindling. Zimmer will be 29 in 2022 and becomes arbitration-eligible moving forward.

C Austin Hedges

This one might be just as much about who is picked as it is about who isn’t. Roberto Perez has a $7 million club option for 2022, but a combination of injuries and diminished play suggests that perhaps the Guardians will not be exercising it. Perez didn’t have a single passed ball in 2019 or 2020 combined. He had 3 in limited games in 2021. He also hit an embarrassing .149 (we know that batting average isn’t all that important, but that’s just abysmal). His wRC+ was just 56. Signs point to a diminished ballplayer.

Hedges honestly wasn’t that much better offensively (.178/.220/.308), but the organization seems to heavily value defense behind the plate and Hedges was second-best in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved at catcher (12, only Jacob Stallings was better for the Pirates). The argument may even be made that part of the secret sauce that Cleveland has in its pitching prowess is that it highlights catchers that are proficient defensively. It is clear that the team is willing to value catcher defense even at an offensive deficit. It won’t necessarily be traditionally pretty but expect Hedges behind that plate early and often in 2022.

Whose on the Bench?

Based on the way the lineup is laid out, one bench spot is automatically going to whichever of Naylor or Harold Ramirez is not starting. That leaves us with three remaining spots. Two of those are likely to go to members of that cavalcade of middle infielders that are young but unproven. At only 23 years old, with the veneer of top prospect status still not completely off of him and with an option left, Gimenez feels like someone that the organization would rather have play every day, even if it isn’t at the Major League level. On the other hand, Ernie Clement has career utility man written all over him. He feels like someone that would make the Major League roster for that role. That leaves a spot to be figured out between Chang, Miller and Freeman. Freeman is not likely ready to play in the Majors on Opening Day (though how service time rules change this season may have something to say about that) and Chang had better offensive numbers than Miller and is able to play all over the infield while Miller doesn’t really have a history at shortstop. It is not certain that the Guardians backup catcher for 2022 currently has a relationship with the organization, but Ryan Lavarnway might be the most likely candidate. He spent all of 2021 in the organization although he only played in the Majors briefly. The team had signed Wilson Ramos mid-season in 2021 but he suffered an ACL injury and will be 34 years old for most of 2022. Lavarnway seems to be a smarter bet, though whether either are Major League catchers next season is not certain.

At this point, the bench shakes out as Naylor/H.Ramirez, Clement, Chang and Lavarnway.

Where They Are Most Likely to Try to Upgrade?

Something happened in doing this exercise that surprised me. Even after watching what was an entirely lethargic offense that was no-hit three times in 2021; I found myself squinting my eyes and feeling like every player mentioned as a starter here would be capable of being a strong contributor in 2022. The most questionable individuals on here are Naylor/Ramirez in left-field, Zimmer in right and Hedges behind the plate along with how the middle infield spots will shake out. From a distance, whichever middle infield spot isn’t held by Rosario feels like it would be ripe for the picking for an upgrade from free agency or a trade, but Cleveland is so flush with young middle infield talent that reality is likely the opposite. Solutions should come from within.

Looking at 2021 numbers, a platoon of Naylor and Ramirez really does seem like a viable option for the outfield. That platoon is dependent on whether or not Naylor will be ready though or how he looks after a harrowing injury. And with that in mind, maybe the real place to upgrade is that left-field spot. One the other side of Straw, if Zimmer hits just well enough that his defense can keep him playing every day then you can hide a poor defensive left-fielder like Naylor or a mid-level free agent that can hit but is a butcher in the field because Straw and Zimmer cover so much ground.

Meanwhile, Hedges will also lead with his defense but has the added benefit of doing so at a position that is exponentially more impactful than right-field is. Despite his inability to swing the bat, I think he might be the safest of any of the question marks, though I think the potential that his backup comes from outside of the organization is likely.

Ultimately, the corner outfield spots seem the ripest for potential upgrades. Naylor is likely on shaky ground, Ramirez might be best suited as a 4th outfielder and Zimmer is wholly dependent on his ability to hit at least a little bit, which isn’t a sure thing. It will be interesting to take some more time as the off-season actually begins and see what may come of the rumor mill. With that in mind, expect this projection to return multiple times this off-season as potential names come to light. With an off-season comes possibilities and hope once again as the Indians convert to the Guardians.

 

Twitter- @DJLJR26

Feature Image: The Herald Star

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