The Cleveland Guardians limped to a 76-86 record in 2023, good for third place in a wretched American League Central division. However, that same division doesn’t look to be drastically improved heading into 2024 (perhaps especially after the Twins traded Jorge Polanco), and Cleveland has some exciting young players like Bo Naylor, Gabriel Arias and Brayan Rocchio that could take a step forward this coming season. So can they do more to be competitive?
What Have They Done So Far?
The Guardians haven’t improved their roster much this winter, with the only additions to the big league roster being swingman Ben Lively, glove-first backstop Austin Hedges, post-hype outfielder Estevan Florial and rental reliever Scott Barlow. As currently constructed, first-year manager Stephen Vogt’s club seems to be on the outside looking in at a playoff spot.
However, a handful of shrewd trades could get Cleveland back on track and have them slugging it out with the Polanco-less Twins for the AL Central crown. With that in mind, let’s dive in and see what deals the cost-conscious Guardians could make to help vault themselves into playoff contention.
First, a few ground rules. Let’s start with money. The small-market Guardians are consistently in the bottom third of the league in payroll expenditures, and that likely won’t change in 2024. They may not mind adding a few million here and there to improve their outfit, but we can safely rule out any players on large, long-term contracts as trade options.
Second, prospect capital. President of Baseball Operations Chris Antonetti may want to put a winning product on the field, but he’s not going to mortgage the future to do so. Trading away some depth pieces or mid-tier prospects for immediate help is reasonable, but top prospects like Brayan Rocchio, Kyle Manzardo and Daniel Espino aren’t going anywhere.
The Mets have publicly said that slugger Pete Alonso will be their starting 1B, but that could also be just posturing. Alonso has been nothing short of excellent since debuting in 2019, mashing 192 homers, averaging a 133 WRC+, and delivering 14.5 fWAR in his five big league seasons. The three-time All-Star was productive as usual last year, slashing .217/.318/.504 across 658 plate appearances. Unfortunately for the Mets, Alonso is in his final year of arbitration and the team looks headed for a retooling year after an ugly 75-87 showing in 2023.
The Guardians have an acute need for a thunderous bat in their lineup, as they finished dead last in all of baseball with only 124 home runs last year. Alonso crushed 46 dingers in 2023 and would slot in nicely at first base, with Josh Naylor becoming a full-time designated hitter.
By covering $10 million of Alonso’s $22 million salary, the Mets should be able to get a nice haul in return: young shortstop Welbyn Francisca, controllable utilityman Tyler Freeman and mercurial infielder Khalil Watson.
Rumors have swirled surrounding Milwaukee Brewers stars Corbin Burnes and Willy Adames all winter, but both players have stayed put thus far. The Brewers still boast a competitive team, especially after signing Rhys Hoskins, but likely could be convinced to part with the 28-year-old Adames, who is in his last year of team control, if offered the right deal.
Adames wasn’t quite as effective as usual in 2023, slashing .217/.310/.407 across 638 plate appearances, good for a 94 WRC+. However, he’s put up WRC+ marks well north of 100 in four of his six big league seasons, and would shore up shortstop for a Guardians unit that is otherwise set to turn to talented, but unproven youngsters Brayan Rocchio and Gabriel Arias in 2024. The caveat: Adames has only one year of control, and is set to earn $12.25M, which may be a bit rich for Cleveland. Then again, that’s why he won’t cost that much in trade capital.
If Milwaukee does end up trading Adames, the Guardians should be able to get a deal done with infield prospect Angel Martinez and outfielder Petey Halpin.
The Guardians could stand to add a quality corner outfield bat to play opposite left fielder Steven Kwan, as they currently have the up-and-down Ramón Laureano penciled in for regular playing time. As luck would have it, the Orioles find themselves with a bit of an outfield logjam, as big-league-ready prospects Heston Kjerstand and Colton Cowser will push incumbents Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander for playing time.
As a pending free agent, the 29-year-old Santander is the most logical choice to be moved, and his name has been in the rumor mill all winter. The switch-hitting right fielder would be a fine addition to Cleveland’s lineup, as he has worked to a career .248/.307/.459 slash line, and an even better .257/.325/.472 mark in 656 plate appearances last season. As with Adames, though, the issue is money: Santander is slated to earn $11.7M in salary, which could be a bit too rich for Cleveland’s blood. But that’s also why he has only $5.4M in surplus value based on our modeling, and why he shouldn’t cost the Guardians more than young outfielder Jake Fox, shortstop prospect Milan Tolentino, and perhaps a throw-in like RHP Davis Sharpe.
Mariners President of Baseball Operations Jerry Dipoto is no stranger to making headline-grabbing trades, and Seattle has a tantalizing stable of young arms from which to deal. 25-year-old right-hander Bryce Miller held his own in 25 big league starts last year, twirling 131.1 innings of 4.32 ERA ball, punching out 22.2% of batters faced, while walking only 4.8%. A full season’s worth of Miller should be even better than last year, as he’s posted a 3.65 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 10.8 K/9 across three minor league seasons.
Miller would provide a nice boost to a Cleveland rotation that currently features talented injury risks Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie, and intriguing second-year men Tanner Bibee, Logan Allen and Gavin Williams. Journeyman Ben Lively is set to be the next man up if someone goes down.
Miller will cost a pretty penny, as he’s under team control through 2029, but the Guardians have enough prospects stockpiled to get a deal done without moving any of their true blue chippers. A trio of top-ten prospects in Jaison Chourio, Ralphy Velasquez and Alex Clemmey could be enough to get Dipoto to bite.
The Guardians have a rock-solid bullpen headlined by two-time All-Star Emmanuel Clase, alongside James Karinchak, Trevor Stephan, Nick Sandlin and the newly-acquired Scott Barlow. If this group has a flaw, however, it’s a lack of left-handers. Sam Hentges projects as the only southpaw on the opening day roster, with 27-year-old Tim Herrin and converted outfielder Anthony Gose stashed in Triple-A.
The Marlins have a surplus of quality lefties, and can afford to deal one of A.J. Puk, Tanner Scott, Andrew Nardi or Steven Okert. Okert should be the most affordable, but will still provide a capable arm for the Cleveland ‘pen.
The 32-year-old is coming off a down year, having worked to a 4.45 ERA in 2023 after posting sub-3.00 marks the two seasons before that. However, his 29.6% strikeout rate and 9.7% walk rate last year were both better than his career averages. An abnormally high .295 BABIP and lower-than-normal 71% strand rate both point to bad luck as the cause for Okert’s troubles last season.
In exchange for three years of the veteran lefty’s services, the Guardians would part with shortstop prospect Gabriel Rodriguez and starting pitcher Doug Nikhazy.
Will It Work?
Does this series of five moves make the Guardians surefire World Series contenders? No. They still won’t be on the level of the Dodgers, Braves, Astros or Rangers. However, as the Diamondbacks proved last year and the Phillies the year before, sometimes just getting into the dance is all it takes.
Bringing in two powerful bats in Alonso and Santander, plus the solid glove/bat combo of Adames, would completely revamp a lineup that struggled mightily to score in 2023. Miller would add another high-quality arm to a rotation already brimming with upside, and Okert would bring a second capable southpaw to one of the better bullpens in baseball.
The new-look Guardians would be able to go head-to-head with a Twins team that hasn’t made any notable additions this winter. They’d also stay one step ahead of the Royals and Tigers who, although having brought in some nice veterans this offseason, still have plenty of holes. A win total in the mid-to-high 80s should be enough to get Cleveland into the postseason, and this flurry of moves gets them to that point.