Here Come The Cleveland Guardians!

Are we looking at the next powerhouse in baseball?

Running a Major League Baseball team would appear to be one of the most enjoyable professions in the world. After all, many baseball fans love to partake in playing the role of “armchair general manager”, aiming to create hypothetical team-building scenarios to try to construct the most optimal team possible. Heck, with video games such as MLB The Show and Out of The Park Baseball, there are even more opportunities for the average consumer to envision themselves being in charge of an MLB team.

Yet, consider this a task easier said than done. Not only does a lead executive have to compete against some of the most brilliant baseball minds in the world, but they have to do so while reporting to the team’s owner, while also trying to create overall fan happiness. Thus, there is an extensive amount of outside pressure placed on a lead executive that could lead to them not following their intuition; those that can “clear the mechanism” the most are the ones that generally experience the most success.

A factor complicating matters further? Not every market is the same. The financial flexibility that is present for a New York team, the Dodgers, or the Giants is significantly different than that of the A’s or Rays, making it much more difficult for the latter group to build a sustainable winning team. Naturally, it’s going to be much easier to have success when you have the resources to acquire players on the open market, retain your core players, and build your player development group. Thus, smaller market organizations have a significantly lower margin for error; one mistake can be extremely crippling. In a sport without a salary cap, these gaps show.

Yet, that doesn’t mean that the teams with the most money end up as the best teams. In 2021, the Rays spent $70.8 million on their MLB team, while the Mets ($201M) and Phillies ($197M) spent nearly three times as much. Can you guess which of these three ended up as the #1 seed in their respective league? Perhaps not the one you were expecting. I mean, there literally is a movie detailing how Billy Beane transformed the A’s into a winning franchise despite massive constraints that you may have heard of.

Nevertheless, when it comes to focusing on the “small-market powerhouses”, there is one team that generally gets overlooked. That would be the Cleveland Guardians, who despite having notable financial limitations, have built a tremendous track record of success as of late. Even in the midst of the departure of several marquee players, that level of competitiveness has remained intact, and it’s all due to the blueprint they have established as an organization. Whether it’s prospect acquisition strategy, player development, or figuring out how to win on the margins, this is a franchise that is very aligned in what they want to accomplish and how to make that happen, allowing them to consistently overachieve expectations.

In fact, for organizations in similar spots, or even franchises with more money to spend, there is a lot that can be learned from how the Guardians have operated. We’re truly talking about one of the premier model organizations purely from a front office perspective, and it’s time for that to be appreciated. So, what specifically has contributed to Cleveland’s success, and what should other organizations learn from them? Let’s answer those questions, while, most importantly, also looking at the next powerhouse in the American League.

 

Cleveland’s Path To Stability

 

Once upon a time, Cleveland was the opposite of a winning organization. After all, isn’t that the basis of the movie “Major League”? There are a lot of terrific baseball movies out there, though I’m not sure any quite have the same comedic value Major League provided us with. Unfortunately, in reality, Cleveland did not have Willie Mays Hayes, Rick Vaughn, and Pedro Cerrano to provide them with hope for the future. Heck, they didn’t even have Jack Parkman! Rather, in 25 years between 1969 and 1993, the organization had a winning season just three times.

That’s certainly not ideal, but, fortunately, that’s when John Hart came to the rescue. I mean, there are worse ways to start your career as a general manager than drafting Manny Ramirez with your first ever draft pick. By 1994, the lineup was exceptionally talented:

  • C: Sandy Alomar
  • 1B: Paul Sorrento
  • 2B: Carlos Baerga
  • SS: Omar Vizquel
  • 3B: Jim Thome
  • LF: Albert Belle
  • CF: Kenny Lofton
  • RF: Manny Ramirez
  • DH: Eddie Murray

That’s quite a star-studded group of players! Outside of Murray, every other player was 28 years old or younger, while seven of the nine players had an OPS+ of 106 or higher. Altogether, they finished the season with the most runs scored in the MLB, and were 19 games above .500 when the infamous 1994-1995 strike ended the season prematurely. Unfortunately, the team didn’t get to show firsthand what they were capable of in the postseason, but it set the stage quite well for what was to come. In fact, throughout the rest of Hart’s tenure, the team experienced a tremendous amount of success:

  • 1995: 100-44 (1st Place AL Central, Lost WS)
  • 1996: 99-62 (1st Place AL Central, Lost ALDS)
  • 1997: 86-75 (1st Place AL Central, Lost WS)
  • 1998: 89-73 (1st Place AL Central, Lost ALCS)
  • 1999: 97-65 (1st Place AL Central, Lost ALDS)
  • 2000: 90-72 (2nd Place AL Central)
  • 2001: 91-71 (1st Place AL Central, Lost ALDS)

That’s quite a run for a small-market franchise. What’s almost even more staggering, though, is the fact that this did not result in a World Series championship. When you have so many bites at the apple, you’d hope it eventually leads to the ultimate prize, but, in the postseason, you can never count on anything. Unfortunately for Cleveland, Hart stepped down following the 2001 season, and, from there, the team experienced significantly more inconsistency and overall struggles.

Between 2002 and 2012, Cleveland made the postseason just one time. However, on October 4th, 2010, things changed for the better. Why? Well, that’s when Chris Antonetti took over as general manager. Similar to Hart with Manny Ramirez, it is not a bad idea to start your general manager tenure by selecting Francisco Lindor with your first ever draft pick. From there, manager Terry Francona was hired prior to the 2013 season, when, by virtue of a dominant pitching staff, the team won 92 games. In fact, from 2013 to now, Cleveland has only had one losing season under Francona, and that was with an 80-82 in a 2021 season which he missed due to health complications. That’s a remarkable accomplishment and something that cannot be overlooked in spite of the team’s lack of postseason success.

The true peak, though, came in 2016; Cleveland won the AL Central for the first time since 2007, and eventually came one game away from a World Series title. The most impressive part? They did so while being constrained to the seventh-lowest payroll in baseball. In fact, of the 2016 World Series roster, only three (Mike Napoli, Rajai Davis, Jeff Manship) were free-agent signings, all of which were for one year and less than a combined $13 million. Rather, through prospect acquisition and development, they were able to build a juggernaut of young talent, which not only set them up for success in the short term but moving forward as well.

Alas, when you have success, the hope is that it leads to a jump in payroll, which is exactly what happened. To add much-needed power to their lineup, the team splurged by signing designated hitter Edwin Encarnación to a three-year contract; that, combined with the further development of pillar young players (Francisco Lindor, José Ramírez), led to them surging in terms of power production (5th in isolated power/ISO), which, of course, correlated with the team winning 102 games during the 2017 season. Heck, with an expected win-loss record of 108-54, they actually underachieved to have the best record in the American League!

Unfortunately, although their 22-game win streak will remain as one of the franchise’s most thrilling moments, a collapse in the ALDS to the upstart Yankees ended Cleveland’s run prematurely. In 2018, the same group was essentially brought back, but a similar result ensued; an AL Central title followed by being swept by the Astros in the ALDS. Still, 2019 would be another chance to rectify their previous shortcomings right? That was the plan, though, instead, it served as a true turning point for the organization.

 

The Retool Begins!

 

Now, on the surface, although Cleveland did not make the postseason, they did win 93 games; wasn’t this just a typical season? Well, not exactly.

For Cleveland’s three-year stretch of excellence, they were able to rely on a specific core of players to take them to the promised land. Yet, starting in the 2018-2019 offseason, things changed. Outfielder Michael Brantley (Astros) departed as a free agent, as did reliever Andrew Miller, but that wasn’t the most significant part. Rather, between the trades of Edwin Encarnación, Yan Gomes, and Yonder Alonso, the team clearly made an emphasis to cut salary and made that even more evidently clear by spending just $2.5 million on outside free agents. Consequently, the team’s payroll decreased by nearly $20 million, while the team’s average batter age (27.8) and pitcher age (28.3) dropped by over a year. Altogether, it was clear that the team’s premier window was starting to close.

Wait, there’s more! As a result of multiple injuries, ace Corey Kluber was limited to 35.2 innings pitched, while Carlos Carrasco’s unfortunate bout with cancer also limited his output for the season (remarkably, Carrasco was able to make a full recovery soon after). Yet, these weren’t the only hits the rotation would take. Despite being just two games out of the AL Central with a 62-43 record, Cleveland opted to trade Trevor Bauer to the Reds, receiving outfielders Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes, as well as three prospects headlined by lefty Logan Allen, in the process. For the short term, there was some logic in taking the team’s top strength and using it to acquire multiple offensive contributors. That being said, the real purpose of this trade came down to money.

See, with Bauer scheduled for a noticeable raise in his third year of arbitration before becoming a free agent, the front office did not believe they could manage their payroll with him on the books. Instead, Reyes and Allen gave them multiple cost-controlled contributors to keep their window alive, while Puig, a rental, offered short-term appeal to keep them in the race. While there was “baseball sense” in making this trade, it was yet another signal that the team didn’t have the resources to keep their current core intact as they got more expensive, which is exactly what happened.

In the 2016 World Series, it was Corey Kluber who Cleveland leaned on to start three games, including game seven. After all, this is a pitcher who finished top-three in the AL Cy Young award voting four of the five years between 2014 and 2018. Yet, for someone with the injury concerns Kluber had, $17.5 million was too much for them to pay, and, thus, he was traded to the Rangers; while the deal, as we’ll go to, ended up working out exceptionally, it once again demonstrated the limitations the front office was dealing with. By the start of 2020, what do you know, their payroll was back under $100 million, and $30 million lower than the season prior. Does that sound like a front office with the support of ownership to build a championship-level roster?

As expected, given the lack of investment, Cleveland struggled mightily offensively (25th in runs/game) during the 2020 season, but thanks to the league’s third-lowest ERA, was able to find their way into the expanded postseason before a quick postseason exit. Additionally, with the emergence of pitchers such as Zach Plesac and Triston McKenzie, as well as a Cy Young season from Shane Bieber, the team felt comfortable trading Mike Clevinger to the Padres in a deal that, like with Kluber, worked out very well for them, but once again came down to finances- Clevinger was heading into his final two years of arbitration. Of course, they were able to compensate for that in the short term, though, eventually, you had to wonder how much longer they could be able to use voodoo magic to their favor with regards to their rotation.

Ultimately, though, that didn’t end up being a major concern; after multiple offseasons of slowly trying to get younger and cutting payroll, the hammer came down during the 2020-2021 offseason. Since the team he first emerged as a superstar-level player, Francisco Lindor’s future with Cleveland remained a pressing topic around the baseball world. Following the 2019 season, Lindor was entering his final two years of arbitration, and, thus, was not only getting more expensive in a hurry, but was also getting very close to becoming a free agent. Clearly, an extension with Cleveland wasn’t in the cards, based on owner Paul Dolan’s comments three years before he became a free agent:

Yikes. It’s certainly not a great look for a franchise to essentially concede to having a superstar player around for the long term, but for a few select organizations, that is the reality we live him. Thus, Lindor found himself in trade rumors for multiple offseasons, but the team found other ways to clear salary and hold onto him on the roster. With him only having one year left of team control, though, the time had finally come for a happy marriage to come to an end; he was traded, along with starter Carlos Carrasco, to the Mets in exchange for a four-player package. All of a sudden, only one player – José Ramírez –  remained with the team since that superb 2017 season, while they entered the season with the second-lowest payroll ($51.27M) in baseball. For perspective, that was down nearly $68 million from 2019. I mean, when a franchise is constrained to the point they have to trade away their cornerstone players and doesn’t have the resources to replace them in an adequate fashion, how are they supposed to remain competitive?

Yet, somehow, someway, the Guardians continue to win. In spite of ace Shane Bieber being limited to under 100 innings due to a shoulder injury, as well as unexpected struggles from multiple relied-upon players, Cleveland still essentially played .500 baseball (80-82). Now, a year later, they’re in first place in the AL Central, despite entering a season with a win total (76.5 wins) lower than the Tigers (79.5). So, how do they continue to defy the odds? Well, if you’re going to reshape your roster through trades of significant players, it’s paramount that you hit on those transactions. Fortunately for them, this has not been a problem.

Overall, between 2019 and 2021, there were four significant trades that the Guardians made:

At the time, these were all unpopular trades that were not generally well-received, yet, in hindsight, it’s easy to see Cleveland’s thought process behind each trade, most specifically, the return they got from each player.

  • Yasiel Puig provided Cleveland with a league-average bat with competent defense, a drastic upgrade over their current outfield situation; this helped soften the short-term blow of parting ways with Bauer. Meanwhile, Reyes presented prodigious offensive upside given his elite batted-ball data and was under team control for five more years, while Allen was a well-regarded pitching prospect. Ultimately, the main impact of this trade would come from Reyes, who was 25% above league average with the bat last year and was one of Cleveland’s only reliable sources of power. This season, unfortunately, he has been a below-replacement level player, and, thus, was cut loose. All told, simply the 2.5 productive seasons they got from Reyes make it a fair return for Bauer, and that was with the worst-case scenario taking place this year.
  • At first glance, trading one of the best pitchers in your franchise’s history for a reliever would appear to be a puzzling move. Then again, consider the circumstances here. Kluber had been limited to 35.2 innings the season prior due to multiple injuries, was entering his age 34 season, and was due $17.5 million in 2020. At the same time, Clase was 21 years old, had an established track record of limiting walks and barrels due to a lethal 100 MPH cutter complemented by a hard slider, and gave Cleveland a controllable high-leverage reliever for at least six years. For a small-market team that can’t go buy relievers on the open market, yet also was trying to remain competitive, that’s notable.
  • The Padres had an evident 40-man roster crunch doing the 2020 season, and Cleveland took full advantage. Naylor and Miller each demonstrated strong plate discipline numbers in the minors, while Quantrill was a 25-year-old starter with quality MLB production, prospect pedigree, and several years left of cost control. Furthermore, Arias is still seen as a plus defensive shortstop with plenty of raw power, while Cantillo’s combination of command, unique arm slot, and production in the lower minors made him a very intriguing pitching prospect. Heck, even Hedges at the time was regarded as arguably the best defensive catcher in baseball. That’s four controllable quality MLB players, plus two notable prospects, for 2.5 years of Clevinger. Yeah, that will work.
  • Any trade involving Francisco Lindor is going to be scrutinized, especially when it doesn’t involve a consensus elite prospect. That being said, for one year of a shortstop coming off of multiple “down” years, it’s easy to be infatuated by the return for him. Andrés Giménez isn’t the most physical of players but had consistently performed despite being extremely young for each level, including as a 21-year-old rookie. Meanwhile, with elite up-the-middle defense and contact skills, the expectation was that he’d be a quality everyday middle infielder. Rosario may not have had the youth or team control that Gimenez boasted, though he had proven to be capable of being a league-average offensive contributor with plenty of defensive versatility; Wolf and Greene represented two high-upside shots on young players at premium positions. At the very least, Gimenez’s median outcome was quite valuable for Cleveland, but there was a lot of extra upside attached to this deal as well.

Notice one common theme of these trades? For the most part, the Guardians not only targeted players with proven MLB experience/readiness at premium positions but, also went for quantity rather than perceived quality. For an organization that needs to fill out a well-rounded roster without financial resources, being able to acquire a variety of different types of players is the best way to do that. Plus, if we’ve learned anything by now, it’s that prospect/young player development is very volatile; if you give yourself more young talent, the odds are certainly higher that enough of them will become impact everyday players; they also increased the floor significantly by going for players they could count to produce at some capacity at the MLB level while also mixing in upside later on with their prospect targets. Sometimes, having the humility to understand your predicament is the best trait you can have. In true Moneyball fashion, Cleveland did not blindly believe in their ability to replace their star players with a 1-1 replacement, but, rather, attempted to replace them in the aggregate. So far, that has panned out tremendously.

 

The Guardians’ Hitter Acquisition Process

 

The process of acquiring and developing players, whether via the draft, trades, or free agency,  is very fascinating to observe on a multitude of levels. After all, if building a sustainable contending roster was easy, anyone could do it, right? Another wrinkle here; if every team has the same player acquisition/development process, then the overall redundancy leads to overall ineffectiveness, as well as a bland product of play. Yet, if teams go about the process in different ways, it’s likely that an organization can exploit enough market inefficiencies to build a team full of impact players that other teams simply overlooked.

How different is Cleveland’s acquisition and development strategy compared to the other teams? Well, it’s unique to the point we have to split up sections between hitters and pitchers. Simply put, this is an organization that knows what they’re looking for, isn’t afraid to be flexible, and is focused on what a player can do, rather than what they can’t. Hence, how they’ve ended up with the collection of players that have helped them get to this point.

Let’s start with the draft, which is where the Guardians really like to flex their muscles. Unlike other organizations, this is a team that is going to place a greater emphasis on overall production, rather than body projection or how a player “looks”. Meanwhile, they’re looking for quality contact skills with the athleticism to play up-the-middle positions; they appear to be a driving force in the movement that power can be developed later, while the other two skills give a player a very high floor. How can we tell this to be the case? Well, let’s just take a look at their recent drafts.

In the 2022 MLB Draft, Cleveland opted to take one of the more polarizing players, James Madison outfielder Chase DeLauter, with the 16th overall pick. As someone with a limited sample size coming from a small school, and, most importantly, concerns about his swing mechanics, DeLauter was a player that was divided based on the side of the prospect acquisition spectrum you land on. At the same time, this is a player who dominated (.402/.520/.715) during that time, walked (19.2% BB) more than he struck out (13.9%), performed well at the Cape-Cod League, and had one of college’s best combinations of lack of chases outside the zone combined with aggressiveness in the zone, per prospect analyst Mason McRae. Oh, and he came into the draft young for a junior and also profiles as either a center field or plus corner outfield at the next level. Yeah, that will work. From there, with contact-first oriented up-the-middle players such as Joe Lampe, Nate Furman, and Guy Lipscomb Jr., the Guardians rounded out their draft in the exact style you should expect. We’ll see what happens, but it certainly looks like Cleveland accomplished everything they wanted to here.

We’ll shift our attention to 2020; the Guardians focused mainly on pitching in 2021, which, as we’ll get to, has worked out quite well so far. In 2020, though, even if the results have been mixed, it was another example of them sticking true to their formula. 23rd overall pick Carson Tucker was a high school shortstop generally seen as being a plus athlete with strong contact skills, as well as the potential to grow into more power. Later on, high-school lefties Petey Halpin and Milan Tolentino didn’t impress all teams without substantial physicality, but Cleveland banked on their contact skills and athleticism. So far, Tucker has dealt with injuries and struggles, while Tolentino has struck out more than expected, but, then again, they aren’t the only team to get an inconsistent return from the 2020 draft- it turns out that drafting with essentially zero relevant information from the past year is quite difficult!

In 2019, it was more of the same for the Guardians. Second-round pick Yordys Valdes didn’t have an ideal offensive profile, particularly from a power standpoint, but was young for the class and was viewed as an elite athlete and defensive shortstop, giving him plenty of room to grow into at least a glove-first everyday shortstop. That hasn’t turned out to be the case so far, yet it’s quite justifiable where they were coming from. Although third-round pick Joe Naranjo had a risky profile as a high-school first baseman, many believed he was one of, if not the best pure hitter in the 2019 high-school circuit. Fourth-rounder Christian Cairo, meanwhile, was only listed at 5’8″ and 170 pounds, but what did Cleveland love about him? You guessed it; his contact skills and up-the-middle defense. Need more proof of the team’s optimal strategy? Look no further than eight-round pick Will Brennan, who showed zero power at Kansas State, yet only struck out on 4.7% of his plate appearances at Kansas State and was profiled as a true center fielder. Now, as an 8th-round pick, he’s continued to perform at every step of the minor leagues and is on the precipice of an MLB debut. Not too shabby at all!

Speaking of strong drafts from the hitter side of things, how about the 2018 draft? 29th overall pick Bo Naylor’s defensive future was unknown, but as an athletic player with offensive upside (including contact skills) and the potential to catch at the next level, the Guardians were convicted in his skillset. Now, he’s a 22-year-old performing at a very strong level (126 weighted-runs-created-plus/wRC+) in Triple-A while also solidifying himself as a catcher at the next level. Furthermore, in the third round, outfielder Richie Palacios, who walked (20.5%) almost three times more than he struck out (6.3%) during his junior year at Towson, fit Cleveland’s mold perfectly. The prize of this draft class so far, though? Who would have expected it’d be 5’9″, 170-pound outfielder Steven Kwan? Then again, as someone with twice as many walks (13.7%) than strikeouts (6.4%) at Oregon State with plenty of defensive upside, perhaps this shouldn’t have been such a surprise? As someone performing over 20% above league average offensively with elite defense in left field, I’m sure the Guardians are quite glad they trusted their process here.

The 2017 draft was a bit of a mixed bag for Cleveland, though, at the time, it was easy to see the upside of Quentin Holmes, arguably the most athletic player in the class, as a developmental center fielder- that’s a fine gamble at the back-end of the second round. Of course, it helps when you complement that pick with players such as Tyler Freeman, your traditional contact-first middle infielder who has developed as such en route to an MLB debut this year. Later on, fourth-round pick Ernie Clement lacked power but also simply refused to strike out (3.7%) at Virginia, while Austin Wade (5th round, more walks than strikeouts) and Mike Rivera (6th round, 9.7% strikeout rate) also were high-floor bets that allowed them to stay true to their drafting process. In spite of perhaps not having the greatest results here, when you look at the team’s last six drafts as a whole, it’s pretty clear that their approach has been an overall net positive.

Even in trades, players such as Andrés Giménez, Amed Rosario, Josh Naylor, Owen Miller, and Gabriel Arias all fit the types of players Cleveland has the most faith acquiring and developing. In fact, a quick read on Fangraphs’ lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen’s overview of their current farm system makes this quite clear:

“The Guardians show consistent patterns of acquisition in the amateur space, prioritizing compact, switch-hitting up-the-middle players internationally, while drafting lots and lots of domestic pitchability college arms who they try to help throw harder. They have also tended to target young-for-the-class high schoolers in the draft, though as that approach has become more popular around baseball, they have had fewer opportunities to do so.

The penchant for switch-hitting infielders is strong, like your friend who orders the same thing from your neighborhood lunch spot every time the two of you eat there. Of the 18 infielders on Cleveland’s extended spring training roster (all but two of whom are international signees), 13 are switch-hitters. Compact, short-levered hitters are also common throughout the Guardians system. The team shares an Arizona facility with the Reds, and the contrast between the size and physicality of the Reds’ position player prospects and the Guards’ youngsters was often striking this spring because the two clubs take such different approaches in the amateur markets. Cleveland has executed this stuff with such consistency that they now have a glut of hitterish little middle infielders throughout the mid and upper minor leagues, and they have another two (Dayan Frias and Angel Martinez) who will either be added or become Rule 5 eligible at the end of the year.

Because they lack overt power projection, Cleveland tends to churn out players who outperform scouting expectations. Some of that is because the Guardians are excellent at developing players (other than the upper-level outfielders who they’ve tried to platoon in recent years) and some of that is because of scout bias against and/or misevaluation of little guys like Steven Kwan. This system may only have one guy we project to be a star, but it has many who we think will produce like good regulars and many more who look like high-probability role players.”

We’ll get to the pitching side of things in a second, but there is some beauty in how Cleveland is able to overcome general human biases that can be evident in the scouting world. After all, players such as Steven Kwan aren’t going to immediately catch your eye, but, ultimately, if they can perform at a high level, that isn’t particularly relevant. Of course, when it comes to increasing the chances a prospect becomes an impactful big leaguer, focusing on those who likely will rate out well on the defensive spectrum is a great start, and Cleveland also appears to be under the belief that bat-to-ball skills are a much more inherent trait than hitting for power. Personally, I believe that to be a very fair sentiment, and it’s finally starting to show with Cleveland’s roster.

After all, the Guardians have the lowest strikeout rate in the MLB right now, and, in fact, have struck out at a below-average rate in eight of the past nine years. For the most part, this has come at the expense of some power production, but, as we saw with the signing of Edwin Encarnación, they aren’t afraid to compensate for that by targeting players who impact the baseball on the open market with the limited resources they have. Meanwhile, as you’d expect for a team that has prioritized athleticism as they have, they’ve been a top-ten defensive team in Outs Above Average (OAA) in each of the past four years, and also rank near the top of the league in runs produced in terms of base-running. It may not be a team that wins in conventional fashion, but by getting the job done in multiple ways, they continue to punch above their weight class offensively, allowing them to maintain enough success offensively. With the pitching powerhouse they’re developing, that is very notable.

 

The Guardians’ Pitcher Acquisition Process

 

At their core, Cleveland has always been an organization built by its pitching staff. I mean, it’s hard to dispute their dominance as a starting rotation:

CLEVELAND STARTING PITCHER WINS ABOVE REPLACEMENT BY YEAR

*Per Fangraphs (fWAR)

  • 2013: 5th
  • 2014: 4th
  • 2015: 5th
  • 2016: 8th
  • 2017: 1st
  • 2018: 1st
  • 2019: 5th
  • 2020: 2nd
  • 2021: 23rd
  • 2022: 15th

As you’d expect when you part ways with the pitchers they have, you’d eventually expect some sort of fall-off. Now, though, it’s up to Cleveland to build their next juggernaut of high-end pitching talent, which they’re well on their way to doing. How? Of course, by sticking true to their strategy.

As Longenhagen alluded to, the Guardians approach pitching in a similar fashion to hitting; they want to acquire players who have already established the finesse aspect (command), looking to develop more power (velocity). Yet, unlike on the hitting side, Cleveland tends to be much more flexible in these principles, instead using it as more of a guideline to find late-round pitching targets. Rather, they’re looking for pitchers who have demonstrated the ability to perform at a high level, yet may fall in the draft due to a specific reason they find over-focused. Hence, why they’ve ended up with the group of young pitchers they have.

We’ve already gushed about the potential intrigue with the Guardians’ first-round pick Chase DeLauter, yet there’s also a chance that they come away with two of the best pitchers from the 2022 draft as well. From a statistical standpoint, none can match what Florida State lefty Parker Messick (35% K, 5.2% BB) did in college, with the main concern being a need to throw harder. Well, that’s music to Cleveland’s ears. Even before that was the selection of Oklahoma State righty Justin Campbell, who at 6’7″, can clearly add more velocity, and still dominated (31.6% K, 6.9% BB) as well. If either of these two pitchers add any sort of velocity, watch out, and they signed both to under-slot deals after the first round! Meanwhile, 8th-round pick Jackson Humphries lacks physical projection yet plenty of present ability as a high-school arm, and 10-round pick Jacob Zibin is just 17 years old and has plenty of developmental upside as a pitcher. Heck, 12th-round pick Jack Jasiak demonstrated elite command (5% BB) at South Florida and could miss more bats with any uptick in velocity. Even without spending a premium pick on one of these players, you can clearly see a pathway for Cleveland coming away with multiple future MLB pitchers from this group. That’s remarkably impressive.

Earlier, I hinted that the Guardians absolutely flexed their muscles in terms of acquiring pitching during the 2021 draft, and, oh boy, did they do just that. Although a senior, Gavin Williams was still just 21 years old on draft night and was about as dominant (39.4% K, 6.3% BB) as one could be during his final year at East Carolina. Now, between High-A and Double-A, he’s been arguably the best college pitcher (24.1% K-BB) from the draft so far, which is quite a nice get on an under-slot deal with the 23rd overall pick. After that, Doug Nikhazy performed at a high level (38.2% K) in the SEC as a junior and, in spite of average velocity, gets by with strong vertical carry with his fastball; he’s continuing to miss bats in the minors. Tommy Mace, furthermore, seemed to have a breakout year (29% K, 5.4% BB) as a senior at Florida, already featured a four-pitch mix, and had more room to add velocity.

Wait, there’s more! Fourth-round pick Ryan Webb was spectacular in the SEC as a senior (34% K, 7% BB), but injury concerns dropped his stock. In the sixth round, Aaron Davenport averaged over 6.6 innings per start at Hawaii with tremendous command (5.9% BB), as did ninth-round pick Will Dion (30% K, 4.8% BB) at McNeese State. Moreover, Rodney Boone’s lack of “wow stuff” caused him to slip to the eighth round, but there’s no doubting the elite production (33.5% K) he had during his junior year at UC Santa Barbara; with a fastball featuring strong vertical movement and a low release height to along with a tremendous changeup (per reports), keep an eye on him.

The real star of the show from a developmental standpoint? That’d be Tanner Bibee, who the Guardians signed to an under-slot deal in the fifth round. At the time, Bibee was a senior at Cal Poly who didn’t have a knack for striking out hitters (17.8% K), which correlated with a supposed lack of velocity. Yet, Cleveland saw a pitcher with strong command and pitchability characteristics, believing there was room for him to grow with more velocity. Well, he’s gone from sitting 90-92 MPH with his fastball to touching 99 MPH reportedly, which, as you’d guess, is not exactly common. Want to know what happens when you give someone the physical capabilities they’ve had to compensate for not having? Well, that’s Bibee in a nutshell. He’s already made his way to Double-A with an elite 28.3% K-BB in the minors this season, and, honestly, could be in the majors next season. Not bad for an under-slot fifth-round pick.

The 2020 draft may have been a short and confusing one, but, don’t worry; Cleveland certainly stayed true to their pitching philosophies. When one of a pitching prospect’s main concerns is a lack of physical projection, it’s usually a good sign they’re on their way to becoming a future Guardian. Both Tanner Burns (pick #36) and Logan Allen (pick #56) stood at just 6’0″ tall, but what did they have? Elite college production. Burns burst onto the scene as a sophomore (30.5% K, 6.9% BB) in the SEC, and was continuing to thrive in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic shut that down. Allen, meanwhile, immediately produced as a freshman, and followed it up with a dominant (34.5% K, 7.2% BB) sophomore year. In spite of lackluster velocity and projection, his fastball comes from a very shallow approach angle with vertical backspin, while his splitter and tremendous command round out his profile. He’s absolutely shredded the minor leagues, and now is on the verge of his MLB debut. Even fifth-rounder Mason Hickman was spectacular as a sophomore at Vanderbilt (33.4% K, 7.3% BB), yet fell in the draft due to concerns about his “upside” simply based on his lack of premium velocity. Yep, that’s a Cleveland draft to me.

Now, the 2019 draft didn’t start out in typical Cleveland fashion, but, maybe, it was right up their alley. Coming out of high school, the verdict with Daniel Espino was that he didn’t have ideal physical projections. What did he have, though? Plenty of present-day ability; his fastball was clocked at 99 MPH with multiple power breaking balls. Now, after selecting him with the 24th-overall pick in 2019, he’s arguably the best pitching prospect in the minors. Sometimes, embrace a prospect’s strengths, rather than fretting about their limited “flaws”. From there, they went back to their usual tricks; fifth-round pick Hunter Gaddis (29% K, 5.4% BB) had the type of underlying numbers you’re looking for at Georgia State without high-end velocity, while Xzavion Curry (26.8% K, 6.5% BB) had sufficient K-BB numbers in the ACC as a 20-year-old, though didn’t have the frame (6’0″, 195 pounds) that teams covet. Now, both Gaddis and Curry have already made their MLB debuts, adding to their pitching powerhouse even further.

Back to the high-school pitching well in the 2018 draft, both Ethan Hankins (pick #35) and Lenny Torres (pick #41) were profiled as power pitchers that needed further development, and although that has been deterred due to injuries, it’s a philosophy that has served them well before. Don’t worry, though; Cleveland was up to their usual tricks later on. Nick Sandlin (pick #67) was coming off an exceptional season (37.1% K, 4.6% BB) as a junior at Southern Mississippi and has been fast-tracked into a successful MLB reliever. After that, pitchers such as Adam Scott (4th round), Cody Morris (7th round), Alex Royalty (8th round), and Brian Eichorn (9th round) all had sound college production with various concerns that caused them to slip in the draft as well; in 2017, Cleveland went back to the well with pitchers such as Kirk McCarty (undersized, 7th round), Eli Morgan (undersized, 8th round), and James Karinchak (medical history, 9th round), all of whom have reached the majors.

By now, a lot of Cleveland’s pitching acquisition methods are showing up at the MLB level. Overall, they’ve ranked average or below in fastball velocity in four straight years, but, most telling, rank in the bottom-ten in fastball rate in each of the past eight seasons. What does that indicate? Rather clearly, it shows their willingness to bank on pitchers who have the ability to command a deeper arsenal beyond their fastball, allowing them to perhaps find unheralded gems who don’t look the part, yet consistently perform at a high level. When you limit walks, have the defense limit production on balls in play, and have pitchers that strike out more batters than you’d initially expect, well, you’re going to be quite proficient in run prevention. Perhaps they’re in a transition phase right now, yet you have to admire their organizational consistency; it’s allowed them to identify too many undervalued pitchers to doubt them at this point.

 

Why Is Cleveland’s Future So Bright?

 

It’s one thing to stick to an organizational plan, but it’s another for it to lead to tremendous results. Sure, Cleveland may not be coming off of an exceptional season in 2021, and haven’t exactly been a powerhouse this season, but, considering the circumstances, their continued run of competitiveness is mightily impressive. The most exciting aspect? The best is yet to come.

After all, the Guardians entered this season as the youngest team in baseball. Usually, that doesn’t mean immediate success – they are giving a lot of chances to unproven commodities – but, in their case, they have been a notable outlier. Now, there is a reason that this team was slated by many to finish last in the AL Central; giving opportunities to younger, unknown players could go south in a hurry, and there didn’t appear to be enough established talent for Cleveland to compete. What wasn’t apparent, though, was how exciting their young talent was.

When you produce at a clip 54% above league average in the upper levels in the minors while walking more than you strike out, you should rightfully expect to earn some recognition. Yet, Steven Kwan was still not someone considered to be a top 100 prospect by MLB Pipeline and other prospect outlets, mainly due to concerns about his power output. To be fair, among qualified hitters, only three have a lower barrel rate (1.1%) than Kwan. Despite this, though, he sports a 124 wRC+, and the third-best fWAR amongst rookies. Why? Well, if you’re not going to do a lot of impact with the contact you make, you better hit the ball a lot.

Only Luis Arraez strikes out less than Kwan (9.4% K) and makes more contact overall (3% swinging-strike rate); his lethal combination of plate discipline (95th percentile chase) and contact (100th percentile whiff) leads to a high-end combination for getting on base. Oh, and he’s also a remarkable athlete that has been one of the best defensive corner outfielders in all of baseball, per defensive runs saved (9 DRS) and outs above average (6 OAA). When you get on base and play strong defense, there’s going to be a role for you, regardless of your other deficiencies. Not every team would be willing to embrace this, but, by now, it’s clear the Guardians aren’t like other organizations.

Remember the Francisco Lindor trade? As it turns out, it may have netted Cleveland a star, even when that seemed like as far from the truth as imaginable. After impressing during his rookie season, Andrés Giménez hit tough times in his first season with a new organization, posting a subpar 73 wRC+ while also getting sent down to the minors for a prolonged stretch. A year, later, he’s nearly doubled his wRC+ (150), is a top-15 player in fWAR, and was an All-Star at 23 years old. Not too shabby. ZiPs projects him to be around a four-five win player moving forward, which, if so, would be an exceptional outcome for all parties.

Josh Naylor, meanwhile, might not be providing a lot of defensive value, but he’s also been 28% above league average with the bat this season. As for Amed Rosario, the other significant part of the Lindor trade, he’s on pace for a fringe three-win season, combing quality offense (107 wRC+) with average defense at shortstop. Of course, Cleveland needs Myles Straw to be much more productive offensively (57 wRC+), yet projections indicate that in store for him, while he’s established himself as one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball. On a modest five-year, $25 million extension that also includes multiple club options, he should more than provide the Guardians with what they’re looking for moving forward.

With current ace Shane Bieber entering his final two years of arbitration, who knows what the future holds for him, especially considering the fate of Cleveland’s other recent high-end starters. Regardless, though, the Guardians will have the “luxury” of choosing between a pitcher currently ranked in the top-ten in fWAR or adding more young talent to a very youthful organization. It certainly helps matters that Triston McKenzie (18.8% K-BB, 3.66 skill interactive ERA/SIERA) is taking the next step forward at 25 years old, while the team has sufficient depth behind them.

Speaking of which, as you’d come to expect from an organization that has succeeded in the draft like they have, Cleveland certainly has an abundance of young pitchers. I mean, where do we start?

  • Daniel Espino has struck out 42.2% of the batters he has faced since the start of the 2021 season, is still 21 years old, and is considered by Fangraphs to be the second-best pitching prospect in the sport.
  • Gavin Williams boasts a 32.4% strikeout rate and 23.5% K-BB this year in the minors, has maintained high-90s fastball velocity and has thus managed to stay healthy despite a notable workload.
  • Logan Allen, despite his lackluster “projection”, simply continues to miss bats (33.3%) and is considered by multiple prospect outlets to be a top-100 prospect.
  • Xzavion Curry just recently made his MLB debut, has succeeded (20.2% K-BB) in the upper levels of the minors, and could be a fixture in Cleveland’s rotation very soon.
  • As mentioned, 2021 fifth-round pick Tanner Bibee has gone from a command-oriented pitcher to someone sitting in the upper-90s with his fastball, which explains his run of dominance (27.1% K-BB) in his first professional season. Add another pitcher to the list of those likely to make an MLB impact next year.
  • 2022 draft picks Parker Messick and Justin Campbell, as alluded to earlier, each had exceptional statistical profiles compared to their peers.
  • Sidelined until recently with a shoulder injury, Cody Morris performed at an otherworldly level (30.4% K-BB) in the minors last year and has remained incredibly effective (39.6% K-BB) since coming back from injury. Pending health, he could be an X-Factor during this playoff race, and should definitely be in their rotation on opening day next year.
  • Acquired in the Mike Clevinger trade, lefty Joey Cantillo (35.5% K, 24.4% K-BB) has been as productive as Cleveland could have hoped for in Double-A this season.

That’s not even accounting for the likes of Tanner Burns, Doug Nikhazy, and Ethan Hankins, all of whom have recent high-end draft pedigree, or pop-up prospects from last year’s draft, such as Davis Sharpe and Trenton Denholm. All told, as per usual, pitching depth should not be an issue in Cleveland moving forward. To boot, a young relief corps of Emmanuel Clase (signed to a five-year, $20 million extension with two club options), James Karinchak, Trevor Stephan, Eli Morgan, and Sam Hentges only help matters, and that’s without considering the abundance of relief prospects the Guardians have in their pipeline as well. Expect this team to bring it back to the good ol’ days of elite run prevention moving forward.

Yet, not only does this organization have a strong core of young position player talent, but there is more coming up through their farm system. Catcher Bo Naylor has shredded the upper levels of the minors (143 wRC+) as a 22-year-old and is likely Cleveland’s starting catcher to start next season. Furthermore, shortstop Brayan Rocchio has reached Triple-A as a 21-year-old, combining well-regarded defense with consistently strong offensive performances in the minors. Moreover, Nolan Jones and Tyler Freeman are already in the majors and are also projected to be at least slightly above-average offensive producers, outfielder George Valera is a 21-year-old now in Triple-A and is seen as a three-to-four win player by ZiPs as soon as 2024, and shortstop Angel Martinez is having a breakout offensive season (141 wRC+) in the minors as a 20-year-old. Add in first-round pick Chase DeLauter and an extraordinary amount of young, up-the-middle players, and there’s simply of an embarrassment of riches here. Perhaps that’s why Fangraphs has them rated as the second-best farm system in all of baseball.

Don’t worry; I did not forget about José Ramírez. Instead, it felt fitting to save him as the last player to discuss; he is the face of this franchise’s bright future. After making his desire to stay in Cleveland well-known, the team inked him to a seven-year, $141 million extension, which, as you would guess, is an incredible bargain for the Guardians. I mean, we’re talking about the same José Ramírez who is THE BAT X’s projected wins above replacement leader for the rest of the season! The same José Ramírez who is going to finish with back-to-back 6.5-win seasons, the same José Ramírez who combines elite plate skills (10.2% K) with strong power production (.256 ISO), and the same José Ramírez who has rated amongst the top of the league as a base-runner and as an above-average third base defender. Yeah, that José Ramírez.

Now 29 years old, who knows when Ramirez’s peak is coming to an end. It isn’t likely soon, however, and the Guardians are able to celebrate a player Fangraphs’ Ben Clemens listed as the seventh-most valuable player, including age and contract, moving forward. For a team that has historically lacked star power, having one of the game’s most productive players as part of their long-term future has to feel reassuring.

Speaking of which, with Ramirez, Clase, and Straw signed to team-friendly contracts, the Guardians already have already gone to work in terms of locking up several key young players, and more extensions are likely to be on the way; Kwan, Gimenez, and McKenzie could all be next. Even if the team’s payroll ranks as low as it does right now, there is added upside to the possibility that, as their window re-emerges, the payroll increases back to the $110-$120 million range they sat in during their peak, which could make this team very, very dangerous. I mean, given the circumstances, this isn’t a team that should be winning games right now, yet they continually find a way. When their next wave of young talent arrives to complement the current group, watch out.

 

Overview 

 

Compared to the NFL and NBA, baseball is a sport affected significantly by market size. Although the luxury tax serves as a self-imposed salary cap for some teams, there is currently over a $200 million gap between the team with the highest payroll (Dodgers) and the team spending the least amount (Orioles). That is an astonishing amount.

Yet, somehow, someway, the teams at the bottom of the money barrel need to find a way to compete with the rich. We’re aware of this dynamic with the popularity of Moneyball, as well as the rise of the Tampa Bay Rays. Lost in the midst of both of those developments, though, has been the unimaginable success taking place in Cleveland.

We’ve already seen the Guardians have their window wide open due to the presence of an extensive amount of star players, including a dominant pitching staff. As such, they were able to be right there with the Yankees, Astros, Dodgers, and Cubs, while coming one game away from a World Series championship. Now, unfortunately, as is the case for small-market organizations, those players eventually became too expensive, and, thus, a step back was needed.

For some teams that go “all in” on a consolidated timeline, that can lead to a period of struggles. Rather, what the Cleveland front office has been able to realize since day one is very simple, yet has kept them succeeding: contention windows don’t need to be self-imposed. This a front office that does a tremendous job making decisions that not only help the team immediately but for the future as well; they may not be popular decisions at the time, though, as we’ve seen, that narrative eventually changes.

Every organization has a different strategy for winning a World Series. Nevertheless, what separates the effectiveness of those strategies is the ability to stay consistent with that plan. By now, it’s pretty evident how the Guardians want to operate; they see clear market efficiencies when it comes to acquiring young players. Whether it’s up-the-middle, contact-oriented position players or pitchers with clear present ability with some flaw that they believe is overanalyzed, they know where to find unheralded gems, and stick with that strategy. This is not a team that is going to judge a book by its cover; if a player can perform at a high level, the aesthetics (size, projection, etc) aren’t a concern for them.

Alas, here we are, and all Cleveland has done is build a powerhouse of young talent. The most youthful team in baseball isn’t supposed to be a first-place team, yet here we are. Think that’s impressive? Wait until the likes of Daniel Espino, Gavin Williams, Brayan Rocchio, Bo Naylor, and the abundance of MLB-ready prospects comes into the fold to join an already-established strong core of players. Then, factor in any sort of payroll bump a la 2016-2018, and the upside is through the roof.

Who will represent the American League in the 2024 World Series? Immediately, the Yankees and Astros come to mind, while the Orioles and Mariners have the young talent to expect an ascension too. You know what, though? Don’t discount the Guardians. This is a team prepared to once again rank right at the top of the league in terms of run prevention based on high-end pitching and defense, while they have plenty of offensive contributors who can get on base, while power can be supplemented as well. As such, consider them the powerhouse that no one sees coming.

In a perfect world, some teams wouldn’t be so reliant on winning between the margins. Unfortunately, this is not an organization that is going to get universal support from their ownership, and, as a result, the task becomes much more complicated. Essentially, this organization needs to be as close to perfect as possible when it comes to drafting and developing talent while hitting on trades. So far, that has certainly been the case, and there isn’t any reason to expect that to change anytime soon.

Now, for the general spectator, the attention to decisions front offices make will always center around the “well-known” players brought into the mix. Of course, teams like the Guardians don’t have the luxury of ever being able to make those types of moves, which is where the “nitty gritty” stands out. In a year, I’m confident we’ll be talking about the next rising pitching prospect in the organization, or another position player having an offensive breakout. It’s a non-stop process for this organization, and, hopefully, that will result in the alluded World Series title eventually. Hey, at least Rachel Phelps isn’t in the way!

Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Matt Fletcher (@little.gnt on Instagram)

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