Playing Pepper 2022: Cleveland Guardians

It was a winter extended by the cold realities of a lockout, but the 2022 baseball season is rapidly approaching.  Given the vagaries of the scheduling and how rapidly everything has to happen, it would be easy to let some traditions go by the wayside.  Not in this space!  Playing Pepper returns for its 14th season with the assistant of some great bloggers and podcasters who rose to the challenge of the time crunch.  There’s a lot of things to sort out so let’s stretch, get ready and play some Pepper!  If you want to keep up with the Guardians during the season, I’ve created a Twitter list using the recommendations of our contributors and some other options as well.  You can follow that here!

Cleveland Guardians
80-82, second in the AL Central
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by bWAR: Cal Quantrill (3.9)
Top hitter by bWAR: Jose Ramirez (6.7)

Will a new name bring different results?  Not that it’s been that rough in Cleveland lately, but the team does have the longest World Series drought out there and could use any good luck possible to break on through.  Even a sub-.500 year left them in second place in the division, so they are in the right place.  Can they sneak in and finally take home the title?  Let’s hear from some experts!

Contributor Site Twitter Podcast
Joseph Coblitz Guardians Baseball Insider Official_CGBI Guardians of the Future
Nino Colla SnarkyNino
Brian Hemminger Covering the Corner BrianHemminger

C70: Not including lockout issues, tell me about Cleveland’s offseason. What did you like about it, what didn’t you like about it, was there something you were hoping for that didn’t happen?

Joseph: Things stayed pretty stagnant in Cleveland with most of the action coming from the launch of the new logo instead of changes to the actual roster. The elimination of the rule 5 draft this winter saved the team from some stress as it’s impossible for the Guardians to protect all the players they would like to, but the adds they did make last fall were good ones who could make an impact in 2022 like Cody Morris, Richie Palacios and Steven Kwan. Of those who weren’t added, Cleveland did lose Francisco Perez and J.C. Mejia, but their starting pitching depth at the AA and AAA level is so extreme these shouldn’t really affect the future of the franchise.

As with essentially every season since Grady Sizemore retired, it would have been nice to see the Guardians add a real starting outfielder, but at least they didn’t overpay for someone who will be released by June. This, along with the trade of Harold Ramirez to Chicago could mean that they are looking at running with internal options like Palacios, Kwan or top offensive prospect George Valera.

Nino: Uh well, this is awkward. Nothing happened. No like, literally, they didn’t do a single thing. And I’m not like, oh they didn’t make any MOVEZ MAN, no no, they didn’t actually make any transactions. Even if a team doesn’t make any big moves, you’d think they would, oh I don’t know, reshuffle some things a little? Sign a utility player or two or a veteran bat to see if they can recapture the juice? Maybe grab a few retread relievers? I mean, maybe the lockout has them still in the market to get a few bargains at the last minute but, woof. I guess I wouldn’t have hoped for something specific but maybe, something at all at this point. This team is going to be young and cheap and there’s nothing wrong with that aside from the fact that perhaps you should have looked to move Jose Ramirez and get even younger, but hey, we’ll see.

Brian: To be honest, the offseason for the Guardians has been a complete joke. We’ve made two free agent signings, one a back-up veteran catcher and the other is resigning veteran bullpen arm Bryan Shaw, who was on the team last year. I wasn’t expecting much, because the team has so much youth that it needs to give opportunities to, but I was at least hoping for a couple stop-gap veterans that could fill a void for one year while our young players continue to develop into legitimate starters.

The other issue is if the team wasn’t going to spend money on outside players, it should at least be extending its own stars. Jose Ramirez needs to be extended yesterday. So does Shane Bieber. It’s time to start locking up these stars and building around them. We’ve done enough trading and our minor league system is legitimately getting crowded. If we don’t extend our best players, all Cleveland will continue to be is a minor league for all the other teams that can afford to pay their best players.

C70: What are your thoughts about the starting rotation? After Shane Bieber, who will be the most important member?

Joseph: It may be personal bias, but I’m still a very big believer in Triston McKenzie. He was hit and miss in 2021, leading to a rather blasé overall season, but was brilliant when he was on. In eight of 25 appearances he went at least five innings with one or fewer runs allowed including three in a row to start September. Following this run, however, he showed a great example of his greatest weakness, his inability to go deep in games. In his final three starts of the season, he allowed 14 runs and never made it through the fifth inning.

Heading into his age 24 season, I expect him to be more stable and to increase on his 140 innings in 2021. Beyond McKenzie and Bieber, look for Aaron Civale, Cal Quantrill and Zach Plesac to return with Cody Morris waiting on deck in AAA.

Nino: Triston McKenzie could really take that next leap and that would help the rotation immensely. Aaron Civale is solid and the changes he made to his game has really moved him from fringe to solid and Zach Plesac is good enough. But if you want someone to anchor it all with Bieber, McKenzie is that guy. So, here’s hoping he stays healthy and continues to ascend. Pitching is not the problem with Cleveland.

Brian: The starting rotation is gearing up to be terrific. All five are healthy after a tumultuous 2021 that saw our top three pitchers miss significant time. Bieber is one of the best in baseball, but Civale is a quality start machine and an innings eater, Quantrill broke out in 2021 as our most dependable arm and Triston McKenzie finished 2021 incredibly strong and is primed for a big season. I’m still not 100% sold on Plesac, but he’s capable of going on really hot stretches. The team also has decent depth this year, although one of our top minor league arms (Cody Morris) just got shut down. Eli Morgan, Logan S. Allen, Tobias Myers and Konnor Pilkington should all be intriguing depth options if anyone gets injured.

C70: There’s a lot of rumor around a possible Jose Ramirez trade. Do you think they will move him and should they?

Joseph: Cleveland fans already aren’t particularly happy with the direction of the franchise and as it is, there’s a very good chance that they won’t be very good this season. If they trade off their best player again, it could ostracize those fans who remain loyal after the lock out, name change and poor roster decisions over the last few years.

In addition, the Guardians don’t need anymore high end prospects, they need actual big leaguers, so it would make more sense for the team to deal AA and AAA level middle infielders and pitchers rather than to deal from the MLB level. Finally, Nolan Jones has long been considered one of Cleveland’s top hitting prospects and would have been the heir apparent for Ramirez in 2022 and beyond, but when given opportunities to get him on the field in Cleveland, the Guardians have chosen to go in other directions. If they don’t have confidence in Jones to be that player, there is even less of a reason to move Ramirez.

Nino: If you want to compete, no, maybe add an outfielder or two and get him some support. If this is a more concentrated focus on the youth this team has that is coming up, then you unload him at his peak and get even more for your future efforts. I don’t think they are moving him at this juncture though and I’m not sure why. That could change come the mid-season deadline when a team needs a bat and Cleveland is not in the race. Not for nothing, but Nolan Jones is one of the top prospects, so there’s someone ready to slide on in, more so than at other positions that they’ve dealt from in the past.

Brian: They better not. Jose Ramirez has cemented himself as a top 5 player in baseball. He’s a player who loves being in Cleveland and he’s the type of player you build a roster around. He does everything, plays great defense, gets on base, hits for average and power and steals bases. There’s absolutely zero reason to move him. 

C70: Which prospect are you most excited for and when should they make their major league debut?

Joseph: Jhonkensy Noel, early 2023. Noel has extreme power to all fields, and is very athletic for someone of his size. He can play average third base and above average first base, giving him enough versatility to jump through the system quickly. He hasn’t played above high A yet, but was added to the 40 man roster last fall and could easily end the 2022 season in Columbus, ready to hit Cleveland by next year. Given the weakness at the position within the system, he has a much clearer route to the big leagues than other prospects who may have a higher ceiling like Brayan Rocchio or Tyler Freeman.

Nino: Can we just get George Valera up here already? This team has perpetually needed a bat and one in the outfield specifically for a few years now. You could see him late this year, ascending through Double-A Akron last season, but you’ll probably see the Guardians play it safe and hope for him to repeat last year a level up before he gets into any meaningful game in Cleveland. You want excitement? This dude brings it in spades, just search some of his post-home run bat flips up on Twitter.

Brian: There are several top minor league prospects that are primed to debut in 2022 for the Guardians, but I’m most excited for Stevan Kwan. He was a 5th round pick in 2018 and broke out last season in Double-A and Triple-A, one of the few players in MiLB that walked more than they struck out. He’s an on base machine and added some pop to his swing. I think there’s a legitimate chance he breaks the roster to start the season and if he doesn’t, he’ll be one of the first players they call up. No joke, I think he gets votes for Rookie of the Year if he gets enough playing time. 

C70: How do you see 2022 shaking out for this team? What’s your expectation of where they finish?

Joseph: Very similarly to last year, I expect a very mediocre season around .500 and third place in the Central. The Guardians should be good enough to inspire the fan base into believing they could actually get one of those shiny new wild card spots, but fall just short in the end.

Nino: Well they haven’t done anything so just expect them to finish right around where they did last year, probably worse, unless youth takes over in a big way and explodes. Which, I don’t really see happening, at least not with busted Tito Francona back at the helm. I know that sounds harsh, mean, and pretty incendiary but, screw it. Dude hates young guys and would rather fail being wrong. So, whatever man, enjoy showing up only to take a break when the team sucks saying he needs to focus on his health because you are really only trying to cash your paycheck. Francona is resting on his past and the vice grip of a contract he has on this team. And the team knows if they jettison him completely, they’ll get more pushback. He’s not the guy for youth and needs to go so I can only hope they finish far enough down that they are prompted to move on.

Brian: The White Sox are significantly better and every other team in the division improved. I honestly wouldn’t be shocked to see Cleveland finish dead last this year despite having an MVP and Cy Young candidate on the roster with possibly the best closer (Emmanuel Clase). I think at best they finish 4th in the division ahead of Kansas City. 

C70: Besides yourself and the team account, give me up to three good Guardians Twitter accounts to follow.

Joseph: I don’t want to plug my site too much, but fellow Guardians Baseball Insider Willie Hood (@WillHoo99) is a fantastic follow. In addition, throw in Michael Hattery (@SnarkyHatman).

Nino: You probably shouldn’t follow me for Guardians stuff anyway since I mostly post dad jokes and failed puns, but I’m just going to tell you to follow my friends. Double bonus if you like betting, but Cleveland-baseball wise @SkatingTripods is almost always right. Our friend @snarkyhatman sometimes has bad food takes but actually watches the games and knows what the hell he is talking about. For some reason if you are a Guardians fan or even just want Guardians insight and you are not following @ZackMeisel then well, not sure what you are doing bud. But Zack counts how many times Jose’s helmet falls off so we don’t have to, among other more important things, like you know, actual stories and news.

Brian: Todd Paquette is your go-to Twitter account for Guardians prospect knowledge at @IndiansPro and a good combination of news plus snark is the official Covering The Corner twitter @CoverTheCorner.

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