Playing Pepper 2023: Cleveland Guardians

If there is one thing baseball is good at, it’s tradition.  (OK, so that point could be debated with the changes over the last few years.)  Tradition around here states that the beginning of the season means that it’s time for Playing Pepper!  This is the fifteenth season–a decade and a half!–of the series that helps you get ready for the season by going around the league and talking with people that live and die with their teams.  Bloggers, former bloggers, podcasters, we’ve got them all as we take a tour of MLB and play some pepper!  If you get inspired to make some predictions during this series, this contest is open to fans of all teams so enter today!

Cleveland Guardians
92-70, first in the AL Central, lost in the ALDS
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Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by fWAR: Shane Bieber (4.9)
Top hitter by fWAR: Jose Ramirez (6.2)

After reaching the end of the first half just two games over .500, the Guardians kicked it into gear and surpassed Minnesota for the divisional title.  Can Cleveland follow that up with a deeper October run?  Let’s see what our Guardian experts have to say about that!

Contributor Site Twitter
Brian Hemminger Covering the Corner Hemminger
Nino Colla SnarkyNino

C70: It was a relatively quiet winter for the AL Central champs. What did you think about their offseason and how are you feeling about how the team is set up for 2023?

Brian: I thought the offseason was wonderful. Cleveland has so much minor league depth that it didn’t need much in terms of offseason acquisitions. All we needed was a solid bat that can hit lefties in the middle of the lineup and a veteran upgrade at catcher while we wait for a few of our prospects to emerge. They did just that by signing Josh Bell to play first base/DH. He’ll be a staple in the middle of Cleveland’s lineup and is going to be a HUGE upgrade against lefties, where we had Owen Miller starting last year. The signing of veteran catcher Mike Zunino also was rock solid. He adds power, having hit 33 home runs just two seasons ago, while also being a great defensive catcher, another massive upgrade offensively over Austin Hedges. He’ll help bridge the gap for Bo Naylor to eventually take over the position.

Nino: A stark contrast to last year when the team was expected to make some sort of move, any move, and they…didn’t really do anything of significance. But, that turned out to be okay as Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff always seem to do. Perhaps they know best, right? They did subvert expectations by managing to sign Jose Ramirez long-term instead of trading him away, which in my mind is just as welcomed as trading him if he was going to leave. But Jose’s desire to stay, matched with his willingness to not ask for an out-of-Cleveland’s range type deal was best for both parties involved. Tack on a bunch of young and up-and-coming players making themselves a part of this AL Central winning squad, and well, um, hey you guys don’t need to do much this year, okay?

Well, they kinda did what you’d expect them to have done last year. It’s hard not to like their additions. Mike Zunino is an upgrade at offense for the catcher’s position and Josh Bell fits into this team’s dynamic really well, providing a first base/DH option to mix with Josh Naylor. Zunino is also on a one-year deal to likely pave the way for Naylor’s brother Bo to get the regular reps in Columbus until Zunino either fails, gets injured, or plays the entire season to completion. Austin Hedges will be missed from a clubhouse and pitching staff perspective, but even he understood the move and both sides know he’s not quite a backup. I will miss The Hog. If the youngsters keep moving up or play to their level last year, the additions they made will only aid them in continuing their success. They did move on from a few prospects, Will Benson and Nolan Jones, who just quite weren’t fitting into the team’s outlook, but it’s hard to say, unless Benson tears it up in Cincinnati, if those were moves to regret.

C70: What do you think is the weakest part of the team and do you expect the club to address that at some point during the season?

Brian: The weakest part of the team at the moment is the back end of our starting rotation and our power. I expect Cleveland to address those issues from inside the system. We have some extremely talented pitchers knocking on the door with Logan Allen, Daniel Espino, Gavin Williams, Tanner Bibee and Joey Cantillo all likely in contention to earn starts this season. Power upgrades could come from Jhonkensy Noel and George Valera, who both can mash. I expect Gabriel Arias to fill in the gaps well too if he can earn a regular role with the team.

Nino: It’s still the outfield, but rookies Oscar Gonzalez and Steven Kwan definitely help you feel a little better about what to expect there. Myles Straw is a fantastic outfielder and you would love to have someone who hits a little better than he does, but he saves you a lot on the other side that make it rather okay to sustain, as long as the corners are producing. There isn’t an area you are really overly concerned with. Bell and Naylor providing a 1B/DH combo is concerning in a sense that if Naylor goes down and Bell is more of how he played for the Padres, then there is no support for a guy like Jose Ramirez in the lineup. We saw Jose carry the team at times, but then when you saw him sort of be overworked, the team struggled offensively.

C70: What are your thoughts on Zach Plesac? Can he take another step or is he what he is?

Brian: Plesac is currently the team’s No. 5 starter and he might lose out on that position to Cody Morris in Spring Training. Morris throws harder, is harder to hit and has better strikeout stuff. I thought Cleveland might trade Plesac in the offseason but they’re hanging on to him for now. He might be moved to the bullpen if he loses his job in the rotation. He looked decent out of the pen in the playoffs. 

Nino: I could take Zach Plesac or leave him. He has talent and there’s been intrigue with him since he was drafted. But, we’ve now had two full years of him as a starter. In my mind, this is the year he either cements himself as a starter and takes a step to live up to the expectations, or you move him to the bullpen and let his stuff play up. With the arms the Guardians have, they don’t need another “maybe a fourth or fifth starter” in a rotation that has a few of those. To answer the question poignantly. I think he may just be what he is and that’s exactly what you’ve seen the past few years.

C70: What rookie or player with limited MLB experience will have the most impact on the Guardians this year?

Brian: There are sooooo many rookies who could make a huge impact. Cody Morris looked amazing in limited action as a starting pitcher last year. Gabriel Arias finally looked comfortable at the MLB level his last time up last year. Bo Naylor could become the team’s starting catcher by midseason. Outfielder Will Brennan had a massive breakout in 2022, advancing from Double-A to being on the playoff roster. That doesn’t even include the team’s two top position player prospects, OF George Valera and SS Brayan Rocchio, who both ended last season at Triple-A. Tim Herrin also should contribute out of the bullpen as a flamethrowing southpaw. 

Nino: It’s funny because this team, one of the youngest in the Majors last year at one point, while young and filled with rookies, now has rather advanced MLB experience having played in the postseason. That’s a great question because a lot of those guys carved out their place and you’d expect them all to continue on and get better. Injuries happen though and even adjustment struggles could occur. Who is there to step up in that place? That’s hard to predict but Will Brennan is in a position to succeed if needed. He came up last year and just added to the youth, getting off to a quick start and even seeing a few post-season at-bats because of it. He has put himself in a position to play on the roster this year in some capacity. He’s probably the easiest answer without taking a stab at any of the unknowns.

C70: What’s the best case, worst case, and most likely scenario on how 2023 plays out?

Brian: The 2022 was a surprise considering how young Cleveland was. I expected the team to be in the middle of the pack, but didn’t expect so many of the young players like Andres Gimenez and Steven Kwan to make massive leaps. This team is now one year older with possibly the best bullpen in team history, a nasty top of the starting pitching rotation and an extremely annoying lineup that gets on base at a high rate and puts the ball in play. I think there’s a strong chance Cleveland repeats as AL Central champions and at worst, makes the playoffs as a wild card team if Minnesota or Chicago bounce back.

Nino: Best case is last year+ and there’s a deeper postseason run. Worst case is injuries and league adjustments and this team finishes the season in the middle of the AL Central like they were projected to last year. Likely? I think there could be growing pains and maybe some of the league making adjustments to the youth the team has. But I think they likely repeat in the AL Central. It’s hard to not get excited about the foundation that was built with the team’s surprise last year, another year of prime Jose Ramirez and Shane Bieber, and the electricity at the back-end of the bullpen. So, cautiously optimistic that this team can continue their upward growth path and repeat and make an even deeper run in the postseason. It’s hard to replicate the magic of 2022, so now they just need to do it with expected experience and will.

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