June was a heck of a month, but July promises to be different
Another month has come and gone and … Cleveland is still in it? If you had told me in February that the Guardians’ playoff odds would be 27.9% on July 5, I’d have laughed you out of the room. But here we are, with the kids doing alright.
I’m not ready to wager anything on whether Cleveland actually comes through on those odds, but it’s been pretty fun to watch. As the first half winds to a close, here’s what I am buying and selling.
Buy: Offensive potential
As of today, Cleveland sits 17th among MLB teams in terms of fWAR, with a wRC+ five points below league average (100), and the third-fewest home runs hit (61) of any team. And no one really wants to talk about what the offense did in the two double-headers sweeps from the holiday weekend.
So, maybe it’s counter-intuitive that I believe in the potential of this offense, but I do have my reasons. The first and strongest reason is that no one strikes out less than the Guardians. At 18.8%, their strikeout rate is the lowest in MLB by half a percentage point. The organizational directive to minimize strikeouts is paying off and I firmly believe that less strikeouts will lead to good outcomes with a little luck.
Luck, however, has not been on Cleveland’s side that much. Despite the highest contact rate in MLB (80.8%), the Guardians have just a .281 BABIP. Although this is only .007 below league average, the team sits 22nd in terms of luck on batted balls, and at some point, the number of balls put in play will translate to hits. It would be nice to see Cleveland get a little more authority behind their contact, as their average exit velocity (87.6) is 1.1 mph below league average, but that could change as the roster fluctuates. And anyway, even those soft hits can find an open patch of grass.
So, I’m buying the offensive potential, but this is a long-term buy. I’m not trying to flip this one for a quick profit, it’s my investment — and it may not pay off for some time.
Sell: Another month like June
The Guardians were freaky dominant in June. Honestly, even their 18-10 record probably sells short how good they were. Series wins over Baltimore, Texas, Oakland, and Colorado were no big cause for celebration, but a series win over the Dodgers and two series wins against the Twins were remarkable. These kids not only showed an ability to punch above their weight, they reminded us all how much fun it can be when the expectations are minimal.
That it happened is still kind of incredible considering the team had a 91 wRC+ and .294 wOBA during June. In the early, colder months of the year, that might have been in line with trends across the league, but that’s not what June looked like for MLB as a whole. In terms of wRC+, Cleveland was 14 points below league average (105); as for wOBA, they were 23 points off league average (.317). To put it another way: when the rest of the league was killing the ball, the Guardians won two-thirds of their games by doing the opposite.
Even if I do think the team’s offensive approach will trend toward better outcomes eventually, I don’t foresee it resulting in another month like June. But that’s okay! Consider once again where this team is right now and where we expected them to coming into this season. We’ll always have June, and even if the rest of the season is less exciting, this team still seems ahead of schedule.
Buy: New faces on the roster
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Guardians have to make a trade.
First, everyone pleaded for an outfielder. Steven Kwan and Oscar Gonzalez have helped settle that somewhat, but this is still a demand that seems unfulfilled. Second, everyone wondered what would happen with the logjam of middle infielders on the 40-man roster. Gabriel Arias, Ernie Clement, Andrés Giménez, and Owen Miller are all with Cleveland and Tyler Freeman is beating on the door from Columbus, and — further down the organizational depth chart, but still on the 40-man — Brayan Rocchio and José Tena are hoping to climb the ladder as well, so this also remains unsettled.
Obviously using the second issue to solve the first would be ideal, and if Cleveland could get someone like Bryan Reynolds of the Pirates it would be fantastic. But, everyone wants Reynolds, and the Pirates know it, so the cost will be incredible. That’s not often a position Cleveland’s front office likes to be in. Even with the glut of prospects on the 40-man, I’d expect Cleveland to pursue fewer blockbuster-y deals and more deals that could have a greater impact in later seasons.
Despite the lack of action on these fronts, I’m buying the Guardians upgrading the offense (which also bolsters my long-term investment in offensive potential). A player like Trey Mancini would be nice, but as a free-agent-to-be, a deal for him seems highly unlikely. Another free-agent-to-be, Andrew Benintendi, might have slightly higher odds because his low strikeout rate matches what Cleveland’s organizational goals are, but since they’re unlikely to meet his free agency price I don’t see them shipping anyone out to rent his services. More realistically, taking a chance on post-hype Jo Adell from the Angels, Dom Smith of the Mets, or maybe post-concussion Kyle Lewis of the Mariners would make sense for Cleveland.
Sell: New starters on the roster
A deal for a starter would certainly fit the Cleveland MO. Consider the Ubaldo Jiménez deal, made when the ‘Dians were barely holding onto a winning record and with a number of players (Carlos Santana, Michael Brantley, etc.) not yet in their prime. This was a deal that was helpful in the moment, but certainly more beneficial for the long-term. I don’t think Cleveland’s operating principles have changed much in the decade plus since they made that deal, and so it wouldn’t be surprising if the team dealt for a starter with some team control remaining.
But I don’t think this is the deal the Guardians make in July.
Certainly, Cleveland’s pitching is not at its best this year, sitting in the bottom third among all MLB teams in terms of fWAR. But it hasn’t all been negative. Triston McKenzie has flashed ace potential, Shane Bieber has been consistently good-if-not-great, and even Zach Plesac has quietly impressive (his last four starts he’s had a FIP of 3.90, 1.9 K/BB, and .254 wOBA against). With prospects Logan Allen, Tanner Bibee, Xzavion Curry, Daniel Espino, Hunter Gaddis, and Gavin Williams moving aggressively through the system, Cleveland’s depth seems as good as ever as well.
Acquiring a starter right now would mean entering a heated market. The top two pitchers on most writers’ lists of trade candidates, Luis Castillo and Frankie Montas, are both dealing with shoulder injuries, which means lesser lights might be commanding higher prices at the deadline. With teams like the Cardinals and Twins trying to separate from teams like the Guardians, I don’t think the value is there for a good deal to be had — at least not the kind of deal Cleveland likes to make.
Improving the rotation might be something Cleveland tries to do in the offseason, but there are worse things the team could do than let the situation sort itself out with internal options in the second half of 2022. The Guardians’ pitching factory is still humming along, despite some MLB hiccups this year, and while there might not be such a thing as a pitching prospect, even without a move for a proven starter, Cleveland could be okay in the future.
MiLB Org pitching stats. Let’s do something different than xERA: Whiff% – total # of swing-and-miss divided by total # of swings.
Top 4: CLE #1, NYY #2, SFG #3, LAD #4
Bottom 4: COL #27, KCR #28, STL #29, OAK #30
Given what orgs typically develop pitching… makes sense, yeah? pic.twitter.com/SQutaSyRLi
— Kyle Boddy (@drivelinebases) June 27, 2022