Shane Bieber and the boys still own the AL Central
You can never have too much pitching, as they say.
The Guardians are set to push the boundaries of that old adage and that test the quality of their considerable, organizational pitching depth in 2023.
Even before it was announced that Triston McKenzie would miss up to eight weeks to start the season with a shoulder strain, the rotation always started with Shane Bieber. The 2020 AL Cy Young winner bounced back from a shoulder injury in 2021 with an excellent 2022 campaign that saw him re-establish himself as a top-10 pitcher in baseball even with diminished fastball velocity. Bieber is the unquestionable ace of the staff, giving the Guardians a chance to win any time he toes the rubber. How long he will be a Guardian is a different question, with free agency looming after the 2024 season, but it would be a surprise to see him traded during a season in which the Guardians plan to be competitive.
McKenzie’s injury is disappointing since he followed 120 promising but overall-not much more than-decent innings in 2021 with big steps forward in 2022, putting up 3.6 fWAR in almost 200 innings. Hopefully McKenzie will be back by late May, and if he can stay out of trouble early in games and avoid some home run issues on his slider, he could give the Guardians a second ace. Not only is he a great pitcher, but he’s a supremely likable personality who deserves to be marketed as one of the faces of the game and of the franchise.
While McKenzie is out, Aaron Civale and Cal Quantrill figure to be the second and third starters in some order. Civale had an injury-plagued 2022 season but he posted the highest strikeout rates and lowest walk rates of his career and was an effective middle-of-the-rotation starter when he was healthy. Hopefully he can stay on the mound and find ways to limit his home runs, perhaps refining his large repertoire of pitches in the process to focus on getting the most out of his exceptional curveball.
Quantrill’s workmanlike approach got him to 186 innings in 2022, where his actual results once again outperformed his expected results. He seems to have a rare gift for getting batters to hit the ball where he wants them to hit it, and keeping them in the ballpark more often than not. Whether or not this gift is sustainable is always an open question and his margin for error is admittedly slim. He has been rumored by the Athletic’s Zack Meisel to be working on a splitter and his curveball shape to help increase his strikeout ability. If these experiments are remotely successful, Quantrill should continue to be a mid-rotation mainstay for the Guardians.
Zach Plesac moves up to a fourth starter role, as he returns to see if he can avoid hitting chairs or mounds and breaking his pitching hand. He has been frustrating from 2020’s breaking of COVID protocols onward, but he brings excellent fielding and the ability to control the run game as well as solid control to the back of the rotation. If he can manage to find the extra mile-per-hour or two he was missing on his fastball in 2022, it would help him be more than the typical MLB fifth starter waiting to be moved to the bullpen by one of any number of young aces in the Guardians’ system. For as much grief as Plesac gets, it’s important to remember that he would be a starter for any other AL Central team. The Guardians are simply spoiled with a system that leaves us wanting more.
Hunter Gaddis figures to get the first crack at the fifth starter role as he is reportedly stretched out to 70 pitches already. He had a difficult stint in the majors last year but seemed to be tipping his pitches. If he can sort that out and find his way to something like the 11 batters per nine innings he struck out in Triple-A, he should offer decent innings in a fifth-starter role. The Guardians might look to pair him with Xzavion Curry or Konnor Pilkington in a piggy-back situation, at least to begin the season.
Speaking of those young aces in that system, the big excitement of the 2023 Guardians rotation may be the arrival of someone like Joey Cantillo, Cody Morris (if healthy), Logan Allen, Gavin Williams, Tanner Bibee, Daniel Espino (if healthy), or some surprise pitcher rocketing up the system. All are at Akron or Columbus to start 2023 and it seems likely that at least three of them will be major-league-ready to help Cleveland if needed at some point this year. For now, the aforementioned Gaddis, Curry, Pilkington, as well as Peyton Battenfield figure to offer upside in either the backend of the rotation or as a long-man in the bullpen. While they don’t have the upside of others, each has at least one plus pitch and has shown the ability to get Triple-A hitters out on a reliable basis, with Pilkington and Curry showing some viability against major-league hitters in 2022.
The best thing the Guardians have going with their talented roster is an immense amount of depth at every position except for catcher. The rotation looks ready to compete for another AL Central title and more as-is, but things will really get exciting if one or two of the best arms in their system show that they are ready to help in the majors at some point this season.
Whether from injuries or performance struggles or both, the Guardians will certainly need to call on their depth at some point, even beyond McKenzie’s injury to start the year. The fact that the organization is loaded with talented arms should give a reasonable level of confidence in the starting rotation’s ability to help the team significantly in 2023, just as they have for the past seven seasons.
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