CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Guardians are set to wrap up the first half of the season this weekend with a series against the Detroit Tigers. After that, they will be sending José Ramírez, Emmanuel Clase, and Andres Giménez to Los Angeles for the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. The team will return to action next weekend with a series against the Chicago White Sox.
Currently, the Guardians are 43-44 on the season and sit in second place in the American League Central Division, 4.5 games behind the Minnesota Twins, and a half-game up on the third-place White Sox. The Guardians are also three games back of the final AL Wild Card spot.
When the team returns to the field, they’ll have just 11 days before the MLB Trade Deadline. That means it’s time to start deciding what the ball club's strategy should be.
When this year began, it was never as simple as the club becoming a buyer or a seller -- and it still isn’t. Even when the team had a scorching hot month of June, there was always thought that the best thing for the club long term was to continue to let the youngsters play. After all, this is baseball’s youngest team we’re talking about. The Guardians weren’t projected to be a playoff team this year, 2022 was never the year they were going to break baseball’s longest World Series drought and likely still isn’t.
The Guardians are set up to be a terrific team in the not-so-distant future. The farm system is very strong with middle infielders awaiting their chance at the big league level to show that they’re just as good, if not better, than Giménez, a potential ace in Daniel Espino, and one of the best outfield prospects they’ve had in quite some time in George Valera.
The strategy for the team at this year’s trade deadline should be something similar to what it always has been: acquiring high-quality, controllable talent. This year’s strategy should also include parting ways with players that likely won’t be part of the team in 2024, the year that the organization should have circled as when they should be one of baseball’s best.
Part of the reason the farm system for the Guardians is so good is because of a plethora of middle infield talent at Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus. Gabriel Arias, the organization's fourth-ranked prospect, has made a couple of cameos at the big-league level but is currently in Columbus. Brayan Rocchio, ranked fifth in the organization by MLB Pipeline, is in Akron, and Tyler Freeman, ranked sixth, is in Columbus with Arias. All three of those prospects, along with Espino, Valera, right-handed pitcher Gavin Williams, left-handed pitcher Logan Allen, and current Guardians outfielder Nolan Jones rank among the top 100 prospects in all of baseball according to MLB Pipeline.
While it’s not likely that all of those guys pan out as stellar major leaguers, it’s fair to expect that more than one or two will. In fact, now may be the time, if possible, to consolidate the prospect list a bit in exchange for a young, team-controlled player who's already proven himself in the big leagues a bit. That type of move, trading for someone that can help not only now, but in the not-so-distant future, is a move the Guardians have pulled off in the past and should look to attempt again. It’s threading the ultra-tight needle of being buyers and sellers at the same time.
Speaking of selling, there are a few guys on the roster that the Guardians should look into unloading.
One of them is shortstop Amed Rosario, who has certainly been fantastic while with the Guardians, but it’s also clear he’s not the shortstop of the future. If he does have a future on the Guardians, it’s likely as a super-utility player. With his free agency only one more season away, it’s unlikely he will be able to fill that role at the price the Guardians would prefer for someone that’s not an everyday player at a certain position. Moving on from Rosario also opens the door at shortstop to start trotting out some of the younger prospects that are unquestionably a bigger part of the future.
The other thing the Guardians should investigate doing -- and this is the hard pill to swallow -- is trading away pieces that may not be around a couple of years from now. This includes 2020 American League Cy Young winning pitcher Shane Bieber.
Bieber is under team control through the 2024 season, but with the team’s history of not letting high-quality players walk away in free agency, it’s tough to see the Guardians even entering that season with him on the roster. In all likelihood, he will be traded following the 2023 season, at the latest. This is, of course, unless he and the Guardians are able to come to terms on a pricey contract extension. One that would likely be at least 150 percent of what Ramírez took when he gave Cleveland an incredible hometown discount.
Of course, all this could be subject to change with new minority owner David Blitzer entering the fold, but until proven otherwise, it’s fair to operate under the mindset that the Guardians aren’t going to be able to afford what Bieber will want. If that is the case, it makes sense to trade Bieber now. The return for him will be maximized compared to what it could be near the trade deadline next season, or even following next season. The Guardians have the chance to learn from trading Francisco Lindor. Yes, that trade looks great in hindsight -- acquiring Giménez and Rosario -- but it could have fetched even more had he been traded earlier.
Again, it’s not the trade everyone should want to make, but it ultimately may be the correct decision for the team. The difference between the Guardians winning a World Series in the next five years could be what the return is on a Bieber trade. The pieces that they receive in return could help to put the team over the hump in its quest for the ultimate prize. The franchise trading yet another Cy Young winner isn’t anything that anyone wants to see, but as it has been each of the last three times with CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and Corey Kluber, it ultimately could be the best thing to help bring a World Series to Cleveland.