Guardians' 1B options for 2024: Naylor and who else?

January 7th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Mandy Bell’s Guardians Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

In five short weeks, pitchers and catchers will make their way to Goodyear, Ariz. Although it’s just around the corner, it still seems as though the Guardians have a handful of roster questions to sort out before play gets underway. We’ll take the next few weeks to look through some of those situations by going around the horn to examine each area of Cleveland’s 2024 roster.

Last week, we analyzed the catchers. Today, we’re diving into first base.

Projected starter: Josh Naylor

Naylor is coming off of a career year. In 121 games last season, he hit .308 with an .843 OPS, 17 homers, a 128 wRC+ and a .326 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Naylor made history when he hit a homer in the same inning as his brother, Bo, in July. He fell in love with the eighth inning in May, hitting a go-ahead homer in the eighth in three straight games. And he was the most productive bat the Guardians had all season. Without a doubt, Naylor will be back in the starting lineup this year.

The question that remains is whether he’ll be able to duplicate this performance in 2024. According to the recent ZiPS projections for the upcoming season on FanGraphs, we’re led to believe this is relatively attainable. Naylor is projected to hit .274 with 20 home runs and a 122 OPS+.

Everyone has had their eye on Manzardo since he was acquired at last year’s Trade Deadline in exchange for starter Aaron Civale. The Guardians' No. 2 prospect has the type of hitting profile the club could really benefit from. He demonstrates the same contact ability that Cleveland has clearly prioritized over the past few years, but he can also tap into the power that has been missing from this lineup, as he demonstrated with six homers in 22 games in the Arizona Fall League.

It wasn’t until last month that De Los Santos (No. 12 prospect) was thrown into the mix. Selected from Arizona in the Rule 5 Draft, he can play either corner infield spot. When it comes to the power that’s been missing in Cleveland’s lineup, De Los Santos has the ability to fill that void, too. MLB Pipeline ranks the 20-year-old as a 60-grade power hitter with elite exit velocities. However, he’s young and inexperienced (he’s never played above Double-A) and has struggled with being overly aggressive at the plate in the Minors. It may be difficult to improve on that at the Major League level.

Question to answer: What does drafting De Los Santos mean for Manzardo?

Well, it definitely doesn’t make Manzardo’s path to the Majors any easier.

De Los Santos is on the 40-man roster. Manzardo is not. De Los Santos cannot be sent to the Minor Leagues without being exposed to waivers and being offered back to the D-backs for half of his $100,000 Rule 5 price. Manzardo can start the year in Triple-A Columbus without any roster headaches.

As much as we tend to fixate on service time, the Guardians aren’t worried about that. They proved that two years ago when rookie Steven Kwan ended up on the Opening Day roster. If the need is there, the club will go with the best option. The best backup for Naylor was Manzardo … until De Los Santos complicated the situation.

The Guardians don’t have room for three first basemen unless one of them tries to move to a corner-outfield spot.

The front office is always concerned about having young players adjust to the Major Leagues in April -- a month that can be hard for hitters due to the weather. Add in the pressure of trying to prove you belong in the big leagues, and poor results are common. It wouldn’t be surprising if the team leaned on this concept to start the season -- having Manzardo with Triple-A and De Los Santos on the big league roster (because he can’t be in the Minor Leagues).

Maybe the Guardians can find a way for Manzardo to still be on the 26-man roster on March 28, but also having De Los Santos to balance will make that decision much more complicated.

Who else is in the pipeline?

No. 7 prospect C/1B Ralphy Velazquez (age: 18, Arizona Complex League).
No. 29 prospect OF/3B/1B Jhonkensy Noel (age: 22, Triple-A Columbus).
No. 30 prospect 1B C.J. Kayfus (age: 22, Single-A Lynchburg).