Backstop on front burner for Guardians at Winter Meetings

December 6th, 2022

SAN DIEGO -- The first day of the Winter Meetings is in the books, and  is still on the trade market.

The Guardians have reportedly been interested in the Oakland backstop all winter. The interest is there. The need is there. Now, we are waiting to see if a deal can get done.

How would Guardians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti describe his team’s catching situation?

“A work in progress,” he said with a slight grin.

The Guardians rarely divulge many details of their offseason plans, but it has been obvious that acquiring a catcher was going to be the top thing on their to-do list. Austin Hedges entered free agency after the World Series concluded. Luke Maile was designated for assignment and picked up by the Reds. That leaves just Bryan Lavastida and Bo Naylor on the 40-man roster -- neither of whom has played more than six big league games.

But Naylor, especially, is exciting. He’s ranked No. 5 on the team’s Top 30 Prospects list, according to MLB Pipeline. He has spent the past few offseasons learning Spanish to perfect his communication with any pitcher he might catch. He dedicated last offseason to tweaking the little things that stood in the way of his offensive production in 2021, leading to an impressive ’22 campaign.

There’s no hiding the need Cleveland has for a catcher. There’s only one question that remains: Could the team just stick with Naylor and decide against an external acquisition?

From what it sounded like on Monday, the short answer is no.

Naylor took the first step at the end of this past season, getting called up to the big leagues with just a week remaining in the regular season. He was carried on Cleveland’s postseason rosters to soak up as much experience as possible as an emergency catcher. But because he played just five games with the Guardians, it seems unrealistic to believe he’d be handed the starting job on Opening Day, despite the team’s excitement for his future.

“How do we position Bo and the team for success?” Antonetti said. “So with Bo individually, just making sure that he’s prepared as possible for when that opportunity is there to come up and contribute to helping us win games. And then on a team level, one of the things we continue to wrestle with is, as we look at our planning, at what point do we start to plan for Bo? And that’s just a hard thing to answer.”

The plan is already underway, even if the Opening Day blueprint doesn’t have Naylor behind the plate. The Guardians got him time -- though it was limited -- around manager Terry Francona and catching coach Sandy Alomar Jr. during the team’s most exciting and intense point of the season. He had a glimpse of what it was like to handle the responsibilities of being a big leaguer and understanding how to handle a Major League pitching staff.

“We felt that that would help accelerate his readiness to transition into roles,” Antonetti said. “Now, is it fair for that to happen Opening Day next year? I’m not sure. Is it some point during the season? Hopefully. When? Hard to predict.”

Cleveland added to its catching depth by signing Meibrys Viloria to a Minor League deal with a non-roster invitation to big league camp next spring. But that’s far from the answer the team is looking for, especially if Naylor needs more time in the Minors.

“We’re super optimistic on Bo and remain super optimistic on him, but he’s had half a year in Triple-A,” Guardians general manager Mike Chernoff said. “There’s no right answer. We’re just balancing, like Chris said, what’s best for him, what’s best for the team and how do we match that up on a time frame.”

“And the competitive place of our team also complicates that, right?” Antonetti said. “We’re not in a position just to see, ‘Oh, let’s just see how it goes,’ right? Because we feel like we’ve got a good team that’s capable of competing.”

The whispers around Murphy only accelerated after executives from all 30 teams funneled into San Diego over the weekend. And if the Guardians are looking to be even more successful than they were in 2022, taking Murphy off the trade market is a solid place to start.