Straw aims to add lumber to leather, lightning

March 16th, 2023

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- With two weeks remaining until Opening Day, the Guardians still have some items left on their Spring Training to-do list. The biggest one is getting more at-bats.

Straw suffered through a frustrating offensive season last year after making a strong first impression in 2021. He was traded to Cleveland from Houston at the ’21 Trade Deadline and went on to hit .285 with 16 doubles and 13 stolen bases in 60 games.

For a team that had gone so long without a reliable, everyday outfielder, Straw seemed like the needle in the haystack the Guardians had been searching for -- so much so, the club locked him up with a five-year, $25 million contract extension. But then came , who was an instant boost to the lineup, and , who was better than advertised defensively and certainly produced at the plate.

Suddenly, Straw was the weakest offensive link of the outfielders.

Straw wasn’t signed to be the best hitter on the team. His defense and speed are crucial, but Cleveland needs him to produce more offensively than he did with a 65 OPS+ in ’22. And the 28-year-old outfielder knows that.

Straw met with the Guardians’ hitting staff in the early weeks of the offseason in Cleveland to get himself back on track.

“We went over mechanical things, stuff like that,” Straw said. “Kind of working with [the hitting coaches] and getting to know my swing and figuring things out and kind of having that to work on the rest of the offseason was big.”

His goal for the offseason was simple: “Just to come back and be an asset to the lineup,” he said. “Basically, to be not what I was last year.”

When Guardians manager Terry Francona was asked what he’s looking to see with Straw during Spring Training, he listed two things:

  1. “The ability to not be afraid to lay a bunt down, which he tried [on Tuesday against the Angels], which is good, because he practices. He’s actually getting better. So that’s good, getting him comfortable there. Because he’s so fast, even on bad bunts, he’s going to run into a hit or two or at least move up a runner.”

  2. “Not being … when I say ‘passive’ … because I don’t know if that’s a great word -- but not be afraid to maybe swing at a ball out of the zone and let it go early in the count. If it is a ball, OK, just regroup. But it’s like he wants to get the perfect pitch and sometimes he almost looks a little passive. And not be afraid, [hitting coach Chris Valaika] says, to kind of get his swing off and maybe put a little fear into [the opponent] and put a little juice into the ball instead of just hoping that it’s right there and then reacting.”

The Guardians have had even more limited time to try to evaluate these things than anticipated. Straw got off to a slow start in camp because he was dealing with knee soreness. And for most games, he’s hitting in his usual nine spot in the order, which means he’s typically getting one fewer at-bat than most of the other starters.

With 12 days left of Cactus League games, the Guardians likely will try to mix Straw in at the top of the order to give him at least one more plate appearance per game to see the adjustments he has made at the plate and try to evaluate where he stands.

Even if Straw gets a few more at-bats, it won’t tell the full story. But he is confident that what he has learned about himself is telling. And if that’s the case, the Guardians’ lineup will be in a much better spot in ’23, as the best hitters at the top of the order may have more opportunities to drive in runs if Straw can get on base from the bottom of the order.

“You know when things are right and wrong,” Straw said. “I’m feeling much better than I did last year.”