CLEVELAND -- Cleveland’s 2021-2022 offseason is officially underway.
“[Pérez has] been part of some of the best memories we’ve had at Progressive Field in helping lead our team to Game 7 of the World Series in 2016 and has been a member of our teams over the course of the past handful of years,” Cleveland president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said. “He’s provided extraordinary leadership behind the plate and has really helped our pitchers continue to grow at the Major League level.
“We certainly value Roberto’s contributions and will leave the door open for him to potentially return to Cleveland.”
There was no doubt that Cleveland would exercise Ramírez’s option. The team could still spend the winter listening to offers for the third baseman, who’s finished in the top three of AL MVP voting in three of the past four years, and he's expected to draw some more votes in 2021. However, at this point, it seems more likely he’ll be back in the lineup next year. With a new chapter beginning within the franchise with the impending name change, following its first losing season since Terry Francona took over as manager in 2013, keeping Ramírez can only work in the team’s favor, both with the fan base and with his teammates.
“The number of other players who referenced the impact that José has on them,” Antonetti said, “whether it's offensively, defensively, things he's paying attention to during the game, when he's running the bases. But that was one of the highlights of our offseason meetings, to hear other players talk about the impact José has had on them.”
Cleveland is determined to right the ship this winter, insisting its payroll should be higher heading into next year than it has been over the last handful of offseasons. If the goal is to get the team back to playoff contention, it’s essential to keep Ramírez in the lineup. And assuming the club is looking to build from a disappointing 2021, expect it to engage in possible contract extension talks with Ramírez as next season draws closer.
“There’s no rush,” Ramírez said through team interpreter Agustin Rivero at the end of the season about a possible extension. “I would love to stay here the rest of my career, but we have to wait and see what happens. I would love to see what they have to offer.”
Said Antonetti: “Well, the good news is we know José can be here next year and the year after, which in baseball terms, that's a really long time. I think I'll stay away from any specifics, but what I’ve shared in the past and would reiterate, we absolutely love José, and he makes such an impact on our team both on and off the field. We'd love for him to be here for a really long time.”
As likely as it was that Ramírez’s option would be exercised, it was just as probable that Pérez’s would not be. The Gold Glove backstop, who had a breakout year in 2019, has struggled to stay healthy over the past two seasons, playing in just over 50% of the season in 2020 and only about 30% of the 2021 season. And with backup catcher Austin Hedges expected to make nearly $4 million in arbitration, according to MLB Trade Rumors, it was unlikely the team would spend over $10 million on just its catching tandem.
“It’s been tough the last two years,” Pérez said at the end of the season. “I’m a gamer. I always want to play. But it sucks when you don’t perform. For me, at least, I try to play hurt and it didn’t work. … Injuries are part of the game. I just have to stay healthy. I know what I can do. I can help any team win. Especially our team, that is young. Looking forward, I want to prove myself for 2022 and whatever happens, happens.”
If Pérez doesn’t find a home elsewhere, Cleveland has already expressed interest in bringing him back on a smaller deal. For now, the attention turns to Hedges, who has handled a lot of the playing time while Pérez has been injured the last two seasons. Assuming his contract is tendered this winter, Hedges will handle the starting duties heading into 2022.
As far as Hedges’ backup, the team will have to figure out whether it wants to bring in external temporary options to help bridge the gap until younger talent like catcher Bo Naylor, who's the club's No. 6-ranked prospect according to MLB Pipeline, is ready for the big leagues. Although there is a lot of excitement surrounding Naylor’s future, he needs more time in the Minors to prove what he can do (mostly with his bat) before he’d receive a promotion to the big league club. Cleveland may also turn to someone like No. 13-ranked prospect Bryan Lavastida, who got a brief taste of Triple-A in September, at some point in 2022, but it’s clear that the team is lacking catching depth.
“We do have a number of prospects that we like that are ascending throughout our Minor League ranks,” Antonetti said, “but I do feel that we will go into the offseason looking to complement our Major League catching group. And that could be bringing Roberto back, or it could be another external acquisition.”