Lessons from the Guardians' first half

July 12th, 2023

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.

Welcome to another installment of the Guardians Newsletter. I’m Mandy Bell and I’m in my fifth season covering Cleveland. Let’s get into the good stuff:

The first half of the Guardians’ season was far from what anyone would’ve predicted it would be.

Their big offseason signing, Josh Bell, didn’t provide much power. Their other offseason signing, Mike Zunino, was designated for assignment by the middle of June. Andrés Giménez did not start the year in All-Star form like he did in 2022. Triston McKenzie has only been able to make two starts due to injury.

And yet, Cleveland sits in first place in the American League Central at the All-Star break.

Heading into the second half of the season, the Guardians boast a good bit of momentum. Since June 18, no team in the American League had a better record than Cleveland (12-7). Josh Naylor is as hot as any hitter in the Majors. And Giménez has started to show signs over the last two weeks that he’s getting back into his All-Star form.

If Cleveland is going to make another postseason run this year, it’s going to need a lot of things to work in its favor.

What we learned in the first half
There are traces of the fun, never-say-die 2022 squad in them, it just took a while to see it. Cleveland got off to a really slow start after the expectations skyrocketed following its unexpected playoff push in ’22. The Guardians added a power bat in Bell over the offseason and everyone was ready to see an even better team in ’23. Instead, Bell struggled out of the gate and so did the rest of the team. When the pitching was on, the hitting was off (and vice versa). But over the last month, the Guardians have heated up and carry some momentum heading into the second half of the season.

Likely Trade Deadline strategy: Buy by selling
“Buyer” or “seller” is never a term used to describe Cleveland at the Trade Deadline. This club has mastered the art of buying by selling over the last few years, and if it makes a move by Aug. 1, expect the same pattern to be followed. Guys like starter Shane Bieber or shortstop Amed Rosario may be the easiest to move from the big league roster to get a Major League-ready bat without hurting the club too much (as strange as it may sound). If the Guardians get rid of their ace or a bat that’s been one of their most consistent over the last two years, it’d be easy to say they’re selling. But if they can convert either (or both) for impact players, they can buy by selling.

Key player:
The Guardians need Bell to be the bat they signed him to be. The offense was scrappy in ’22 and consistently ran into luck or found ways to eke out victories. Everyone was convinced that a power bat would take the lineup to another level – and it still could. Bell has shown flashes of being that answer, but he has yet to fall into a rhythm. If he can do that in the second half of the year, the Guardians can avoid more one-run games and breathe a little easier than they did in the first half.

Prospect to watch:
The hype for Naylor’s callup this season was off the charts, and rightfully so. He had an .890 OPS with 13 homers, 12 doubles, one triple and 48 RBIs in 60 games for Triple-A Columbus. When he finally got to the Majors mid-June, he got off to a slow start, going 0-for-9 after he was promoted. Right before the break, he had another 0-for-19 stretch. But the day before his last game of the first half, he spent extra time with his hitting coach and made some tweaks. The next day, he went 3-for-4. The Guardians have struggled to get offensive production from their catchers. If what he did in Triple-A can translate to the big leagues, Cleveland will be in good shape.