LAS VEGAS -- The Guardians were pleased with their unexpected 92-win season that led to a division title. But now, it’s time to focus on how they can get better for 2023.
Cleveland’s front office rarely divulges its offseason plans. President of baseball operations Chris Antonetti noted at the GM Meetings on Tuesday afternoon that there could be a handful of different ways to improve Cleveland’s roster, but he specified that adding a catcher will be at the top of his team’s to-do list.
“Catching is one we’ll continue to look at,” Antonetti said. “I mean, the good news is that if we started tomorrow, we could go out and field a team and feel pretty good about it. But our goal is to work meaningfully to improve that roster.”
There are a few routes the Guardians could take to fill their top need. Let’s take a look at a few, beginning with what’s most likely to occur.
Bring back Hedges
This remains the most probable outcome.
The Guardians said at the end of the season that they still had interest in bringing back Austin Hedges, who became a free agent after the World Series concluded.
Hedges’ offensive output wouldn’t demand a large chunk of change to keep him in Cleveland, and he isn't a headliner in a free-agent class that boasts Willson Contreras, Mike Zunino and Omar Narváez. But Hedges' defensive impact and his leadership abilities are enough to make the Guardians believe he’s the answer behind the plate -- at least for the time being.
And the conversations between the two parties have already begun.
“We’ve actually already had conversations with Austin after the season and into the quiet period, trying to see if there was something that made sense,” Antonetti said. “So, at this point, we haven’t overlapped on anything, but it doesn’t mean we won’t keep [trying].”
Trade for Murphy
A's backstop Sean Murphy didn’t have eight defensive runs saved like Hedges did last season (Murphy had one), but the defensive skills the Guardians always prioritize are certainly in there, considering Murphy won the AL Gold Glove for catchers in 2021 with 10 defensive runs saved. But in this case, the biggest pickup for the Guardians would be Murphy’s bat.
For the first time in a while, the Guardians would have a solid offensive threat behind the dish if Murphy were penciled into their lineup. Hedges and Luke Maile were able to sporadically deliver a home run or timely hit this past season but never found consistency. The Guardians are adamant that defense outweighs offense when it comes to their catchers, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have a backstop who could help with both.
The A’s have been open to the idea of trading Murphy, who is just now entering his first year of arbitration and won’t hit free agency until 2026. The Guardians still have an influx of prospects on their 40-man roster, especially middle infielders, to help put together an enticing trade package, and they have intriguing hurlers deeper in their farm system should they need to make the deal sweeter.
Pass the baton to Naylor
Bo Naylor is so close to being the Guardians’ main catcher.
The team’s No. 5 prospect (according to MLB Pipeline) has been on the big league club’s radar for a long time, but his shaky 2021 season prompted questions about his ability to reach the Majors and succeed. Last offseason, he put in countless hours of work on his swing and saw immediate results. Throughout the Minor League season, Naylor improved tremendously, hitting .263 with an .889 OPS in 118 games between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus.
Naylor could be everything the Guardians want and need: A sound defensive catcher with a threatening bat. He had a limited taste of the Majors this season, getting in five regular-season games, and was carried on the postseason rosters. But it’s unlikely that the team would name him the starting catcher at the beginning of the 2023 season. Naylor may need a little more time in the Minors and could use a veteran presence in the Majors to help him make the transition to starting big league catcher (Hedges would be an ideal candidate to bridge that gap).
Even if it’s not on Opening Day, Naylor’s time as a regular for the Guardians seems to be quickly approaching.
“His future is so bright,” Antonetti said. “If he stays on the path he’s on with the same mindset he has, it’s exciting to think about what he can develop into.”