Ramírez, Naylor highlight questions in losses to Tigers

April 19th, 2023

DETROIT -- This is not the way the Guardians drew up Tuesday’s doubleheader at Comerica Park.

Inclement weather on Monday forced a doubleheader, but after the Guardians fell, 4-3, to the Tigers in the matinee, they also dropped Game 2 to Detroit, 1-0. It brought back flashbacks from when the team was in the same position on July 4 last year, losing both ends of a twin bill as part of a four-game sweep by the Tigers before Cleveland began its charge to the division title.

As the Guardians learned last year, one bad day does not define a team’s season. Cleveland is 9-9, after going 7-11 through the first 18 games in 2022. But it’s the time of year that red flags are constantly raised. Are early-season trends here to stay? Or will they end up looking like overreactions in retrospect?

Three elements of Tuesday’s doubleheader could fall in either of these categories.

Ramírez’s first golden sombrero
Of everything that’s listed on José Ramírez’s résumé, this is one “feat” that he would prefer not to have achieved.

Ramírez’s strikeout rates consistently rank among the lowest in the league, and he entered the day with just five K’s in 75 plate appearances (the third-lowest K% in the Majors). But after a strikeout in the first game, he fanned four times against Eduardo Rodriguez and the Tigers in Game 2. It was the first time he’d struck out four times in a game.

“His fastball is really sneaky with a breaking ball and changeup,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said of Rodriguez. “You can tell. You don't see that in Josey very often."

Ramírez usually dominates the Tigers. He entered the day with a .315/.393/.599 career slash line against them, with 26 homers and 105 RBIs in 127 games. Against Rodriguez, he had gone 5-for-13 (.385 average) with two homers prior to his three strikeouts in the nightcap (his fourth K came against reliever Jason Foley to end the game).

There shouldn’t be concern about Ramírez after just one bad day. But he’s gotten off to a different start than expected this season. He has plenty of hits, reaching base in all but two of the club’s first 16 contests, but his power is lacking. Ramírez has hit just one home run after a year in which he burst onto the scene with six long balls and 25 RBIs in his first 18 games. And as he and Josh Bell both take time to heat up, the team continues to sit in second-to-last place in the Majors with just nine homers.

Naylor against lefties
There’s no hiding how much has struggled against southpaws. Last year, he hit .283 with an .856 OPS against righties, compared to a .173 average with a .512 OPS against lefties. Coming into Tuesday, he had yet to pick up a hit in 12 plate appearances against a left-hander.

Throughout spring, Francona noted that when Naylor is able to use the whole field and doesn’t overswing, he can be a dangerous hitter. On Tuesday, he came close to proving his manager correct when a nice, easy swing resulted in a line drive that was heading over the right-field fence … until Matt Vierling robbed him of his first hit (and homer) off a lefty this season.

Who’s up the middle?
The Guardians have a lot of middle infielders to juggle.

is dealing with back soreness that will keep him out of the lineup until at least Friday. With Enyel De Los Santos on the paternity list, infielder has a roster spot to help fill in while Rosario is resting.

Freeman had been raking at Triple-A Columbus, hitting .365 with a 1.099 OPS in 13 games. He carried that into Tuesday, going 2-for-4 with a double in the first game. But he also injured his left shoulder while covering second base on a steal attempt -- the same shoulder that has been surgically repaired twice. Freeman stayed in the game, even mashing a double in the ninth, and although Francona said Freeman tested out well after the first game, the team didn’t want to play him in the second.

At the same time, infielder Brayan Rocchio (Cleveland's No. 6 prospect, as ranked by MLB Pipeline) was scratched from the starting lineup in Triple-A, causing plenty of suspicion. Rocchio, too, has gotten off to a hot start, hitting .344 with an .873 OPS with Columbus and making a viable case that he’s ready for his Major League debut.

But with Rosario, Freeman, Gabriel Arias and Andrés Giménez already in the picture, is a Rocchio promotion feasible? Complicating the question, are Rosario and Freeman healthy enough to hang onto their spots on the active roster?

We’ll have to wait to see.