The Guardians have active and 40-man rosters filled to the brim with younger, controllable players and a group that won the American League Central with a 92-win season in 2022.
Therefore, nearly the entire roster is set to return heading into 2023. One of the few position groups around the Guardians roster with plenty of questions unsolved as the offseason activity gets ready to pick up: catcher.
There are a couple of prospects the team could lean on moving forward. There are a couple veteran catchers who are re-signing options. And there are a couple talented catchers around the league who could be potential trade targets. All of it gives the Guardians some options and plenty to figure out as to who will be the team’s Opening Day catcher in 2023.
Here’s a look at the Guardians’ options.
Re-sign Austin Hedges and/or Luke Maile
Austin Hedges hit free agency following the last out in the World Series after exceeding six years of MLB service time. Luke Maile became a free agent last week, when he and relief pitcher Anthony Gose were non-tendered by the club. Both veteran catchers were eligible for arbitration.
Those moves left the Guardians with only two catchers on the 40-man roster: prospects Bo Naylor and Bryan Lavastida. Both made their MLB debuts in 2022, but neither has extensive experience at the major league level.
The Guardians have long put extensive value into a catcher’s defensive abilities, with manager Terry Francona throughout his time in Cleveland calling anything else the team gets from them offensively a “bonus.” That was certainly the case with Hedges, who is one of the best defensive catchers in the majors, and Maile to a lesser extent.
Since the beginning of the 2019 season, Hedges leads all catchers with 40 Defensive Runs Saved, just ahead of former Cleveland catcher Roberto Perez’s 38. The backbone of the Guardians’ organization has been their pitching staff and pitching development, and they’ve invested heavily into catchers who will take care of those pitchers in how they call games, how they frame pitchers and how they control the running game.
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While those defensive abilities have value, Guardians catchers were among the least productive group offensively in baseball. Primarily utilizing Hedges and Maile, Guardians catchers posted the second-worst wRC+ (55) in baseball, besting only the Pittsburgh Pirates. While Hedges had a few big hits in key situations throughout the season, as whole, the group contributed very little at the plate, even if they offered plenty of value behind the plate.
While both are now free agents and free to sign with any team, it’s possible the Guardians bring back one of them to serve as a veteran presence for Naylor and Lavastida, or at least lessen the immediate need for those two to handle all of the pitching staff duties right away. Hedges indicated a desire to return following the Guardians’ ALDS Game 5 loss to the New York Yankees, and the team has expressed the same openness if a deal can be reached. Maile would likely require a lower price tag.
Let Bo Naylor and Bryan Lavastida run the show
The aforementioned value the club puts into how their catchers can manage a pitching staff might make this option one better suited for 2024, but the club has noted in the past how impressive Naylor has been during spring camp in terms of how quickly he picked things up. Naylor and Lavastida both got a state of the majors, which included the ability to work with Hedges, Maile and coach Sandy Alomar Jr.
If the team feels Naylor, especially, is ready to take on a larger role defensively, he’s certainly the best option on paper offensively. Naylor is ranked as the No. 5 prospect in Cleveland’s system and the No. 8 catching prospect in baseball according to MLB Pipeline. He possesses a rare skillset for a catcher, as he logged a 20-home run, 20-stolen base season in 2022 between Double-A and Triple-A before getting the call to the majors near the end of the season.
The younger brother of Josh Naylor, Bo offers the Guardians the kind of offensive potential they haven’t had behind the plate in quite some time. The position could be his down the road, but the bigger question is how they view his ability to handle the primary role on Opening Day 2023. He has drawn positive reviews in that area thus far, but it’s a large undertaking.
Trade for Sean Murphey, Danny Jansen or someone else
There are two obvious, potential trade opportunities at catcher around the league: Oakland and Toronto.
The A’s already had Sean Murphy, who has developed into one of the best catchers in baseball, and now have Shea Langeliers ready for the majors after he made his debut in 2022. Murphy’s name was connected to Cleveland, among others, at least year’s trade deadline.
Murphy, 28, is entering his first year of arbitration eligibility and would be under club control through the 2025 season. Among all catchers, Murphy ranked third last year with 5.1 fWAR, trailing only J.T. Realmuto and Adley Rutschman. He’s also among the best defensive catchers in the game, having won a Gold Glove in 2021. Last year, he hit .250 with a .759 OPS with 18 home runs, 37 doubles and 66 RBIs en route to a 122 wRC+ (100 represents league average, which means Murphy was 22 percent above league average while Cleveland catchers were 45 percent below league average).
Murphy would be a significant upgrade and fits what the Guardians would be looking for in every day — a clear step up at the plate and a solid option behind it to handle the pitching staff, along with three years of control — except, perhaps, the price tag to acquire him. It takes two to Tango in any trade, and the A’s won’t let Murphy go easily knowing his value to the lineup.
The Blue Jays have an even more crowded catching situation than Oakland. The Blue Jays have three catchers that would see significant playing time on most clubs, including Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk and Gabriel Moreno.
Jansen, 27, is under club control for the 2023 and 2024 seasons. Last season, he hit .260 with an .855 OPS, 15 home runs, 10 doubles and 44 RBIs in 248 appearances, good enough for a 140 wRC+. Despite playing less than half a season, he was worth 2.6 fWAR.
Kirk, who only turned 24 this November, was an All-Star in 2022, hitting .285 with a .786 OPS, 14 home runs, 19 doubles and 63 RBIs along with a 129 wRC+ and 3.8 fWAR. He’s under club control through the 2025 season.
Given that Kirk was an All-Star last year and has an extra year of control, Jansen would be the easier target to acquire and would still represent a significant offensive upgrade for at least the next two seasons. It’d be difficult to imagine the Blue Jays moving a 24-year-old coming off an All-Star season.
Jansen and Kirk are both blocking Moreno, formerly a top-5 prospect in all of baseball who made his MLB debut in 2022 instantly proved he was ready for a major role in the Blue Jays lineup. One of Jansen or Kirk will likely be moved this offseason, with Cleveland being one of the obvious, potential landing spots. That is, of course, if the price is right compared to their in-house or formerly in-house options.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more about the Guardians at www.beaconjournal.com/sports/cleveland-guardians. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Guardians 2023 Opening Day catcher a question mark entering offseason