Guardians looking for bounce back season from Emmanuel Clase

Feb. 29—Sure, the Guardians need more punch in the middle of their lineup. After all, they were last in the Majors in home runs last season (124) and 27th of 30 teams with 662 runs scored.

Plan A to add power to the offense is to find it from players already on the 40-man roster or from one or more of the non-roster invitees with the Guardians currently in spring training in Goodyear, Ariz. There is no Plan B.

The Guardians also need Emmanuel Clase to be Emmanuel Clase. He was not Mr. Automatic in 2023, and that was one reason the Guardians tumbled from 92-70 in 2022 to 76-86 last season.

Clase led MLB with 44 saves last season. He also led the Majors with 12 blown saves. The year before, Clase's 42 saves led all of baseball, but that year he blew only four saves.

Clase on Feb. 28 made his first appearance of the Cactus League season. He pitched one inning, did not allow a hit or walk, and struck out two batters in an 8-6 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

"Awesome," manager Steven Vogt on Feb. 29 told reporters covering spring training when asked about Clase. "He hit 98 (mph). His slider was really good. He threw a 3 and 2 slider and got a punchout to (Diamondbacks right fielder Corbin) Carroll. He was all you could ask for in his first spring training outing."

Clase isn't the only Guardians reliever who stumbled in 2023. The Guardians had 81 save opportunities — the most in baseball last season. Not all were in the ninth inning. If a reliever gives up a lead in the seventh inning it is calculated as a blown hold or a blown save. Guardians reliever Trevor Stephan, often the setup man, blew eight saves in 10 opportunities last year.

"I think cumulatively, a lot of it was just the workload put on (the bullpen) and how many close games we were in," Guardians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said in his season wrap-up news conference last year. "We had 14 more one-run losses than we did (in 2022).

"Those easily could have gone the other way, but when you're relying on your bullpen so much to keep you in games, it can get hard, especially in the second half of the year (in 2023)."

The Guardians bolstered the backend of their bullpen in November in an under-the-radar deal by trading right-handed reliever Enyel De Los Santos to the Padres for right-handed reliever Scott Barlow. Still, Clase will be their primary closer.

"(Clase) had a great winter," Vogt said. "You could tell he really worked. He came prepared. You feel good any time he's pitching, but to see him look like that his first time out is very, very nice."

In addition to blowing 12 saves — the most by any MLB pitcher since Ambiorix Buros of the Royals blew 12 saves in 2006 — Clase posted a record of 3-9 in 2023. The nine losses were the most of his career. His 3.22 ERA was a career high. Opponents batted .242 against him after hitting just .167 against him in 2022.