Guardians offseason 2024: No Tito, the Shane Bieber dilemma, questions in the outfield

Shane Bieber won the 2020 AL Cy Young award.
Shane Bieber won the 2020 AL Cy Young award.

When it comes to free agency, the five teams that make up the American League Central are resorting to a series of jabs, hoping to win the fight for 2024 by split decision in the end.

None of the five seem destined for a haymaker this winter. And it has made the AL Central the most winnable division in baseball — again.

The Guardians are walking into a new era with first-year manager Stephen Vogt. Terry Francona is gone, and the Guardians are picking up the pieces after a momentous 2022 season was followed by a disappointing effort in 2023. Though, lucking into the No. 1 overall selection in next year's draft is a good start to the winter.

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The Minnesota Twins won the division in 2023 and then announced they'd be slashing payroll. After seeing a franchise record with a $156 million payroll last year, the team confirmed to reporters that cuts are coming. They've lost two pieces to their rotation, as Sonny Gray signed with the St. Louis Cardinals and Kenta Maeda signed with the Detroit Tigers.

And while the Tigers did add Maeda, they might lose Eduardo Rodriguez, who opted out of the final three years of his deal and is a free agent, potentially making it a wash.

The Chicago White Sox have continued their implosion and the Kansas City Royals are still in full rebuild mode.

It's clear that the issue with Diamond Sports Group (Bally Sports) is a real factor that has fractured the framework for many teams' financial standing. The uncertainty with the regional sports networks means uncertainty with incoming payroll for the time being, and that is potentially a problem.

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Somebody has to get off the ropes and throw a punch to win this division eventually.

Guardians acquire Scott Barlow, sign Austin Hedges and Ben Lively, trade Christian Bethancourt and Cal Quantrill

First, a look at the road traveled thus far this winter. The Guardians have moved some pieces around when it comes to their pitching staff and catching situation.

Cal Quantrill is gone. Enyel De Los Santos was dealt to the San Diego Padres for Scott Barlow, an indication they believe the latter can handle a high-leverage role in the bullpen. While it wasn't necessarily the only reason for it, the way it works out for Cleveland is that the money the Guardians would have likely needed to pay to keep Quantrill and De Los Santos in arbitration essentially gets converted into Barlow's expected salary for 2024.

Christian Bethencourt was added to the roster to act as the backup catcher for Bo Naylor until the Guardians signed Austin Hedges to a one-year, $4 million deal (which hasn't yet been confirmed by the club). Bethencourt was then traded. Hedges provides a veteran presence and a strong defensive option behind Naylor, who will be entering his first full season in the majors.

Ben Lively was signed to a one-year deal to provide some depth for the starting rotation, which could be under some more construction this winter. As it stands, Shane Bieber, Triston McKenzie, Gavin Williams, Tanner Bibee and Logan Allen make up that five-man unit — for now. Lively, 31, had a 5.38 ERA with the Cincinnati Reds last season.

Steven Kwan (38) and Myles Straw (7) are greeted by Terry Francona after scoring against Atlanta, July 3, 2023.
Steven Kwan (38) and Myles Straw (7) are greeted by Terry Francona after scoring against Atlanta, July 3, 2023.

Questions in the outfield at the top of Guardians offseason to-do list

For a while, the Guardians' outfield outlook was as bright as it was in recent memory. It didn't last long. The Guardians featured one of the lightest-hitting outfields in baseball in 2023, which had been a trend for quite some time.

Guardians outfielders combined for an 84 wRC+, which ranked 29th out of 30 teams. They also hit only 16 home runs, which was dead last by a mile — they were the only group to not hit at least 50.

Steven Kwan is the only outfielder with a clearly defined role. Will Brennan, Myles Straw, and Ramon Laureano all come with question marks. Oscar Gonzalez was claimed off waivers by the New York Yankees.

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Straw has three years left on his current contract before the club option years come into play, and the Guardians will pay him, at minimum, just north of $20 million over that time (when taking into account the option year buyouts). He might be suited for a bench role that can take advantage of his strong suits (speed and defense) in a much more efficient way.

Laureano could be an important part of the outfield mix as a hitter who can mash left-handed pitching in a left-handed-heavy lineup. He'll see plenty of at-bats in 2024 as long as he continues to hit southpaws.

George Valera, one of the club's top-ranked prospects, could certainly make his way to the majors in 2024 if he can take a few steps forward in Triple-A. Chase DeLauter is a rising name who could be a longterm answer in the outfield some day, but he's totaled only 28 at-bats in Double-A. A few others could enter the mix as well.

With Josh Naylor at first base, and prospect Kyle Manzardo figuring to play a significant role at first base or in the designated hitter spot in 2024, it leaves the outfield as the biggest spot on the roster that could be addressed.

How can the Guardians address their outfield heading into 2024?

In the past, the Guardians haven't wanted to make a move unless there was a significant reason to do so. It didn't make sense to them to make a borderline lateral move when they already had controllable, young, unproven talent on the 40-man roster. Blocking a younger player without a reasonable expectation for a major improvement in production hasn't been in their playbook.

So unless they add an outfielder simply for depth and competition this spring, that means if they go the free agent route, it'd need to be for someone significant. And considering this smaller free agent class in many respects and plenty of other teams looking to bolster their lineups, that means it'll be costly.

The translation of all of that: if the Guardians are to make a significant move when it comes to their outfield, it'll have to be via a trade or a very sudden role reversal with their spending habits.

Shane Bieber wipes away sweat after leaving the game during the fourth inning of a rehab start at Canal Park, Sept. 12, 2023.
Shane Bieber wipes away sweat after leaving the game during the fourth inning of a rehab start at Canal Park, Sept. 12, 2023.

The Guardians' Shane Bieber dilemma heading into 2024

The Guardians could also go the route of dealing from their stockpile of middle infield prospects. In the past, they've had to get creative at some levels of the minor leagues to find enough at-bats for all of them. And opposing teams likely will be always interested in the Guardians' pitching prospects coming out of the Cleveland Pitching Factory (as Lucas Giolito put it last year).

Or, they could continue to deal from their major league starting rotation, something they have done with Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and now Quantrill. Cleveland arguably being the league's best with pitching development has afforded them the luxury of dealing from the rotation while knowing it can be replenished in-house.

But a potential Bieber trade (one that might have happened this past July had he not been injured) is much more complicated than it might have been at points in the past. Ever since winning the 2020 AL Cy Young, he hasn't finished two of the last three seasons with shoulder and arm injuries. His fastball velocity has continued to drop, and while at times he has maintained a level of effectiveness, he's also run into more trouble spots than he had in the past. His K/9 rate has dropped in each season, from 14.2 in 2020 to 12.5 in 2021, 8.9 in 2022 and 7.5 last season. He finished 2023 with a 3.80 ERA, and his 4.77 xERA (expected ERA) suggests he might have been lucky to even end with that mark.

Bieber has just one year remaining before he hits free agency. He's been a productive starter, albeit one not as effective as he once showed. He's battled injuries over the last few years. It might make finding the right trade partner a bit more difficult.

"Until we hear something otherwise, Shane's here," Vogt told reporters in Nashville during last week's Winter Meetings. "It's one of those things that I've been through as a player, been through as a coach. It's never fun when you see your name floating, but you know what, Shane's got a really good perspective, and he's here. He wants to be a Guardian, and that's what excites me. Right now he's our guy."

The Guardians certainly wouldn't want to let Bieber walk to free agency a year from now, but they also won't want to sell low when dealing their No. 1 starter, with Quantrill already gone as well, opens up some depth issues with the rotation in the short run. As always, completing a trade is a tango of at least two partners.

But in this sense, whether it's Bieber or a package of prospects (or both), the Guardians have a few different paths they can follow in the trade market.

Brent Rooker of the A's is congratulated by third base coach Eric Martins (3) after hitting a home run against Detroit during the sixth inning at Oakland Coliseum, Friday, Sept. 22, 2023.
Brent Rooker of the A's is congratulated by third base coach Eric Martins (3) after hitting a home run against Detroit during the sixth inning at Oakland Coliseum, Friday, Sept. 22, 2023.

Exploring a Guardians trade involving Shane BIeber or prospects

A trade with the Cardinals could make sense, as St. Louis is flush with options in the outfield (Dylan Carlson, Lars Nootbaar, Tommy Edman, Alec Burleson, Brendan Donovan), though they've already dealt Tyler O'Neill to the Boston Red Sox.

The Baltimore Orioles, who worked their way into contention in a difficult AL East, could swap an outfielder (perhaps Anthony Santander). The A's, in a full rebuild, could move Brent Rooker for a package of prospects. And the Guardians' and Tampa Bay Rays' front offices are so familiar with each other that it's likely always a possible avenue.

A former Cy Young pitcher who represents one of the biggest trade targets across the league. A new manager for the first time in more than a decade. Uncertain payrolls all around the game due to the issues with Diamond Sports Group.

And somebody, anybody, has to win the AL Central, right?

Ryan Lewis can be reached at Read more about the Guardians at Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Cleveland Guardians 2024 offseason to-do list involves Shane Bieber