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The Rough Road Ahead Towards a Repeat

Is the glass half full or half empty? The answer is always according to one's perspective outlook on life. Similarly, the Cleveland Guardians front office are faced with some perplexing dilemmas about the future of the franchise. Their view of how the season is going and where it'll end up could make or break for a return trip to the playoffs this season.

The glass half empty view suggests that the Guardians are still several players away from a deep playoff run. That the lack of power in their lineup, the multiple injuries to Triston McKenzie this season, and an extremely young rotation will ultimately prevent the team from an October to remember.

The glass half full view examines the reasons for hope. That the Guardians have a solid core of players in their lineup, needing to make a few changes in order to become a consistent offensive force.

The starting rotation may be young but is capable of enduring through a full season into the playoffs. And the bullpen has the firepower and depth to shut down quality opponents during a postseason run.

At exactly .500 with a record of 45-45, it's easy to feel a bit conflicted on which perspective is the correct one to take as a Cleveland baseball fan here in the middle of July.

Here's the five most critical questions that face the franchise for the second half of 2023 which will ultimately seal their fate either towards another playoff run or make for a fizzled, frustrating finish.

Will Josh Bell Rediscover His Power Stroke?

The offseason signing of first basemen Josh Bell was received well by fans and the media alike when it was announced last December.

At the age of 30, Bell was a switch-hitting power hitter that was projected to protect Jose Ramirez as the cleanup hitter in the middle of the lineup. Previously, Josh had hit 26,27, and 36 homers in a season for a total of 130 in his tenure with the Pirates, Nationals, and Padres.

However, a worrisome performance with the Padres last season after being traded has continued on into his first half of this season with Cleveland. In the span of 135 games, Bell has hit a combined 12 homers in 542 at-bats. His batting average during this time is an abysmal .216.

For a lineup that's staving for homeruns, Bell's power outage has be a key contributor to the woes of the offense in the first half. He's currently putting up a .701 OPS which is far below the league average for a first basemen/DH.

Barring a complete 180 degree turn in production in the 2nd half, Bell is returning to the team in 2024 exercising his player option.

In the short term, Cleveland desperately needs him to return to his 2021 through first half 2022 self, in which he's driving in meaningful runs with doubles and homeruns on a consistent basis.

If not, more than likely the remainder of the 2023 could feature more of the same from what we saw offensively from this team in the first half.

Will "Spongebob" Make a Triumphant Return?

The magic of last October was made possible largely in part due to the bat of Oscar Gonzalez. Three of the four wins last postseason were a direct result from his heroics at the plate which included a game-winning 14-inning walk-off homer in Game 2 of the wild card series against Tampa Bay and a two-run game-winning single to lift the Guardians over the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALDS.

In his rookie season, Oscar whose nickname is "Spongebob", made a huge impact in the regular season getting the callup in June while putting up solid offensive numbers including 27 doubles, 11 homers, and 43 RBI with a .296 batting average.

With only 15 walks in 382 plate appearances, the league seemed to adjust to Gonzalez's aggressive approach at the plate this season. He looked lost at the plate and got very limited playing time due to Will Brennan fast start in early April.

Batting just .192 in 75 at-bats with a homer and 5 RBI, Oscar was sent back to the minors in early May and has since played for the Columbus Clippers.

Now over 2 months have passed and Gonzalez has been red-hot at the plate. Overall he's blasted 9 homers with 48 RBI with a .282 batting average. The highlights of this stretch include the game he played on June 25th on which he hit for the cycle going 5 for 5 and on July 4th where he had a 6 RBI performance!

It seems likely that "Spongebob" will be called back up and soon. The question is---can he return to the right-handed offensive weapon he was in the lineup last year driving in runs? Will his success carry on over into the majors?

More than likely he and Brennan will spilt time in right field with spot starts at DH and left field/center field giving Kwan and Straw days off when needed. Regardless of where and when he plays, Oscar might just be the key to the lineup's success in the 2nd half.

Will Civale and Quantrill Pitch Healthy and Strong in the 2nd Half?

It seems more than probable that 2023 is a lost season for Triston McKenzie. At most he might make a few spot starts in September but can't be relied to pitch the big games down the stretch.

Thus veterans Aaron Civale and Cal Quantrill must become anchors in a young, unproven rotation; especially if ace Shane Bieber is dealt at the trade deadline (of which we'll discuss more in a moment).

Civale has been plagued with injuries the past two seasons spending 5 different trips to the IL in that time period. The most he's ever pitched in a season was 2021 in which he reached 124.1 innings despite missing a few months with a finger injury.

In 2023, he's missed about 2 months of time with his latest injury. Since returning, Aaron in seven starts has been providing quality innings including his last start in which he struck out 9 in seven innings in a 3-0 win against the Royals.

He'll need to remain healthy, providing 6-7 innings of work in his starts in order to keep the bullpen from burning out in the 2nd half.

Cal Quantrill is having a nightmarish season so far. He's been battling an injury and apparently tried to pitch through the pain before going on the IL in late May.

Attempting to return too quickly back into that rotation in mid-June, he was pummeled for 11 runs in 2 starts before returning to the injured list shortly before the All-Star break. His ERA has skyrocketed to 6.45 in 13 starts as he's a terrible 2-6 on the year.

In the past two seasons, Cal had an outstanding 23-8 record with an ERA close to 3.00 pitching nearly 200 innings in 2022. His track record suggests his injury is largely to blame for the horrid results on the mound this season. A healthy return by late July could be a huge boost to a rotation that's in need to an inning eater.

He and Civale's performance could have huge dividends for a pitching staff that's in need of leadership and experience.

How will the Rookies in the Rotation Hold Up in the Stretch Run?

The most challenging aspect of the 2nd half is the use of the three rookie starters in the rotation. Tanner Bibee, Gavin Williams, and Logan Allen (who should be called back up on the big league roster soon) have all had an immediate positive impact on the ballclub this season.

Bibee is 5-2 with a 3.34 ERA and 71 K's in 13 starts, Logan Allen is 3-2 with a 3.47 ERA and 63 K's in 12 starts, and Williams in just 4 starts has a 1-1 record with a 4.01 ERA and 19 K's.

The issue the team is faced for the second half of 2023 is how to keep Bibee, Allen, and Williams healthy and strong without putting too many innings of work on their young, inexperienced arms.

Williams pitched 115 innings in last season in his first year in the minors. The most innings Logan Allen has pitched in a season is 132.2 which he did in 2022. Bibee pitched the exact same amount as Allen did last year as well.

All three will easily surpass (barring injuries) these marks in 2023 and that's without the playoff starts possibly added in.

It's quite evident that the Guardians are going to need to get creative in balancing the need to win now vs. protecting their these three rookie arms in September and possibly into October.

Should they send Bibee and Williams down to the minors to rest their arms for a few times through the rotation like they've done for Logan Allen? Limit their innings of work in starts to 4-5 maximum at the cost of possibly burning out the bullpen?

There's no easy solution to this dilemma especially with all the question marks concerning Bieber's future, McKenzie's injury, with the aforementioned health issues of Civale and Quantrill. It'll be interesting to see how management overcomes these limitations moving forward.

Is Shane Bieber Getting Traded? Can Cleveland Get a Right-Handed Power Bat?

Last but certainly not least is the question that is front and center of all Guardians fans minds at the moment---is Shane Bieber going to be traded at the deadline?

There's quite a bit of challenges facing the franchise in regards to a possible trade of Bieber. First off, trading the team's ace could have a big negative response by the players and fans alike. Regardless of what players are included in the package, the short-term repercussions could be disastrous.

Another issue is that Bieber's trade value has taken a big hit the past few weeks with his poor performance on the mound. His ERA since mid-June is nearly 5.00 as he's given up 4 or more runs in four of his past 5 starts. His struggles the third time navigating through an opponent's lineup have become a glaring problem recently.

The final dilemma is one facing many of the teams at the trade deadline--a lack of offers due to a buyer's market. With the amount of ballclubs in competition for wildcard spots increasing now thanks to the expanded playoff system, fewer teams are willing to sell.

This makes it increasingly difficult for a team like the Guardians to pull off a trade for Bieber in which they'll most likely attempt to get a right-handed power bat and prospects at the same time. The front office has pulled these kind of trades off (being a buyer and seller simultaneously) in the recent past when they parted ways with Trevor Bauer (2019) and Mike Clevinger (2020).

Could there be other trades made not involving Bieber at the deadline? Possibly but not probable. There's no market for shortstops as Amed Rosario isn't going anywhere this season. No one else on the big league roster is getting moved. Trading away prospects seems unlikely as there isn't much left in the upper levels at the moment.

The speculation and rumors will only increase in the coming days with Shane Bieber's trade status. His performance on the mound in his next three starts along with the Guardians as a whole could clear a path towards a trade or the front office deciding to keep him for one last playoff run with this current team intact. Simply put---it's quite a perplexing puzzle that at the moment presents no easy solutions.

Is the Glass Half Empty or Full?

There's much reason to view the remainder of the season with an optimistic outlook. Under manager Terry Francona, the Cleveland Guardians always seem to have strong finishes in the 2nd half. Last year they finished with a record of 46-26 surging to an American League Central division title with a 21-8 month of September.

The other favoring factor is obviously playing in the extremely weak Central division in 2023. With a record of 45-45, Cleveland is in first place by a half game with only the Minnesota Twins posing as a serious threat to compete with them for the division crown in the 2nd half. More than likely 85-86 wins will be enough to get into the playoffs for a 2nd straight year.

Yet there's much cause for concern which suggests a pessimistic outlook. Our remaining schedule is much more difficult down the stretch than in season's past. The Guardians still have the Blue Jays (home and away) Texas (home and away), Phillies (home), Rays (home and away), Astros (away), Reds (home and away), Dodgers (home), and Orioles (home) to go up against who are all playoff contenders.

The young, inexperienced rotation mixed in with injury concerns will be a hard barrier to get past. The bullpen has been vastly overworked and could burn out when the month of September rolls around. The lineup is lacking right-handed power and it seems unlikely a trade will overnight fix the ailing issues surrounding the offense.

Regardless of what happens in the next few weeks leading up to the trade deadline, the Cleveland Guardians road towards a repeat division title is going to be a rough one. It's not going to be smooth sailing with no stress for management or the fans alike, that's for sure.

No doubt these next few months will be perhaps the most difficult challenge the franchise has faced in Francona's tenure as manager in not only making the playoffs but making it an October to remember for Cleveland again in 2023.


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