From a real-life baseball standpoint, the Cleveland Guardians’ roster is very much middling. They’re not exactly tanking, but trades in the last few years have left Terry Francona and company with a flawed roster in dire need of position player reinforcements, specifically in the outfield.
Cleveland won just 80 games last season and could be headed for a similar win total if their offseason activity post-lockout is anything like what they did prior to the lockout – which was, not a lot.
With José Ramírez, Shane Bieber, a quality rotation, and similarly a quality bullpen, there’s enough on the roster to stave off a plummeting fall down the divisional standings. However, the progress arrow isn’t exactly pointing upwards.
But even with an uneven roster that might check in with a win total similar to last season’s, there is plenty of fantasy gold to be had here.
You might not want to draft every Guardians player in 2022, but there are a few players you probably should draft. Players who could help propel you to a more successful season in fantasy than Cleveland might have in real life.
José Ramírez might be one of the safest first-round selections this spring. Currently sporting a 4.18 ADP, per NFBC, you wouldn’t be at fault for taking the infielder at nearly any point in the first round.
The veteran is coming off a stellar 2021 campaign where he hit .266 with a .355 on-base percentage, 36 home runs, and 27 stolen bases in 636 plate appearances. What’s more, despite playing in a Cleveland lineup that scored the 17th-most runs in the league, Ramírez still topped both the 100 runs scored mark and the 100 RBI.
It was the second time in his career that he’s done that.
It was also the second time in his career that he’s topped 35 home runs and 25 stolen bases in the same campaign. Which, as of late, hasn’t been an achievement that many batters can display on their resumes.
For as little as Cleveland has done to upgrade their lineup this winter, Ramírez should benefit from a full season of Myles Straw perched atop the batting order. Straw (more on him later) hit .283 with a .360 on-base percentage in 258 plate appearances as the Guardians’ leadoff hitter last season after a July 30 trade, a notable upgrade over Cleveland’s other most utilized leadoff hitter, César Hernández. Hernandez hit .236 with a .306 on-base percentage in 324 plate appearances when batting first with the team.
Ramírez, who was excellent all season at the plate from a production standpoint, was that much more productive once Straw joined the team.
Which certainly isn’t a surprise. Clearly, the BABIP evening out a bit helped, but Ramírez was markedly more productive at the plate with runners on base than without, which Straw certainly helped with – and will continue to help with.
Whether you select Ramírez in the first half of the opening round or he falls to you in the second half of the first round, you’re looking at a hitter who you can build a championship-winning roster around.
That’s obviously what you want out of your first-round pick anyways, but Ramírez looks to be a close of a lock as anyone to fit that bill.
You can make the argument that each of these closers will pitch for a better team than Cleveland next season, likely resulting in more save opportunities.
However, Clase still might finish with similar, if not better, value if his 2021 performances are anything to go by.
And, if there’s anything to take away from Clase and Cleveland last season, it’s that the Guardians liked (and needed to) to utilize their closer. A lot.
Clase was fourth among relievers with at least 24 saves in innings pitched (69.2). Only 12 relievers total, closer or no, made more appearances than the right-hander. None of them registered more than 15 saves.
Elsewhere, the former Rangers prospect finished in the top 15 in ninth inning appearances (51, ninth) and high-leverage ninth-inning appearances (21, 14th) despite sharing closer duties with James Karinchak in the first half. Karinchak, it should be noted, finished with 21 total ninth-inning appearances and 11 high-leverage, ninth-inning appearances.
However, once the second half started, the closer’s role was Clase’s alone. He was, in layman’s terms, very good in the first half. He was even better in the second half.
He should continue to get the lion’s share of the saves as Cleveland’s closer next season thanks to both his dominance and Karinchak’s struggles.
Even if Cleveland finishes with a win total in and around 80, Clase should still be a solid bet to get to 30 saves.
Currently going as the ninth pitcher off the board, per NFBC, with an ADP of 30.83, Shane Bieber is being drafted near the likes of Zack Wheeler and Jacob deGrom and ahead of starters like Julio Urías, Sandy Alcantara, and Aaron Nola.
In short, he’s an elite starting pitcher.
However, like with most fantasy players, there’s some risk involved. Or rather a few things that might, speculatively speaking, lower a player’s ADP.
For Bieber, the main one is the fact that he missed significant time last season due to a shoulder injury. The 26-year-old was limited to 96.2 innings. In those innings, he pitched to a 3.17 ERA and a 3.03 FIP while striking out 12.48 batters per nine innings and allowing 3.07 walks and 1.02 home runs per nine frames.
Though it is worth noting that he made a pair of starts later in the season after returning from the shoulder injury and allowed a combined four hits and an earned run in six total innings while striking out four.
Really, the injury is the only major blemish on the right-hander’s resume. He does have a propensity to log a rather high hard-hit rate, but elite bat-missing numbers and elite numbers across the board more than make up for that. It’s because of those elite numbers that he could easily finish as fantasy baseball’s best starters with a clean bill of health and a full slate of innings.
Since the start of his breakout season in 2019, Bieber is one of just two pitchers to rank in the top 15 in the league among starters in strikeouts per nine innings, swinging strike percentage, WHIP, ERA, walks per nine innings, and home runs per nine innings.
The other pitcher is Max Scherzer.
Reyes logged 466 plate appearances with the Guardians last year and mashed 30 home runs while hitting .254 with a .324 on-base percentage and a .268 ISO. Last season, he logged 328 of those plate appearances batting fourth. With Ramírez and Straw and their above-average on-base percentages hitting ahead of him in the lineup, the slugger should have no problem topping 80 RBI again like he did last season with 85.
Bradley, meanwhile, saw 279 plate appearances and connected on 16 home runs. He hit .208 with a .294 on-base percentage and a .237 ISO. He should continue to see a significant amount of starts at first base, especially with Josh Naylor likely needed in the outfield more often.
You’re not going to get much in the way of batting average help with either. Plus, there’s the potential for high strikeout totals as both logged strikeout rates north of 30% at 32% and 35.5% respectively. But what they will do is provide above-average home run production when playing.
The Cleveland duo were just two of 19 players league-wide, minimum 270 plate appearances, who topped both a 16% barrel rate and a .465 xSLG.
Bradley’s ADP in particular is decidedly low for someone who might hit 40 home runs given a full season’s worth of plate appearances. Per NFBC, the first baseman currently has an ADP of 413.24. If you’re playing in deeper leagues, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a player with that kind of upside that late in drafts.
The 25-year-old should also benefit from more plate appearances against division foes after doing most of his damage at the plate against American League Central teams during the 2021 season. It’s a 98 plate appearance sample size, but if Bradley can come anywhere close to replicating his division splits in 2022, he’ll significantly outperform his ADP.
For as anemic as Cleveland’s lineup was at times last season, they still employ Ramírez. That’s nothing but good news for fantasy managers who have Straw in dynasty leagues or are looking to draft the outfielder this spring.
Straw was quite literally glued to the top of the Guardians’ lineup in 2021. After being acquired in a mid-season deal for catching prospect Yainer Diaz and relief pitcher Phil Maton, the 27-year-old appeared in 60 games for Cleveland. He hit eighth in his second game with his new team and hit fifth a few weeks later against Oakland. He also made one appearance as a pinch hitter in early September. Otherwise, in every other game he played for the Guardians, or rather, the other 57, he hit leadoff.
The outfielder has all the hallmarks of a fantasy stolen base stalwart.
Opportunity. Sprint speed. Also, on-base skills.
Opportunity in the sense that both Houston and Cleveland showed an inclination to let Straw loose on the base paths. Only Starling Marte, Whit Merrifield, and Trea Turner logged more stolen bases than the Guardians outfielder, who finished with 30.
What’s more, the former Astro was one of just seven players to finish with at least 20 stolen bases and a percentile ranking in Statcast’s sprint speed metric.
And while Straw didn’t have the highest on-base percentage of the group, he was one of three, along with Ohtani and Tatis Jr., to log a double-digit walk rate.
With stolen bases in such high demand, Straw’s 130.73 ADP, per NFBC, seems entirely reasonable. Plus, his on-base skills will only help him generate more stolen base opportunities, not to mention run-scoring chances.
For as good as Clase is, and likely will continue to be, if you want a reliever dart throw towards the end of drafts, there might not be one better than Karinchak to gamble on.
A spike in walks in the second half was problematic for the right-hander, but he still possesses elite bat-missing ability.
His fantasy ceiling probably isn’t as high if Cleveland doesn’t trade Clase as they have other veteran impact players in years past, but given how often the Guardians have utilized their closer, Karinchak could inherit a sizeable ninth-inning role if Clase is traded and he can iron out the walks to a degree.
Before the Guardians had Clase as their closer, Brad Hand was Cleveland’s top saves option in 2020 and logged 16 of the team’s 20 saves while tying for the fifth-most high-leverage, ninth-inning appearances that season.
Those are two rather sizeable “ifs” with Karinchak, but again, this is a dart throw late in drafts that we’re talking about here. There’s little risk or downside, especially at his current ADP of 433.80, per NFBC.
Photos by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)