Seven weeks into the 2021 season, Cleveland is performing almost exactly as expected. The team is one of the top run prevention clubs in baseball, allowing only 3.81 runs per game (seventh fewest in MLB), and is also one of the lowest-scoring teams in the game. Cleveland is averaging 4.08 runs per game on offense. Only 10 teams are worse, and five play in the non-DH league.
"Some of it's youth. We're trying to hit too many pitches. Sometimes you've got to have a plan and stick to it. You can't hit everything," manager Terry Francona recently told reporters, including Paul Hoynes of Cleveland.com, about his struggling offense. "...You've got to be disciplined enough to know what you want to do and then not try to hit everything."
Cleveland is getting an MVP-caliber performance from Jose Ramirez, and Franmil Reyes is on pace to hit 40 home runs, otherwise there aren't many positives to take from the offense. The outfield has underwhelmed again (Eddie Rosario has disappointed to date) and the shortstop position has been a mess post-Francisco Lindor (Andrés Giménez was recently sent to Triple-A).
The biggest problem is, clearly, first base. The Jake Bauers/Yu Chang platoon has given Cleveland some of the worst (if not the worst) first base production in the league. Here's where their first base production ranks among the 30 teams:
- Batting average: .176 (28th in MLB)
- On-base percentage: .252 (28th)
- Slugging percentage: .224 (30th)
- OPS+: 31 (30th)
- WAR: -1.0 (29th)
Cleveland has not gotten a single home run from a first baseman this year (Bauers hit his only home run as a pinch-hitter). The offensive bar is pretty high at first base (the league average first baseman is hitting .239/.328/.414 in 2021) and Cleveland is falling way under it right now. Going from Bauers/Chang to even an average first baseman would represent a massive upgrade.
And given where they sit in the standings, an upgrade is worth pursuing. Cleveland has won 10 of its last 15 games and is 2 1/2 games behind the Chicago White Sox coming into Wednesday. The club also wants to keep pace in the wild card race. With that in mind, here are a few options for Cleveland to improve its first base situation ( ).
Stick with Bauers and Chang
Doing nothing is always an option. It's not a good option in this case, but it is an option. Bauers was a a top-100 prospect not too long ago and Chang has hit just about everywhere he's played except the big leagues. They're young (both 25) and at least have the illusion of upside. Development is not linear and young players often require patience. I wouldn't stick with the Bauers/Chang platoon if I were Cleveland, but you can squint your eyes and justify it.
Other internal options
Not too long ago Bobby Bradley was believed to be Cleveland's first baseman of the future. He was a consensus top-100 prospect a few years ago and is a .255/.335/.529 hitter with 40 home runs in 151 career Triple-A games. Bradley is off to a 9 for 53 (.178) start in Triple-A this year, but players have bad two-week stretches all the time. Although his limited big-league time has not gone well (8 for 45 in 2019), Bradley is the No. 1 in-house first base option should Cleveland cut bait on the Bauers/Chang platoon.
Josh Naylor was drafted as a first baseman and he began his minor-league career at first base before moving to the outfield in deference to Eric Hosmer when he was with the Padres. Cleveland acquired Naylor in the Mike Clevinger trade and he's remained in the outfield, though moving him back to first base full-time should be on the table. That only shifts the problem, however. It moves the lineup dead spot from first base to the outfield, though Cleveland has more outfield options to cycle through (Daniel Johnson, Oscar Mercado, Bradley Zimmer, etc.) than first base options. If nothing else, Naylor's ability to play first base gives the team a little flexibility.
Our R.J. Anderson ranked Nolan Jones the No. 1 prospect in Cleveland's system before the season, saying he has the "potential to be an above-average contributor at the dish thanks to his command over the strike zone and his above-average strength." Jones is off to a slow start in Triple-A (4 for 39) but all indications are he will hit long-term. The bigger problem may be his defense. Jones is a natural third baseman who has played one career game at first base. That was earlier this year, perhaps an indication Cleveland is considering him for the MLB roster. I'm not sure Jones offers immediate help. Cleveland probably wants to see him do damage against Triple-A pitching before calling him up, but he should be an option at some point this season.
Potential trade candidates
Once upon a time Jesús Aguilar spent nine seasons in Cleveland's farm system before moving on and finding success with the Brewers, so, if nothing else, he's familiar with the organization and the organization is familiar with him. Aguilar is hitting a robust .274/.357/.533 with nine home runs this year for a Marlins team that sits in fourth place in the NL East despite having the division's best run differential (0!). He will remain under team control next year as arbitration-eligible player, so he's not a rental, and Miami could justify moving him with Garrett Cooper (a natural first baseman forced into the outfield) and top prospect Lewin Díaz available to take over at first base.
The Rockies are predictably terrible (15-28) and CJ Cron is having a nice season (.309/.407/.515) while working on a one-year deal. That makes him an obvious trade candidate. Although Cleveland adheres to a strict budget, Cron's $1 million salary shouldn't be an obstacle, and Cleveland shouldn't have to part with a top prospect(s) to get him. Even if Cron regresses to his 2015-19 form the rest of the way (.260/.315/.460 or thereabouts), that's a significant upgrade at first base.
Possibly the best, most realistic trade target for Cleveland. The Pirates figure to be willing to trade anyone other than Ke'Bryan Hayes, and Colin Moran has blossomed into a legitimate middle-of-the-order hitter the last two seasons, hitting .266/.335/.471 since Opening Day 2020. That includes a .280/.350/.517 line against righties. Moran is making a reasonable $2.8 million this year and he will remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player through 2024, so he's a short-term upgrade and a long-term buy. There is not a doubt Pittsburgh is open to moving him right now. The Pirates don't need to wait for the trade deadline.
The unlikely and bordering on impossible trade candidate. I'm mentioning Anthony Rizzo here out of obligation, because the Cubs have been up and down all year, and there's no guarantee they'll be in the postseason race in a few weeks. Rizzo is an impending free agent and Chicago figures to listen to offers for all their impending free agents (Rizzo, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, etc.). That said, I would bet the farm on the Cubs signing Rizzo to an extension rather than trading him, and I'm not sure Cleveland could fit the remainder of his $16.5 million salary into the budget. Rizzo to Cleveland is a fantasy baseball trade more than something rooted in reality.
Looking for an under-the-radar trade target? Look no further than Chris Gittens, a 27-year-old slugger stuck behind Luke Voit in the Yankees system. Gittens is an exit velocity monster -- he hit a ball 118.8 mph in spring training, the second hardest hit ball tracked by Statcast during camp (behind a Giancarlo Stanton 120.1 mph screamer) -- and he's 10 for 31 (.323) with four home runs and more walks (12) than strikeouts (8) in 11 Triple-A games. Gittens was named the Double-A Eastern League MVP during the last minor-league season in 2019 and he has no real future with the Yankees with Voit entrenched at first base and Stanton entrenched at DH. The Yankees picked up Voit because he posted strong exit velocities and was blocked with the Cardinals. Could Cleveland pick up Gittens for the same reasons now that he's blocked by Voit?