CLEVELAND — Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff won’t need to hold office hours at Progressive Field after their latest round of roster maneuvering. Cleveland’s front office raided the shelves of the Los Angeles Angels — think Menards meets Hobby Lobby — and added the top three pitchers available on the waiver wire in a move that tossed a tablespoon of kerosene onto the flickering American League Central fire.
In this bewildering season, the Guardians dealt away Amed Rosario, Aaron Civale and Josh Bell at the July trade deadline in an effort to prioritize playing time for youngsters, only to feature castoffs Kole Calhoun, Ramón Laureano and Noah Syndergaard throughout August and then add three more veterans to the pile for one final September push.
The Guardians sit five games behind the Twins in the AL Central. FanGraphs’ projection system offers them only a 5.2 percent chance of winning the division. But in claiming Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo López and Matt Moore, Cleveland also blocked Minnesota from obtaining any of the Angels’ trio, which Antonetti admitted was a bonus benefit.
Who said the AL Central wasn’t dripping with intrigue?
The Guardians’ initial wheeling and dealing a month ago stoked frustration inside Cleveland’s clubhouse, as the team stood only one game behind Minnesota in the standings at the time. Bell, set to bat fourth against the Astros, was playing cards with teammates two hours before first pitch in the moments leading up to his relocation to Miami. Antonetti and Chernoff flew to Houston the morning after the deadline to ease tensions and explain their approach to the deadline.
Josh Naylor joined Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie on the injured list, Laureano and Calhoun — Cleveland’s red-headed cult hero who can’t stop delivering key hits — helped stabilize the clubhouse and fill in lineup holes, the club tabbed Gabriel Arias and Oscar Gonzalez to receive auditions and Syndergaard brought his nationwide search for his old self to Cleveland. Any hopes of a second straight division title were pinned on an epic collapse by the Twins more so than a surge by the Guardians, whose record plummeted to a season-worst eight games below .500 in recent days.
It was a strange month in a bizarre season, and it ended with the most significant twist yet.
These latest machinations should go over better with the players. At the very least, it’s a risk-free way to add a jolt of energy to the clubhouse and a dash of interest to what appears to be Terry Francona’s final month at the helm, especially as Naylor nears a return to the lineup and the Twins venture to Cleveland for a three-game set beginning Monday.
It’s also worth noting the state of the Guardians’ pitching staff. López and Moore bolster a bullpen that ranks fifth in the league in ERA but has steered into every pothole along the way. The Guardians are 5-12 in games that are tied after seven innings and 21-25 in one-run games. Moore, who owns a 2.21 ERA with 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings and a .195 opponents’ average the past two years, arms Francona with another left-handed option. Sam Hentges, the only other southpaw in the pen, has rattled off 14 consecutive scoreless appearances.
Giolito’s presence allows the club to be cautious with rookie starters Gavin Williams, Tanner Bibee and Logan Allen. Williams and Bibee have already exceeded their innings totals from last season, and Allen could follow suit as soon as Saturday. Cal Quantrill will return Friday, assuming the rotation spot of Syndergaard, whom the club cut loose last weekend.
Williams exited his start Tuesday after only one inning because of knee soreness, but Antonetti said Thursday, “It looks like we’ve avoided the worst-case (scenario).”
The Guardians have plenty of familiarity with Giolito and López, having faced both for years during their tenures with the White Sox. López’s fastball averages 98.3 mph and is responsible for more than half of his 71 strikeouts (in 55 innings). Giolito’s fastball/changeup combination baffled Cleveland’s lineup for years. He was piecing together a customarily solid campaign with Chicago before his walk and home run rates spiked in six starts with the Angels following a midseason trade.
• Giolito: 4.45 ERA, 165 K, 57 BB in 153 2/3 innings
• López: 3.93 ERA, 71 K, 30 BB in 55 innings
• Moore: 2.66 ERA, 49 K, 12 BB in 44 innings
All three will be free agents at the end of the season.
Cleveland will be on the hook for about $3 million, a source told The Athletic. The club saved more than that in dealing Bell and Civale. To acquire Giolito and López from the White Sox just five weeks ago, the Angels sent Chicago their Nos. 2 and 3 prospects.
“It’s rare,” Antonetti said, “that you have the ability to improve the team during a season, especially with quality players like this, when it doesn’t require trading away good players.”
Players placed on waivers are awarded to the team with the worst record that submitted a claim. The Guardians only submitted a claim on the three pitchers they acquired. The Reds obtained outfielders Harrison Bader and Hunter Renfroe on Thursday via the same system.
“We came off a good road trip,” Antonetti said, following the club’s 4-2 tour through Toronto and Minnesota. “How do we continue to build on that momentum and give ourselves the best chance to compete for the postseason? Whether or not that will be good enough and whether or not we can close the gap that’s in front of us, we don’t know. But we want to try.”
(Top photo of Lucas Giolito: Jerome Miron / USA Today)