The Cleveland Guardians’ catching duo of Mike Zunino and Cam Gallagher have struggled at the plate this season. The issues with Zunino and Gallagher at the dish have re-fueled the discussion surrounding Bo Naylor, when exactly will the Guardians call the former first-round pick up for good? Let’s discuss what we know about the situation.
A Look at Naylor and the Cleveland Catchers
One weakness that the Cleveland Guardians had entering the 2022-23 MLB offseason was behind the plate. Last season, starter Austin Hedges, albeit a very capable defender behind the plate, posted an extremely low OPS (.455) for the Guardians. This winter, Cleveland opted to swap out Hedges for 2021 AL All-Star Mike Zunino.
The rap sheet on Zunino is well-known at this point. The former Rays catcher has been a powerful slugger in his career, as he posted four 20+ home run campaigns prior to 2023. But with a career batting average of .200 entering the season and a sky-high 34.7% K% rate, the 32-year-old can be frustrating at times.
This season, Zunino has not exactly lived up to his reputation. Zunino’s Hard Hit% rate of 34.4% is significantly lower than his career norms, while his OPS of .591 is his lowest since 2019; Zunino did post a lower rate last season, however, but that was in a 36 game sample.
That OPS is among the league’s worst, but not the worst among regular catchers. Austin Nola (.436), Austin Hedges (.456), Martin Maldonado (.548), Eric Haase (.553), Christian Vazquez (.561) all have worse OPS figures (min. 125 PA).
However, Zunino’s 43.8% K% is the worst in the game, a little over five points more than Patrick Wisdom‘s 38.3% K%. That number is higher than his average of 36.3% average, and a 39.9% Whiff% rate against fastball hasn’t helped.
In addition to Zunino’s offensive metrics, the former University of Florida’s framing metrics have also taken a tumble. Ex-Royal and Zunino’s backup Cam Gallagher has been excellent in that metric (per Baseball Savant), but he too hasn’t provided much of a punch at the plate. Through 28 games, Gallagher has hit just .137/.169/.164 with two extra base hits and no home runs.
Meanwhile, Bo Naylor continues to produce steadily in AAA. With Columbus, Maylor has cracked 12 home runs — three of which came in his first eight games of June — over 57 games and is right on pace to surpass the 20 home run marker in the Minors for the second straight season. The brother of Josh Naylor‘s also walked 47 times over 57 games in 2023, third-best in the International League.
Naylor did see a brief glimpse of the Majors yet against last month, when the 23-year-old was called up for a doubleheader against the Mets. He 0-2 in his lone game of the season. That marked the second time Naylor saw time in the Majors, as he accrued eight PA in 2022. The Ontario native hasn’t recorded a hit through his first ten MLB plate appearances.
What it Means
It’s understandable as to why the Guardians have been hesitant to give Naylor regular time at the MLB level yet. Naylor was an infielder prior to going pro, but all accounts indicate he’s taken to the position well. The 23-year-old’s shown off a good arm at the position as well, and his 32% caught stealing percentage last season was proof of that. For right now, it looks like everything is coming together for Naylor.
Management likes where Naylor is at this point, as well. Cleveland assistant GM James Harris told Cleveland.com recently that he’s been “nothing short of impressive” against advanced hitting and likely has the tools needed to be in the Majors now. However, the Guardians do want him to play regularly in order to improve his craft and set him up for success, rather than catching a handful of times a week.
The bottom line is that it’s likely inevitable that Naylor will be back in the Majors again this season, provided he can continue to produce in the Minors like he has in recent weeks. He’s the catcher of the future, and his bat’s looked more and more polished in recent weeks. However, it doesn’t look like the Guardians are ready to make the move just yet.
When Cleveland does, the team will need to make a decision on what to do with Zunino and Gallagher. Zunino’s making $6M in 2023 and Cleveland would likely need to eat that money if the Guardians decide to cut bait with him.