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‘We need to do better’

The Cleveland Guardians'  Amed Rosario reacts after striking out during the eighth inning against the Detroit Tigers on May 10.

The Cleveland Guardians’ Amed Rosario reacts after striking out during the eighth inning against the Detroit Tigers on May 10.

CLEVELAND — No matter how you slice it, the Guardians offense has been stuck in a dire situation. And just about any set of statistical analysis will leave Cleveland fans cringing and reaching for the Pepto Bismol.

For example: There are 235 individual hitters in the majors who have accumulated 0.3 fWAR this season, meaning they’ve added 0.3 wins to their team’s total above what the average replacement player would provide. It’s the exact total the Guardians lineup has produced — combined.

That means there are 235 different hitters who have equaled the Guardians lineup’s combined value.

It’s dire.

The Guardians rank dead last in wRC+ (76), home runs (30), slugging percentage (.340) and runs (169). Three clubs already have run totals of at least 100 more than Cleveland. No other team has a wRC+ lower than 80, or fewer than 36 home runs, or fewer than a .355 slugging percentage, or fewer than 179 runs (entering Friday’s games). The Guardians stand alone in those categories.

It’s stuck-in-a-lifeboat-riddled-with-holes-in-the-middle-of-the-Pacific-Ocean dire.

“We need to do better. If yelling and screaming at them made them do better, I’d do it,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said before Friday’s game against the St. Louis Cardinals. “That’s not going to make somebody hit. Changing the lineup, if I felt that it would make somebody hit, I’d do it. This is kind of a rarity where you see everybody’s not quite at the level — usually it’s like three [hot] and three [cold] and everybody [else] in the middle. So, we’re going to have to work through it.”

Francona was asked Friday about some lineup changes. His response, which is a valid one, was essentially to ask: who should be moved up?

The statistics don’t lie.

The Cleveland Guardians'  Jose Ramirez reacts after swinging and missing against the Colorado Rockies on April 25.

The Cleveland Guardians’ Jose Ramirez reacts after swinging and missing against the Colorado Rockies on April 25.

Jose Ramirez the lone Guardians hitter above league average in 2023

Not one regular hitter in the Guardians lineup has produced at his normal level in 2023. With 100 being considered league average, and 105 and 95 being five percent above or below league average, using wRC+ might be the best way to illustrate just how widespread this slump has been.

Jose Ramirez has a 112 wRC+ (meaning he’s been 12 percent better than the average offensive player). And so ends the list of Guardians regulars who are at least hitting at a league-average pace.

It’s Ramirez. And that’s it. Everyone else is below the 100 benchmark.

Josh Bell, the club’s marquee free-agent addition this past offseason and the hitter tasked with protecting Ramirez, is at a 95 wRC+ and is still struggling to get the ball off the ground enough.

Steven Kwan is at 92. Gabriel Arias is at 83.

Statistically, it keeps getting worse.

There are 26 qualified hitters with a wRC+ of 82 or worse this season, according to FanGraphs. The Guardians have four of those hitters — Andres Gimenez at 82, Josh Naylor at 79, Myles Straw at 71, Amed Rosario at 65. Mike Zunino (71) would join them if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. No other American League team has more than two such hitters.

With such an across-the-board issue, there isn’t much Francona can do with the lineup until the Guardians hit themselves out of it. Nobody has hit well enough to warrant a change.

“We’re going to keep grinding away, competing with these guys. It hasn’t been good,” said hitting coach Chris Valaika earlier in May. “We can’t keep making excuses … and things like that. I think there are different expectations, not just internally but externally, that we have to live up to, and we’re going to keep competing.”

Cleveland Guardians'  Tyler Freeman, right, scores on a single by Steven Kwan during the third inning against the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas on Sept.  25, 2022.

Cleveland Guardians’ Tyler Freeman, right, scores on a single by Steven Kwan during the third inning against the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas on Sept. 25, 2022.

Guardians could work Tyler Freeman into the lineup more — but where?

Tyler Freeman has hit well — 116 wRC+ — but in only 20 plate appearances. He holds a career .260 average and .633 OPS at the big league level. Perhaps he could warrant more at-bats. But, for example, if he takes over at shortstop for Rosario, the club also risks missing out on the streaky side of Rosario’s game, which he’s shown the last few years, as he’s had a tendency to start slowly and then hit another gear once the mid-summer months arrived.

But Francona did note this week that Freeman’s role and playing time is something the team is balancing.

“It’s something I need to figure out a little bit better,” Francona said. “I’m not quite sure how, but I’m certainly working on it because I don’t want him to sit as much as he is.”

Like Rosario, Bell is another hitter with a history of being red hot and then ice cold, and vice versa.

“He’s been very streaky pretty much everywhere, and I really hope that one of those streaks shows up and the power surge comes with it,” Francona said. “I don’t think he’s gotten the ball in the air as much as he probably has in the past. Just again, you’re dealing with people, and sometimes it doesn’t go the way you really want it to. I’ m sure he would love to be sitting there saying, ‘I’ve got 13 home runs.’ He doesn’t. The good news is he’s a worker.”

And while the team signed Zunino to be the starting catcher, it might only be a matter of time before Bo Naylor takes over the catching duties for the foreseeable future. The front office won’t want to rush Naylor’s return to the majors, but he’d be a breath of fresh air for a gasping lineup.

Guardians still within striking distance in mediocre American League Central

And, yet, despite a lineup-wide slump, the Guardians are somehow only 3.5 games out of first place in the American League Central.

It’s as if they’re a golfer who hits his tee shot way off course, only to have it perfectly ricochet off a rock and land in the rough. It isn’t a great spot to be in, and there’s still plenty of work to do, but they’re not out of it.

If they were in the AL East or West, it might be. But the mediocre AL Central might give the Guardians just a little bit of extra time before truly hitting the panic button, allowing them to see if enough of the lineup can turn it around before it’s too late.

Somehow, with baseball’s worst offense to this point in the season by a pretty large margin, they’ve managed to grit their way to a 22-28 record.

Perhaps the Guardians can turn a dire situation into a lesson. About two months remain until the trade deadline. If the bats wake up, the Guardians can perhaps look at the beginning of the season as a test. If they don’t, the trade deadline could take a turn in a downhill direction.

Ryan Lewis can be reached at [email protected]. Read more about the Guardians at Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Cleveland Guardians have MLB’s worst offense in 2023 thus far