The Bo Naylor Era Begins in Cleveland

Bo Naylor

The Guardians made a catching change heading into the weekend, designating veteran Mike Zunino for assignment and calling up prospect Bo Naylor from Triple-A Columbus to take his place. Zunino, signed this past offseason, hit .177/.271/.306 in 42 games in Cleveland, “good” enough for a 63 wRC+ and -0.1 WAR. Naylor, in his second go of Triple-A, is having a season similar to last one, hitting .254/.393/.498 with 13 homers in 60 games, giving him a wRC+ of 122.

Signed to a one-year, $6 million contract this past offseason, Zunino was never intended to be a long-term option for the Guardians. He’s always been a maddingly inconsistent hitter from year to year, oscillating between .850-OPS and .550-OPS seasons, and he missed nearly half of 2022 due to thoracic outlet syndrome. But the hope was that he’d be good enough to hold down the fort long enough for Naylor to get more time behind the plate in the minors.

Zunino’s offense didn’t initially seem all that crucial to his continued employment. Over the last decade, Cleveland has been more than happy to employ catchers who struggle with the bat, so long as said catcher was at least more than competent defensively. The last time Cleveland’s backstops combined for a wRC+ of even 90 was 2014, during the early stages of the Yan Gomes residency. This was a noted shift from the previous decade, when the organization took the opposite approach, with defensively challenged catchers like Victor Martinez and Carlos Santana making their money with their bats. Despite the absymal offense, if Zunino’s defense this season had been at the levels of his time with the Mariners, Naylor would still be hanging out in the state capital.

The decision being so less-than-agonizing is helped by the fact that Cleveland really needs offense. And when I say need, I mean need, not in the sense that I really need to have tacos for lunch. The organization has had brutal offenses in its history — like, team in the first act of an inspirational sports movie (before they find the star-quality ringer and learn about the awesome power of teamwork and friendship) levels of bad. While the Guardians’ wRC+ of 87 has been “beaten” on 10 other occasions, only once in the last half-century did the franchise finish a season with a worse number, in 1991. Cleveland also has a shot at finishing under 100 homers for the year, something no team has done in a full season since the 2011 Padres, who took nearly a decade to post their next winning season.

Upgrading at catcher was basically the Guardians’ quickest path to adding offense quickly. Several other players have been also been abysmal offensively — Amed Rosario, Josh Bell, and Myles Straw come to mind — but none of their replacements have the immediate upside that Naylor does. Zack Collins was not going to be a likely upgrade on Bell, and Columbus’ outfielders have mirrored the parent club’s long-term problems, with both starting corner outfielders below a .700 OPS (the International League as a whole has a .797 OPS) and a non-prospect center fielder in Chris Roller.

So, what can the Guardians expect to get from Naylor? Instant stardom is unlikely to be in the cards; his bat isn’t that crazy for a Triple-A hitter in 2023, and he’s struggling to throw out runners, which matters more now than it has in a long time in baseball. ZiPS translates his 2023 minor league line at .229/.342/.384 with 12 homers, which doesn’t exactly give the Guardians their own version of Adley Rutschman, but a .726 OPS would basically lap most of the team, behind only José Ramírez and Bo’s brother Josh Naylor.

But even though the first half of 2023 hasn’t drastically changed the overall outlook for Naylor, it’s at least fortified the likelihood that his 2022 breakout was for real. In the span of a single season, he went from our no. 28 prospect in Cleveland to no. 1. While there’s always the natural suspicion when a top prospects starts a season in the minor leagues, I think this is more a case in which Cleveland legitimately wanted to see consolidation of Naylor’s 2022 gains, as $6 million to monkey with his service clock would have been a pretty rich figure to go Snidely Whiplash.

ZiPS Projection – Bo Naylor
2024 .228 .322 .400 448 66 102 20 3 17 63 59 138 7 99 2 2.4
2025 .234 .329 .408 448 67 105 21 3 17 65 60 133 6 103 2 2.7
2026 .238 .333 .414 442 67 105 21 3 17 65 60 126 6 106 3 2.8
2027 .239 .335 .418 435 66 104 21 3 17 64 59 120 6 107 3 2.9
2028 .239 .335 .416 423 65 101 20 2 17 62 58 115 5 107 3 2.8
2029 .238 .333 .412 408 62 97 19 2 16 59 56 110 4 105 2 2.6

ZiPS 2024 Projection Percentiles – Bo Naylor
Percentile 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
95% 30 27 .282 .376 .526 142 4.9
90% 28 25 .267 .363 .487 130 4.4
80% 26 22 .255 .348 .459 121 3.7
70% 23 20 .245 .338 .434 113 3.3
60% 22 19 .235 .330 .417 106 2.8
50% 20 17 .228 .322 .400 99 2.4
40% 19 16 .219 .314 .382 93 2.0
30% 17 15 .210 .304 .365 86 1.6
20% 16 13 .197 .294 .344 78 1.1
10% 14 11 .178 .276 .317 67 0.3
5% 12 10 .169 .265 .293 57 -0.2

The long-term projections, as noted above, don’t predict Naylor becoming a star, though he may snag an All-Star appearance or two in his up years. What they do tell is a tale of stability. Gomes was the team’s last catcher to put up even consecutive one-win seasons, and just being good enough is an extremely positive trait to have in the eternally moribund AL Central, a division that is, to pilfer and butcher a quote about Lord Byron, “mad, bad, and dispiriting to know.”

Bo Naylor’s MLB career hasn’t gotten off to a booming start, as he’s now 0-for-14 against major leaguers (including five games at the end of 2022). But things will get better for him and, eventually, the Guardians. In a divisional race that ought to be tight in September and where no team has wild card hopes, being a bit better may be good enough.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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11 months ago

I’m mildly surprised they DFA’d Zunino instead of Cam Gallagher, because as bad as Zunino has been Gallagher has been obviously worse. I get that Gallagher is under team control for a little bit longer but who wants to keep him?

Left of Centerfield
11 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Zunino was a disaster defensively. From a recent column by Terry Pluto:

“Zunino has played in 42 games and leads the MLB with five passed balls. He’s also allowed 18 wild pitches. In 26 games, Gallagher hasn’t allowed a passed ball and only four wild pitches.”

And while “catcher ERA” is a flawed metric, Guardian’s pitchers have a 3.04 ERA with Gallagher catching, 4.66 with Zunino.

11 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Zunino was atrocious at offense and defense this year. Gallagher was atrocious at offense but has been good defensively. Gallagher will at least give you half of an MLB player, which is more than Zunino could say.

11 months ago
Reply to  mopete12

I don’t know about that. If you set the minimum PA threshold to 80 to include Gallagher, he is literally the worst hitter in baseball this year. At some point your offense is so bad your defense cannot save you, and whatever that point is he is well past it.

Although I suppose all of this doesn’t mean a player can’t be worse than Gallagher although it would be pretty hard.

11 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

By OPS+ on bref, he’s a tick better than Austin Barnes, but when you’re arguing about whether the guy with a -3 OPS+ is better than the guy with a -6 OPS+.

Also, it is a bad year to be a catcher named Austin:

Austin Barnes, -6 OPS+Austin Wynns, 26 OPS+ (on his third team of the season)Austin Hedges, 30 OPS+Austin Nola, 34 OPS+

But if you drop the baseline to 50 PA, you unearth this (not a catcher) gem: Nate Eaton has 55 PA. In three of them, he singled. In two of them, he walked. He was also hit by a pitch. The rest are outs — 21 via the strikeout. His triple slash: .058/.109/.058 for an OPS of 167 — an OPS+ of -52.

Last edited 11 months ago by sandwiches4ever
11 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I agree that Gallagher should’ve been the one to go, but my theory is that they see him as being a capable late-inning defensive replacement for Naylor unlike Zunino.

10 months ago
Reply to  szakyl

Zunino’s overall batting line is “propped up” by a decent April. He looks done/hurt. Gallagher is very bad but at least can catch, which Zunino couldn’t to any competent degree. You can pinch hit for Gallagher, or he can come in late as you say. With Zunino’s recent performance it was a no brainer- I was surprised they didn’t put him on the IL since you would think his rapid decline after a reasonable start to the year is at least somewhat health related