August 10, 2022

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Will Naylor's woes affect Guardians' Deadline strategy?

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ST. PETERSBURG — Guardians first baseman Josh Naylor has dealt with (and played through) his fair share of bumps and bruises this year. But now that he’s being sent for some tests on Monday when the club returns home after experiencing right ankle soreness on Saturday, the team may have to hold its collective breath.

Prior to the Guardians’ 6-4 loss to the Rays on Saturday afternoon at Tropicana Field, Naylor was scratched from the starting lineup. This wasn’t out of the ordinary. The first baseman has frequently battled back pain this year and has been a late scratch before. But this time, it was for right ankle soreness — the same leg that was operated on last year following his gruesome collision in right field.

“He was on his way to go get loose and said it went numb on him and it was hard for him to walk,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “I don’t doubt it hurt, but it’s hard to imagine something significant happened when he was on his way [to go warm up], so I’m hopeful.”

Despite what news Naylor gets on Monday, the injury causes some problems. Let’s take a look at the scenarios:

No matter what, Naylor will be out until he can get looked at on Monday. Owen Miller was hit by a pitch on his right arm by Rays starter Corey Kluber in the sixth inning Saturday, which later prompted his departure because according to Francona, Miller’s arm started to lock up and prevented him from being able to swing.

If Miller is also out on Sunday, that leaves Ernie Clement, who has played in just one game at first base in the big leagues, although he has been taking ground balls there during infield practice throughout the season. And if Clement somehow gets hurt, the team is down to maybe Nolan Jones as its other emergency first-base option.

This is just Sunday’s problem. If Naylor is out for an extended period, it could be something the Guardians have to work through beyond this series in St. Petersburg. And if a stint on the injured list is in Naylor’s future, how will that impact Cleveland’s views on the Trade Deadline?

The two biggest names that come to mind are Washington’s Josh Bell and Baltimore’s Trey Mancini — both of whom are likely to be moved before Tuesday’s 6 p.m. ET Deadline. Even though Bell has provided power in the past, he has sacrificed power for more contact this season, which is something that fits right into the Guardians’ offensive approach.

As MLB.com’s Thomas Harrigan explains, Bell has hit at least .291 against all three pitch types (fastballs, breaking balls and offspeed) this season. Mancini entered Saturday hitting .272 with a .764 OPS, which isn’t overwhelmingly flashy, but something the Guardians could certainly plug into their lineup.

Mancini and Bell would both be rentals, considering they’re set to hit free agency at the end of the season (unless somehow they’d work their way into Cleveland’s long-term plans). The Guardians typically focus on acquiring young, controllable talent rather than veteran rentals. But even though Cleveland owns a 51-49 record, the club is still in the thick of the division race and could use a veteran presence. If its goal is to remain in contention in 2022, maybe a rental can still make sense.

If Naylor gets decent news on Monday and will only be out for a few days, maybe the Guardians can get by with their current roster or maybe this represents a chance for the team to look internally for some temporary solutions rather than via trade.

Will Benson, who’s only played in three Minor League games at first base (counting Saturday), entered the day with an 11-game hit streak. Could Cleveland get creative and put him at first to see his bat at the big league level? Maybe. The team may hesitate to have him take on this transition in his first callup to the big leagues. In that case, Jones could move to first and Benson or Will Brennan could see time in the outfield.

Nonetheless, internal options exist in a pinch.

For now, the Guardians just need to get through Sunday. But if Naylor doesn’t get positive news on Monday, it’ll surely create an unexpected domino effect.

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