What the Guardians cutting ties with Cal Quantrill means for future rotation, payroll

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CLEVELAND — No pitcher started more games for Cleveland the last three seasons than Cal Quantrill, but that won’t be the case in 2024. The club designated Quantrill for assignment on Tuesday, a curious move ahead of the deadline to add players to the 40-man roster to protect them from being selected in the Rule 5 Draft.

Quantrill, eligible for arbitration, stood to earn an estimated $6.6 million in 2024, according to MLB Trade Rumors’ projection model. He endured a rough 2023 season, as he compiled a 5.24 ERA while navigating through a recurring bout of shoulder inflammation. He did rebound in September, when he recorded a 2.76 ERA over his final six starts.

Overall, he surrendered more than a hit per inning and saw his walk and strikeout rates travel in undesirable directions. His metrics weren’t pretty, though they usually aren’t kind to him since he’s a throwback sinkerballer who pitches to contact. His whiff rate ranked in the 6th percentile in 2023 and his strikeout rate ranked in the first percentile.

In 2021, Quantrill emerged as a steady force in Cleveland’s rotation after a stint in the bullpen. A year later, he became a reliable No. 3 starter, with a healthy walk rate and an ability to limit hard contact and convince hitters to chase pitches out of the zone, thanks to an effective changeup and cutter.

The Guardians added pitching prospects Daniel Espino and Cade Smith to the 40-man roster. They also designated reliever Michael Kelly for assignment. Espino, once the organization’s top prospect, missed last season because of shoulder surgery. He hasn’t pitched in a game since April 29, 2022. Smith, who signed with Cleveland as an undrafted free agent in 2020 (when the draft only went five rounds), pitched with Quantrill for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic earlier this year. Smith logged a 4.02 ERA with 95 strikeouts in 62 2/3 innings between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus.

Where does this leave the Guardians’ rotation?

Shane Bieber, in line to earn an estimated $12.2 million in 2024, can become a free agent next winter. He’d ordinarily be a prime trade candidate, but, well, the club just trimmed some of its veteran pitching depth and Bieber’s injury history has sullied his trade value. Triston McKenzie made only two starts in 2023 because of elbow and shoulder injuries. He elected to forgo Tommy John surgery; the club is hopeful he won’t eventually require the operation, but elbows are never to be trusted. Tanner Bibee (the AL Rookie of the Year runner-up), Gavin Williams and Logan Allen figure to play prominent roles in their sophomore seasons.

After that, Xzavion Curry, Cody Morris, Hunter Gaddis and Joey Cantillo represent the team’s immediate depth. That quartet has totaled 103 innings as big-league starters.

The Guardians have seven days to trade Quantrill or place him on release waivers (meaning, at that point, any team can submit a claim on him). If the front office intended to deal him this winter but gathered that he wouldn’t fetch much in a trade, the timing here makes sense since they needed to clear a roster spot, didn’t care to devote one to him long-term and still have a week to negotiate with suitors.

Quantrill has two seasons of team control remaining. Whether he’s worth what he likely would have commanded via arbitration is another question. If Bieber and McKenzie can avoid the injured list, Cleveland could field another typically stout rotation. That, of course, is a significant question mark, and there’s also risk involved in assuming that all of Bibee, Williams and Allen will avoid any growing pains in Year 2. Sufficient pitching depth is a myth, but someone would have started the season as the odd man out, and Quantrill seemed like the obvious choice.

What payroll implications does this have?

As for the clearing of Quantrill’s salary, I asked team president Chris Antonetti what impact the uncertainty of the Bally Sports saga would have on the club’s payroll and its offseason pursuits. He said they were still working through that (a common refrain from the front office at this time of year, though it’d be naive to believe they’re entering the hot stove season with no financial directives). There’s plenty of time for the club to fix its woeful outfield and bolster its pitching staff, but with the players on board or eligible for arbitration (or exiled but owed money, cough, Jean Segura, cough), Cleveland’s payroll is projected to sit at about $85 million, a similar figure to its Opening Day mark in 2023. For what it’s worth, the Guardians’ attendance increased by 41.5 percent in 2023.

(Photo of Quantrill: Jason Miller / Getty Images)

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