MLB waiver wire drama: Will Angels, Yankees castoffs make a difference for Guardians, Reds in postseason hunt?

The Cleveland Guardians added 3 pitchers Thursday, while Cincinnati picked up 2 outfielders

On Tuesday, the floundering Los Angeles Angels led MLB into a bold new world of late-August waiver wire action by making five notable veterans — pitchers Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo López and Matt Moore, and outfielders Hunter Renfroe and Randal Grichuk — available for any team to claim. The claiming teams needed only to pay the rest of the players’ 2023 salaries. The last-place New York Yankees also joined the party, placing outfielder Harrison Bader on the wire.

The league’s contenders had 48 hours to place claims that might boost their chances in September. The team with the worst record to place a claim on each player would be awarded that player — with no cycle in priority, so one team could theoretically claim everyone. Naturally, the focus fell on the fringes and the wild-card races.

On Thursday, Ohio emerged as the hub of waiver activity. The Cleveland Guardians, five games back in the AL Central, claimed the three Angels pitchers, while the Cincinnati Reds claimed Renfroe and Bader.

Grichuk reportedly went unclaimed, while several other wild-card hopefuls, such as the Arizona Diamondbacks and Miami Marlins, reportedly made claims to no avail.

Let’s take a look at whether these moves are likely to move the needle for the Guardians and Reds.

Cleveland Guardians claim starting pitcher Lucas Giolito and relief pitchers Reynaldo López and Matt Moore

Zach Crizer: At 64-70, the Guardians have the same general strengths and weaknesses that they always have. They can pitch, but they can’t hit. So with three notable hitters and three notable pitchers on the waiver wire, the Guardians … picked up all the pitchers.

Granted, this isn’t quite as illogical as it sounds. The starting rotation has been stellar in the second half, with a 3.69 ERA that puts them fourth in MLB in park-adjusted ERA-. That, however, has been accomplished with three strong rookies (Tanner Bibee, Gavin Williams and Logan Allen) and a rotating cast of back-end fillers. The excellent Aaron Civale was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays, while non-excellent option Noah Syndergaard has been banished to the realms of the released, and 25-year-old Xzavion Curry has struggled to a 5.90 ERA as a starter after looking solid as a reliever.

With this move, Giolito gives Cleveland a steady or better option to slot in along with the rookies. Fine.

The Guardians’ bullpen ranks a middling 16th in park-adjusted ERA- in the second half, so López and Moore might be the more impactful additions here, as Cleveland makes a bid at catching the Minnesota Twins.

But the whole enterprise begs the question: Why not claim a hitter?

We know the Guardians passed on the notable Angels hitters, given that the Cincinnati Reds got Hunter Renfroe with a better record and Randal Grichuk went unclaimed. Cleveland’s corner outfielders and designated hitters (where the claimants would’ve played) rank 29th in MLB in overall offensive production and dead last in slugging. The Guardians are starting Will Brennan (79 wRC+), Ramón Laureano (87 wRC+ and a waiver claim himself) or both — when Renfroe (98 wRC+ with 19 homers) was right there.

Maybe the bullpen help will make the AL Central close, but even while taking a surprise swing, it seems like the Guardians will miss by being too much themselves.

Hannah Keyser: One thing you can say about the American League Central is that it has long looked eminently winnable if any one team wanted to try hard to do so. Another thing you could say is that more than one team will not be making it out of that division and into the postseason, with more true contenders in the East and West.

Before Thursday, the Minnesota Twins (owners of a 69-64 record) had a nearly 95% chance of winning the division. But the Guardians saw the unusually deep waiver pool as a chance to leverage their position as a sub-.500 team that’s only five games back of first place to gobble up a bunch of available arms. At first glance, this doesn’t make a ton of sense for a team that seems to mint aces in-house, but injuries and potential inning limits have taken a toll in Cleveland this year, with Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie both on the 60-day injured list (Bieber could be working his way back), leaving the Guardians with an all-rookie rotation.

Cleveland was unable to fix former All-Star Noah Syndergaard, whom the team released after acquiring him just weeks ago at the deadline. But they got a good look at Giolito in the years he was with the division-rival White Sox and are generally more likely to get him back to his 2019 self than the Angels, with whom he posted a disappointing 6.89 ERA over the past month. (Could they also just not have traded Aaron Civale — 156 ERA+ on the year — to the Rays? Sure.)

A potential top-of-the-rotation starter and reliable bullpen depth — both López and Moore are having excellent seasons — can go a long way in October. But the Guardians are still very much on the outside looking in. Even though they’ve made it to the postseason before with a subpar offense, that weakness might be too much to overcome at this point. They have only three regular players with a wRC+ over 100, and they did nothing to address the lineup at the deadline — shipping out their offseason power acquisition in Josh Bell after it became clear that signing simply didn’t work. Of course, the Guardians couldn’t have known he would go on to slug .547 in August, but they also passed up the opportunity to claim position players off waivers.

Granted, there wasn’t a ton of offense available, preventing runs is just as good as plating them, and ultimately the Guardians don’t have to be that good to win the AL Central outright. So maybe a little bit better is good enough?

Cincinnati Reds claim outfielders Hunter Renfroe and Harrison Bader

Crizer: Elsewhere in Ohio, the Reds bolstered a more realistic postseason bid with a slugger in Renfroe and an ace defensive center fielder in Bader. It seems likely that the pitching-starved Reds would’ve also happily claimed Giolito, López and Moore if the Guardians hadn’t swooped in ahead of them. As it is, the Reds added some outfield depth to go with their all-top-prospects-everywhere infield.

Bader, in particular, could be a boon for Cincinnati if healthy. The Reds’ roster, prior to Thursday, lacked a true center fielder. Their center-field defense rated 28th in the majors by Statcast’s Outs Above Average, where Bader is one of the top 10 center fielders in MLB. Granted, it’s difficult for defense to make a huge difference in one month, but there’s no harm in picking up a useful player.

Recently, the Reds have been fading fast, as a whole swath of the lineup has gone cold since the All-Star break. That includes outfielders TJ Friedl, who is batting .216/.254/.365 in the second half, and Nick Senzel, who has somehow been even worse in part-time action. Bader will take over in center, and Renfroe can step in either in a full-time corner outfield role or as designated hitter. That gives manager David Bell more options to keep Will Benson (who has not been cold!) in a platoon role to avoid lefties and perhaps get Friedl back on track. Once Joey Votto or Jonathan India returns from injury, the lineup should be formidable, if still prone to rookie adjustment struggles.

Keyser: I have to assume the Reds also tried to claim the trio of pitchers the Guardians had first dibs on. In which case, a hearty kudos for how hard they appear to be going for it after their young team overperformed expectations through the first five months of the season. One game back in a crowded National League wild-card race, every little bit helps, but the Reds might be a bit over their skis at this point.

After a red-hot June headlined by Elly De La Cruz’s debut, the team has cooled off in the second half, especially of late. The Reds were 10-17 in August, and even the best outfield defense (Bader) and a league-average slugger (Renfroe) aren’t going to totally turn things around. These additions do, however, inject potentially valuable veteran energy into one of the younger teams in baseball.

At this point, the Reds’ biggest impediment to making the postseason is probably all the other teams in the wild-card race. Cincinnati was in a good spot Thursday, as far as being close enough to have a real chance while lowly enough to take priority in the waiver process. In which case, their boldness was strategically savvy in that it prevented teams above them from bolstering through waiver claims. The Reds got (a little) better, while their competition did not.