1 month from Deadline, where do Guardians fit?

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CLEVELAND — As much as the Guardians would like to be in the position where they can steamroll over any team — good or bad — that they face, it’s no secret that they’re not quite there yet.

This transitional period for the organization has brought a handful of hiccups, plenty of unexpected excitement and countless lessons for a young team. While this group has proven to have enough raw talent to compete with top teams like the Dodgers or Twins, the inexperience has also been on full display against elite clubs like the Red Sox and Yankees, who swept the Guardians in Saturday’s doubleheader (13-4 in Game 1 and 6-1 in the nightcap) at Progressive Field.

“I think we try to learn something every day,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “The Yankees are built to play into late October. We’re trying to figure out how good we can get, and some days it’s harder than others. … It doesn’t take away how we feel about our group of guys. We’re just in a different place. We’re trying to see how good we can get.”

The expectations for the Guardians skyrocketed after rookies like Steven Kwan and Oscar Gonzalez thrived in their early weeks in the big leagues. And after Cleveland’s impressive 7-2 road trip against the Rockies, Dodgers and Twins in June, it was difficult for the fanbase not to expect this team to be hardcore playoff contenders. But the reality is, as Francona said, the team doesn’t quite know how to define itself yet. So where can it go from here?

Let’s take a look at a couple of key steps the Guardians can take to keep learning about their roster.

Keep getting younger
With Gonzalez on the injured list for at least the next 10 days, the Guardians have an opportunity to see one of two hot outfield bats sitting in Triple-A Columbus. On Saturday, the club called up infielder Gabriel Ar?as to take Gonzalez’s spot, which allowed Jos? Ram?rez to get off his feet and DH in the nightcap, while his usual backup, Ernie Clement, hopped in the outfield. But it wouldn’t be surprising if the team decides to leave Clement in the infield and give a young outfielder a chance at the big league level. Who are the most likely candidates to get that opportunity? Nolan Jones or Will Brennan.

Let’s start with Brennan, the club’s No. 29 prospect per MLB Pipeline. The 24-year-old outfielder has been raking in the Minors this season, hitting a whopping .342 with a .935 OPS in 67 games split between Double-A and Triple-A. He’s earned all the attention he’s been getting, but the problem is he’s not on the 40-man roster. And because the team has had difficulties constructing the 40-man all year, it’s more likely to turn to someone who’s already on it. But if Brennan keeps hitting for another month, there’s no doubt the club will be ready to navigate this roster puzzle to get him on the big league roster.

That leaves Jones as the best choice, a debut that’s been years in the making. The Guardians’ former top prospect (who’s since dropped to No. 7) had a delayed start to the season due to working his way back from ankle surgery and back pain that troubled him all spring. But since he’s joined Columbus, Jones has reminded everyone why he’s been so highly ranked in Cleveland’s farm system, hitting .342 with a .935 OPS in his first 20 games after coming off the IL.

As we’ve learned already, youth can bring excitement, enthusiasm and a much-needed spark.

Prepare for the Trade Deadline
The first thing the Guardians will need to determine over the next month is whether they’re playoff contenders for the 2022 season. Like we’ve discussed, the team has demonstrated it has the talent and the grit to constantly remain in nearly every game it plays. But can the Guardians make a run in just a few months? Or does this group need some more time to grow into its identity?

This determination will allow the Guardians to figure out whether they’re interested in a rental at the Trade Deadline. The most likely answer is Cleveland will need to continue building for the future, taking the focus from just winning now to winning in the next few years to come. And matchups like Saturday’s twin bill against an elite Yankees team exposed some of the holes the club needs to fill to construct a more competitive roster, including relief help, offensive help (especially from behind the dish) and maybe adding some Major League-ready rotation help.

Regardless of the standings in early July, the Guardians know they are far from the finished product. But the foundation that the club has set is one that can be solidly built upon.