Photo: Christian Peterson / Getty Images
Going into the 2022 season, the Cleveland Guardians had little to no expectations in their first season under the new nickname. The team entered the year as the youngest team in MLB by a wide margin, and it was supposed to be a rebuilding season for the Guards. After an 8-3 win over the Royals on May 31st, Cleveland sat at 21-24, and it looked like the few expectations that were placed upon them were correct, but the Guards would heat up in the back half of the season and separate themselves from the rest of the AL Central pack, finishing with a mark of 92-70, the franchise’s most wins since 2017.
Despite the season ending with a thud against the Yankees in the ALDS, the Guardians have the opportunity to build on their momentum from 2022 and have another successful season in 2023.
One of the things the Guardians have going for them this upcoming season is the AL Central seems to be getting weaker. Jose Abreu was an integral piece of the White Sox lineup, but he’s now in Houston. Carlos Correa re-signed with the Twins, however, Minnesota traded AL batting champion Luis Arraez to Miami. As of this moment, Detroit and Kansas City don’t figure into the equation to be legitimate AL Central contenders this coming season.
Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie will be the top two in the Guards' starting rotation this coming season. They’ll be backed up by Cal Quantrill, Zac Plesac, and Aaron Civale (if he can stay healthy). Bieber led the team in Earned Run Average (ERA) at 2.88, but Quantrill had the most wins with 15.
When Bieber, McKenzie, and Quantrill took the mound, they generally gave the Guardians six or seven strong innings that would keep the Guardians in the game. It was more of a mixed bag with Plesac and Civale. Plesac had an ERA of 4.31 and Civale couldn’t stay healthy, only 97 innings and finishing the season with a 4.92 ERA.
The bullpen had some mixed results. Emmanuel Clase was awesome as the closer. When he came into the game, it wasn’t if the Guardians were going to win but rather when the Guardians were going to win. Getting to Clase is where the problems occurred.
A majority of the pitchers in the bullpen had an ERA around 3.00 or above 3.00. Nick Sandlin provided some good moments, as did Trevor Stephan, but between James Karinchak's struggles and other unreliable bullpen arms, including Bryan Shaw, the team struggled to bridge the gap between the starters and Clase. The team did not upgrade the bullpen at all in the offseason.
Last season, the Guardians reminded me of the 2014 and 2015 Royals teams who went to back-to-back World Series, taking the Giants to a Game 7 in 2014 and winning it all in 2015. The reason those Royals teams had so much success in that brief two-year run was their effective usage of small ball. They ran the bases well and put the ball in play instead of going for the knockout punch with the home run. The Guardians played a very similar style to that in 2022. They had the highest contact rate per at bat in MLB.
The Guards' offensive attack will once again be led by third baseman Jose Ramirez, who finished fourth in the AL MVP race this past season. In 601 regular season at-bats, Ramirez posted 168 hits, 126 Runs Batted In (RBIs), and 29 home runs.
In order for the Guards to take a step forward in 2023, they’ll need similar production from the hitters both in front and behind No. 11. Last year, players such as Steven Kwan, Andres Giménez, Amed Rosario, Oscar Gonzales and Josh Naylor provided protection for Ramirez.
In 153 regular season games, Rosario put up 180 hits, 71 RBIs, and 11 home runs. That’s decent production for the player who was the centerpiece of the trade which sent Francisco Lindor to the Mets. The secondary piece of that trade was Giménez. He provided 146 hits, 69 RBIs, and 17 homers in 146 games a year ago.
Rosario and Giménez will each need to have similar, if not better numbers this season in order to put pressure on the opposing pitchers. Rosario had six walk-offs last season. While that might not seem like a lot, it does say that the Guardians could count on him to make a play in clutch situations.
As the 2022 season progressed, left fielder Steven Kwan found his footing as the leadoff hitter in Cleveland’s batting order. He walked 62 times, had 168 hits, and stole 19 bases. Kwan was finding ways to put the ball in play and cause havoc on the basepaths.
To continue the comparison between the 2022 Guardians and the 2014 and 2015 Royals, Kwan’s effectiveness as a leadoff hitter was similar to Alcides Escobar. Although, there’s one key difference between the two, aside from the positions they played, which is that Escobar usually swung at the first pitch whereas Kwan seemed to be a little more patient at the plate.
Since the Guardians are a small market team, like the Athletics and Rays, they don’t usually go out during the offseason and sign big-name free agents like Aaron Judge or Manny Machado. Instead, they either have to work out a trade to bring in a player of that caliber or build from within.
Cleveland did sign a couple of notable players this off-season. They brought in first baseman Josh Bell from the Washington Nationals and San Diego Padres last season. The addition of Bell provides another power bat in the lineup. The Guardians also signed catcher Mike Zunino, who’s a solid batter the Guards can stick in the middle of their lineup to bring a little stability to the lineup, and he’s a decent backup catcher.
This year’s team is a young bunch full of dynamic players who have the potential to put together another special season that brings October baseball back to Progressive Field. It's almost time to enjoy summer at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario again!