The Cleveland Guardians entered the 2022 season as underdogs, having lost much of the core that brought them to the postseason in four of five years from 2016-20. FanGraphs had them projected as the third best-team in the AL Central, with a 7.5 percent chance to win the division and 15.2 percent to make the playoffs. At the All-Star break, the story was not too different, as they were two games back of Minnesota and up just one on the White Sox, with a 20.6 percent chance of taking the division.
Things have changed quite a bit since then, due in large part to stellar play from Cleveland since then (46-26 in that time), as well as a serious collapse from the Twins and continued disappointment for the White Sox. The youngest team in the majors ended up winning the Central by double-digit games. They have a roster that has some star power at the top and a deep pitching staff. How far can it take them?
Manager: Terry Francona
Top Position Player: José Ramírez (6.1 fWAR)
Top Pitcher: Shane Bieber (4.9 fWAR)
There is nowhere better to start with the Guardians than at the top for their lineup. Cleveland’s third baseman José Ramírez is pretty much a consensus top-five or so position player in all of baseball. Since 2016, the switch-hitter has been the third-most valuable player in the sport by fWAR, and has posted wRC+ marks of 167, 138, and 139 over the last three seasons.
There have also been some big-time breakouts in Cleveland’s lineup. Second baseman Andrés Giménez blossomed as a six-win player in the Guardians infield, reaching new heights in virtually every category and hitting to the tune of a 140 wRC+. Rookie outfielder Steven Kwan broke onto the scene this year with his elite contact skills, sporting a .373 OBP and a 124 wRC+, rounding out in an impressive debut with 4.3 fWAR. Josh Naylor was solid in his biggest season thus far, swatting 20 homers in 122 games with a respectable 117 wRC+. So was Oscar Gonzalez, who has done a nice job in 91 games in the outfield and at DH.
In recent years, Cleveland’s successful trademark has been an ability to consistently pump out quality arms from its organization. This year has been no different, their top-three starters all pitched 186 innings or more with ERAs at 3.38 or better. 2020 Cy Young winner Shane Bieber is a legitimate ace at the front of the rotation, followed by Triston McKenzie, who rebounded from a subpar rookie campaign with a 2.96 ERA over 191.1 innings. Cal Quantrill and Aaron Civale likely round out the playoff rotation and form a very solid back end.
The bullpen is much of the same, with its greatest quality likely being its depth. Emmanuel Clase and James Karinchak have electric stuff and headline the pen. Those two have a stable full of effective, high-strikeout arms behind them too — relievers like Trevor Stephan, Sam Hentges, Enyel De Los Santos, and Eli Morgan. This bullpen features arms in both quality and quantity, and we’ve seen groups like this propel deep October runs.
As far as issues go for this Cleveland team, the most glaring one has been the same that has plagued them for years: lineup depth. As mentioned, the top is a pretty solid group of guys, but the bottom is notably rough. The Guardians only had five qualified hitters this year, as they saw a lot of movement in the outfield outside of Kwan. There are a couple of league-average bats in their everyday lineup, but they are also consistently running out Austin Hedges and Myles Straw, two of the worst hitters in all of baseball this season.
The Guardians are set to take on the Rays in a best-of-three series in Cleveland, and the winner will be tasked with facing the Yankees. There are a lot of similarities between Cleveland and Tampa Bay, and it should be a competitive series. With a couple of stars at the front of the lineup, and a deep talented pitching staff, Cleveland is certainly capable of making an impressive run in the postseason.