At the onset of the 2022 season, the Cleveland Guardians were seen as fringe contenders to make the playoffs as the expected No. 3 team in their division. The White Sox and Twins held slim advantages in the projected standings thanks to the firepower in their offenses. But it was the Guardians who finished first in the AL Central, pushing the Yankees to Game 5 in the ALDS thanks to their pesky slap hitters and lights-out pitching staff. A year later, Cleveland is poised to do the same if not improve upon their result from the prior season.
2022 record: 92-70 (1st, AL Central; lost in ALDS)
2023 FanGraphs projection: 84-78 (1st, AL Central)
Even as the defending champions of the AL Central, this season might be the clearest path to a division title the Guardians have had in the last half-decade. They kept their core of impact contributors intact (easier to do when most of the value derives from arb and pre-arb players), while the White Sox and Twins lost several key individuals and have generally seen projections stagnate after multiple consecutive seasons of underperformance. What’s more, a legitimate argument could be made that this is the most complete cast of players the Guardians have brought into a season since trading Francisco Lindor, if not their World Series appearance in 2016.
Any conversation about the Guardians roster starts with their two headline stars in José Ramírez and Shane Bieber. Only Mike Trout and Mookie Betts have accrued more fWAR since the start of the 2016 season than the Cleveland third baseman. Ramírez has finished in the top-six in MVP voting in five of the last six campaigns as his elite blend of power (.503 lifetime slugging) and plate discipline (walk and strikeout rates essentially equal) shows no sign of degrading.
Meanwhile, Bieber may have experienced a down-year by his standards during the foreign substance ban enforcement season of 2021, but rebounded in 2022 to finish top-10 in fWAR and Cy Young voting. Only Max Scherzer, Zack Wheeler, Gerrit Cole, and Jacob deGrom have generated more value than Bieber since the start of the 2019 season, and he projects for another top-ten finish in 2023.
The superstars are hardly the only factors driving the Guardians projections. As Yankees fans are certainly familiar, Cleveland boasts a cast of under-the-radar hitters who can bedevil any pitcher. Key Lindor trade acquisition Andrés Giménez finished second among qualified second basemen with 6.1 fWAR. Steven Kwan was worth four-and-a-half wins in a third-place Rookie of the Year campaign, and he walks more than he strikes out. Myles Straw and Oscar Gonzalez round out a decent enough outfield while Josh Naylor’s bat has plenty of pop.
Josh Bell — added via free agency on a two-year, $33 million deal — is a certain upgrade over Franmil Reyes at DH. He brings a power bat that Cleveland has been dying to insert after the bat-to-ball threats at the top of their lineup. They also added Mike Zunino, who tied with J.T. Realmuto as the third-most valuable catcher in baseball in 2021 with 4.5 fWAR. He smacked 33 home runs, was a surprise entrant at the top of the quality of contact leaderboards, and represents a massive improvement over Austin Hedges if he can stay healthy.
On the pitching side, Cleveland has abundant talent to follow Bieber in the rotation. Triston McKenzie broke out as one of the best young starting pitchers in baseball in 2022. He transformed his four-seamer from one of the worst in MLB to one of the best in one year, which in turn increased the effectiveness of his already deadly breaking pitches. Behind him, Cal Quantrill, Aaron Civale, and Zach Plesac form a more than adequate trio of mid-rotation starters, with ample opportunity for bounce-back campaigns from the latter pair.
That brings us to the real strength of the Guardians: their bullpen. In Emmanuel Clase, Trevor Stephan, and James Karinchak, Cleveland possess possibly the best one-two-three punch to close out games of any relief corps in baseball. Clase — armed with a triple-digits cutter — might be the best closer in the land now that Edwin Díaz is expected to miss the season. The entire unit is projected to produce the third-most value of any bullpen in MLB a season after the group finished fourth.
It’s fair to wonder just how far the Guardians could go if ownership were willing to field anything more than a perennially bottom-three payroll. However, MLB has failed to provide appropriate incentive to increase payroll or punishment for failing to do so. As long as they continue to churn out cheap talent and contend for the playoffs, it’s hard to see this pattern of spending behavior changing, and I reckon Larry Dolan is more than happy for it to remain so.
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