After injury-filled year, McKenzie starts spring strong

March 6th, 2024

PHOENIX -- He came out pumping strikes and getting quick outs. He allowed only one hit in his two innings of work, and that one hit was erased by a caught stealing. He punched out a pair of batters.

, in short, made it look easy in his Cactus League debut as the Guardians tied the Brewers, 3-3, on Wednesday afternoon at American Family Fields.

He was due for something easy.

The 2023 season? That wasn’t easy at all. McKenzie came into camp looking to build on a breakout. Instead, he broke down. He suffered a UCL sprain that caused him to miss Opening Day, returned briefly in June, then hit the injured list again with a teres major muscle strain. It added up to just four starts and 16 innings of work.

“I had dealt with injuries before,” he said. “But having to deal with them after feeling like I had come back to the top of the mountain, only to fall off again, was tough. But I think it's all a learning experience and just made me better as a person and a better teammate.”

The Guardians have high hopes for what a healthy McKenzie and Shane Bieber, who makes his second Cactus start Thursday in Mesa against the A’s, can do for their competitive chances. There is huge upside for Tanner Bibee, Gavin Williams and Logan Allen, but also a likelihood that they have to make sophomore adjustments and perhaps some limitation on their workloads.

So, to see the 26-year-old McKenzie resembling his 2022 self -- even if only in two non-binding spring innings -- while Bieber shows off an increase in velocity was good for the Guards’ soul.

McKenzie is also good for their clubhouse.

“He’s just an infectious personality,” manager Stephen Vogt said. “Really, really competitive person. He doesn't accept mediocrity. I picked up on that right away.”

McKenzie, who had a 2.96 ERA, 127 ERA+ and 0.95 WHIP in 191 1/3 innings in 2022, said he’s not caught up in any mechanical tweaks or pitch adaptations. He’s just trying to command what he has and remain on the mound.

So far, so good.

“Getting back in the games is always a learning curve,” he said. “To be able to have it go smoothly was really good.”

Freeman shining in center

The Guardians are still monitoring center fielder Myles Straw as he rebounds from the viral infection that has held him out of the lineup for more than a week. That’s given them time to see Tyler Freeman in center field -- something they didn’t expect.

Freeman has played 552 innings in the field as a Major Leaguer, as well as nearly 3000 innings as a Minor Leaguer. Only one of those innings, a single frame on June 30, 2023, in a nine-run loss to the Cubs, has been as an outfielder.

But on Wednesday, he made his fourth start of the spring in center and is up to 20 innings at the position this spring. He continued to make an impression with his bat, going 2-for-3 with an RBI double. But just as meaningfully, he has performed well in a position that is new to him.

Vogt said the 24-year-old Freeman, who has also made starts at second and third this spring, will continue to bounce around the diamond.

“It’s valuable to have somebody that can do that,” Vogt said. “He’s been swinging the bat really well, running the bases well, and his defense has been phenomenal no matter where we throw him.”

It’s too soon to call Freeman a candidate to supplant the veteran Straw, whose .580 OPS over the last two seasons is worst among MLB qualifiers. But he’s emerging as an option at center field, a position that he wasn’t forecasted to play a month ago.

Martínez keeps mashing

Angel Martínez tripled to score a run in Wednesday’s game.

What else is new? The 22-year-old native of the Dominican Republic has been storming the Cactus League, raking to the tune of a .529 average and 1.644 OPS in 19 plate appearances. He’s started games at second and third, and he carries himself with the clear confidence that comes from having grown up in the game.

Martínez’s father is former big league catcher Sandy Martínez, who played parts of eight seasons for six clubs -- Cleveland included. After the switch-hitting Martínez, who batted .251 with a .715 OPS across Double-A and Triple-A last year, made a change to his old, more open batting stance over the offseason, his dad looked him over and declared him ready to do big things in his first big-league camp.

“That confidence that my dad put in me to remember who I am,” he said, “is coming out.”

Sure is.