For Hedges, return to Guardians feels like 'coming home'

December 17th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Mandy Bell’s Guardians Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

The Guardians and are ready to make up for lost time. 

Hedges hit free agency at the end of a fun and exciting 2022 season. He may not have been the bat that knocked in the winning runs night after night, but he was the leader in the room that kept everyone together. At the end of the season, Hedges entered free agency and didn’t return to Cleveland. 

No, his offensive production hasn’t drastically improved. But he’s still one of the best defensive catchers in baseball in blocking and framing. Plus, his leadership abilities are exactly what this young team was lacking in 2023. 

So, from the moment this offseason started, the Guardians were in constant contact with Hedges. At first, it didn’t look like a reunion was going to happen. That’s when Cleveland decided to add backstop to the roster. It wasn’t until this past week that it was clear a deal would be made with Hedges, and the Guardians shipped Bethancourt to Miami for cash. 

“To me, it’s coming home,” Hedges said. “I love Cleveland.”

For a team that has very little financial flexibility this winter, Hedges’ reported one-year, $4 million deal seems like a lot for someone who knows he will be second string to Bo Naylor. Bethancourt was projected to make around $2 million in arbitration. So, why are the Guardians adding Hedges to the payroll? 

“We felt Austin was a really good complement to Bo,” Guardians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said. “Could also provide some of the other value [with his leadership skills], both while he’s playing and while he’s not.” 

This signing is smart for the clubhouse. It’s essential to have some guidance for a team that could once again be the youngest in baseball in 2024. It paid off in ’22 and was clearly lacking in ’23. As long as the Guardians can continue to improve their roster before Opening Day, Hedges can help the less experienced players take this team to the next level. 

What does Hedges think of the situation? Well, we’ll let him speak for himself:

Q: Did they tell you what your role will be?
A: “I feel like my role is pretty clear. … All the little things that I feel like I can bring to the team is what I’m going to obsess over every single day. If my name is called to be in the lineup, I’m gonna be working really hard this offseason to be the best baseball player I can be to help us win a division. That being said, the main priority every day is to help lead the guys and to help Bo. Bo’s one of my favorites I’ve ever played with. At this point in my career, I have a lot to teach, a lot to offer. I feel very confident that with myself, with Sandy [Alomar Jr.], I feel like we can help Bo make some significant strides this year and really be the guy behind the plate for the Guardians for years to come.”

Q: Do you enjoy being a mentor?
A: It gets me out of bed in the morning. …  [It] felt like it took me three years in the big leagues to feel like I could call myself a big leaguer. Like you’re always looking in the mirror like, ‘Am I good enough?’ Like this is the best of the best in the world. Sometimes, we’re all vulnerable, insecure baseball players. Anybody that pretends like they aren’t, no, no, no. Everybody’s a vulnerable, insecure baseball player and when things don’t go your way, you internalize it and it’s hard. 

“So, if I can speed that process up where some of these guys, so it doesn’t take them three years to feel like they’re big leaguers and they belong here, then that’s the least I could do. Because once you feel like you belong, it’s such a freeing feeling to go actually do what you’re capable of doing. … I feel like that’s what we did a good job of in ’22; [it] was a bunch of young dudes that weren’t scared. … Maybe we got a little bit away from it last year, but I promise you that’s not gonna be the case this year and I think we’re gonna have a blast doing it.

Q: What do you think of the years and had?
A: “I didn’t get a chance to see them when I was in Cleveland in the past and my goodness was it impressive. To be honest, not surprising because it’s what this organization does from a pitching standpoint. It’s by far the best pitching development organization in the league. … With what they were able to do last year, I’m super pumped to see if we can help him take a step forward and take Bibee from a Rookie of the Year runner-up to a Cy Young candidate.”