More than a feel-good story, Guardians hope '22 can be 'starting place'

October 19th, 2022

NEW YORK -- Guardians manager Terry Francona hates when people say his team has been playing with house money.

It’s a phrase most use to subtly say that this club can’t lose at this point in the year, considering it has already outperformed what anyone thought it was capable of this season. While it’s meant as a compliment in most cases, it’s almost been taken as an insult to the team. Every game, the Guardians expected to be on the winning end, and when they weren’t, the losses stung -- just like they would for a club that was expected to be great.

And there was no loss more painful than Tuesday evening at Yankee Stadium, as the Guardians fell, 5-1, to the Yankees in Game 5 of the American League Division Series to end Cleveland’s 2022 season.

"I know they are hurting right now, because they care and they worked unbelievably hard," Francona said. "But I hope as that wears off, they will realize just how proud we are of them and how much we care about them."

The Guardians started the year as the youngest team in baseball. Somehow, as the season went on, the team found ways to get even younger. With youth comes a lot of extra teaching from the coaching staff, including how to handle the outside noise. Francona has preached to his team since Day 1 that the only beliefs that matter are the ones inside the clubhouse. As long as everyone on the roster bought into the idea that they could be successful, then they’d be OK.

It was a simple -- and almost cliché -- message, but clearly it had some validity.

There was a reason this team created so much doubt. It was a roster full of Minor Leaguers the club wanted to protect from the Rule 5 Draft. Trades were expected to be made after the lockout ended to boost the team, and even though Cleveland was close to acquiring Matt Olson (who went to the Braves instead and smacked 34 homers with 103 RBIs), nothing was finalized. Instead, the team entered the year with backup catcher Luke Maile and non-roster invitee Enyel De Los Santos as the two offseason pickups.

The Guardians took a chance on Steven Kwan, penciling him into the Opening Day lineup and sitting Bradley Zimmer, who hadn’t brought much to the table over the past five years. That decision opened the floodgates for Cleveland’s youth movement, as it called on 17 rookies to make their Major League debuts this season, having no fear of the repercussions of letting the kids play.

Those chances paid dividends. Kwan became one of the most important (or arguably the most important) players for the Guardians this season. Oscar Gonzalez, who made his debut in May, was one of the reasons the team lasted so long in the postseason, logging three go-ahead hits in the ninth inning or later in the first two rounds. Guys like Nolan Jones, Richie Palacios and Will Brennan all came up at different points and found ways to thrive immediately on the big stage -- even if they weren’t consistent contributors for the entire year.

"It kind of became the standard, right?" Guardians ace Shane Bieber said. "A lot of debuts, a lot of newness just throughout locker room to locker room and throughout the season, so it seemed like everybody continued to follow suit, step right up and contribute right away."

Power was hard to come by, especially when Franmil Reyes didn’t live up to his expectations, which resulted in him getting designated for assignment at the beginning of August. But the club bought into the idea that small ball could lead to success. Cleveland made a statement in June by winning back-to-back road series against the Dodgers and Twins.

These outcomes weren’t what the baseball world has been used to seeing with teams going through a rebuilding season. The Cubs and A’s were the other two clubs that had at least 17 rookies make their debuts this year. Chicago finished the year with 74 wins, while Oakland had just 60. But Cleveland’s player development system mastered having its Minor Leaguers ready to not only make the transition, but also contribute to a team that would go on to win 92 games and claim the AL Central title.

"This is the most special group I’ve ever been a part of," backstop Austin Hedges said. "It’s a year I’m never gonna forget."

When the Guardians ran into a five-game losing skid in September, they didn’t crumble. Instead, they ran away from the Twins and White Sox to secure their first division title since 2018 -- something FanGraphs projected Cleveland to have just a 6.4% chance of doing after its loss on Opening Day.

The Guardians wanted to shock the baseball world by making an unexpected run to the World Series this year. They were able to defeat the Rays in the Wild Card Series, but they couldn’t get past the Yankees. And while there was tremendous disappointment to come up short of that lofty goal as the offense ran out of steam throughout the postseason, the Guardians still made a statement: Their foundation is set for a fun and successful future.

"This needs to be a starting place for us," Francona said. "This can't just be a good story this year. We need to take this and go, because I think we have a chance to have something really special."