Guardians out to prove thrilling 2022 was no fluke

March 28th, 2023

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Nothing has changed for the Guardians heading into the 2023 season as opposed to last -- except for the outside expectations.

The only focus on Cleveland before last year was that it was the youngest roster in baseball, doomed for a clunky rebuilding year. Instead, the Guardians used that as fuel to prove everyone wrong, a motivation that led them to a 92-win season and an AL Central title.

How do they build on the foundation that was set? How do they assure that they don’t take a step back from the high bar they established?

"Now, we have a year more of experience," Guardians manager Terry Francona said. "The hope is that the game starts to slow down for guys and it’s easier to make better decisions, but the way we play it doesn’t slow down. That’s the aim, the goal.”

What needs to go right?
Everything. This seems like a cop-out answer, but honestly, it’s the same situation the Guardians were in entering last year. This team is still largely unproven, despite the fact that it demanded respect from all 29 other clubs last season by running away with the division in September and forcing the Yankees to Game 5 of the ALDS. The club will have to rely on its same small-ball approach, meaning all the little things have to be done perfectly to find success. Defense has to be sound. Pitching has to stay healthy and effective. The bats need to find gaps. Runners need to go first to third every opportunity they have. It was a recipe that made for an exhilarating season in '22, but it’s one that may be extremely difficult to duplicate.

Great unknown
Can be the source of power this lineup has desperately needed? The Guardians were hoping for a big year from Franmil Reyes last season, planting him behind their best hitter, José Ramírez, to hopefully provide him protection in the lineup. Instead, Reyes struggled massively and ended up being designated for assignment at the beginning of August. Cleveland is hoping to find the answer to its lack of power in Bell, who’s hit 30-plus homers in his past. And while he’s certainly a slugging threat, Bell also has the ability to hit for average, which should make him even more dangerous to pitch to -- something that would allow Ramírez to finally receive the lineup protection he’s needed.

Team MVP will be ... Ramírez
Sometimes the boring, obvious answer is the only way to go. Ramírez has consistently been the most valuable player of this team, even when he’s playing through a broken thumb like last season. He delivers in the clutch, hits home runs, plays a lights-out third base, wreaks havoc on the bases and he brings a life to the clubhouse that no one else can.

Team Cy Young Will Be ... Shane Bieber
As tempting as it is to pick in this category, Bieber proved last year that even when he’s not feeling his best on the mound he can still find a way to be the ace this club needs. Bieber admitted that it took until the end of the year for him to feel semi-comfortable in his delivery. Still, he owned a 2.88 ERA with 198 strikeouts and 36 walks in 200 innings, a performance that prompted a seventh place finish in the AL Cy Young vote. Now that he’s said he feels much better on the rubber, it’s only reasonable to predict he can flourish even more.

Bold prediction
Slugger will lead the team in homers. All the attention will be on the other Josh this year when it comes to the long ball, but maybe all signs are pointing toward Naylor having a breakout season. He’s finally healthy after spending all of the last offseason rehabbing his right leg and battling through the aches and pains that lingering injury caused him throughout the regular season.

With that in the rearview mirror and a full winter of being able to focus solely on baseball activities, this could be setting up for a big year for Naylor. In the last few weeks of Spring Training, his quality of contact has been off the charts. If he can settle and be patient at the plate, Naylor could be the answer to Cleveland’s power problems.

"Sometimes he wants to hit it that far and then you see his helmet come off [when he overswings]," Francona said. "But when he stays through, man, he’s so dangerous."