Guardians facing key questions in tense early games

Lineup, pitching staff showing strengths and uncertainties as season kicks off

April 9th, 2023

CLEVELAND -- This is the time of year that’s toughest to judge.

So much of the focus for the Guardians heading into the first month of the regular season is how difficult it can be to play in the cold, windy and unpredictable weather that April brings. At the same time, it can’t be an excuse for the way the club performs. After a long offseason, it’s a time when fans are looking for answers, trying to figure out what kind of team they’ll be rooting for throughout the season. But everything is based on the smallest of sample sizes.

The Guardians have already played in six high-intensity games against a club that’s expected to be a playoff contender this year. And while they got off to a hot start, their record crept closer to .500 following Saturday evening’s 3-2 loss to the Mariners at Progressive Field.

Let’s take a look at three trends to keep a close eye on as the early weeks of the season progress:

1. Bell’s bat
We've touched on this already, but as much as was hoping he was starting to find his groove, he once again experienced a hitless contest against the Mariners. In order for the Guardians to be successful this season, they’ll need Bell’s bat to be a force from the cleanup spot -- something Franmil Reyes was unable to provide last year.

This is not the first impression that Bell was hoping to make, but he’s played in just eight games. This stretch could be completely forgotten by the time September rolls around. But the Guardians will have to wait and see.

2. Straw, the perfect second leadoff hitter
Is back to the hitter the Guardians were introduced to in 2021?

It’s only been nine games, but Cleveland has seen a much better version of Straw at the plate than it saw in all of ‘22. He got the Guardians on the board in the fifth inning on Saturday with an RBI double to right field, extending his hit streak to eight games. In that span, he’s batted .417. He’s reached base in 19 of 36 plate appearances this season (.528 OBP).

“Not afraid to get his swing off early in the count and take a more aggressive swing,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “Last year, we saw a lot of times where it looked like he was just trying to put it in play. This year, he's pulling the ball with authority a few times, [which] opens up the field a little bit.”

Is this sustainable?

The Guardians got a taste of how impactful Straw could be in the second half of the ‘21 season after they acquired him at the Trade Deadline. After signing a five-year extension, Straw’s bat fell silent in ‘22. He was determined to get back on the right track this offseason, and so far, it seems, so good. If Straw can continue to produce from the No. 9 spot in the lineup, consistently putting a runner on base for the top of the order, the Guardians will be in a much better spot in ‘23.

3. The rotation
Cleveland has been so used to being spoiled by its starting staff in recent years that a few hiccups in the first handful of games have seemed alarming. But more time needs to pass before it becomes clear whether starting pitching is truly a concern.

looked shaky in his first outing in Seattle last weekend. It took him time to settle in on Saturday, giving up three straight singles and a walk to start the game and putting his team in a two-run deficit in the first inning. He was able to right the ship quickly, as he retired the final eight batters he faced.

Overall, the Guardians haven’t been able to lean as heavily on their starters as they have in the past. Hunter Gaddis is still finding his footing in the rotation. Quantrill is working out of the rut he fell into during Spring Training. Zach Plesac is trying to prove he deserves to get the ball every fifth day. Meanwhile, all eyes are on Shane Bieber to do most of the heavy lifting while Triston McKenzie recovers from a teres major strain in his right shoulder.

It’s too early in the year to be truly concerned about the Guardians’ rotation. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be closely monitored.