One would think that a new name and a rebrand would be good reasons to go out and spend some money to drum up excitement. Much like the boring logo and the unimaginative color scheme, the Guardians opted not to do anything of consequence with the expedited free agent and trade frenzy. If I sound angry, it’s because this lifelong Cleveland baseball fan is more than ready for the day when rumored minority owner David Blitzer can get the rest of the shares he needs to have control and make the decisions.
You have to hand it to this front office, though. Operating with very thin financial margins, last year’s team was the first since 2012 to finish with a losing record at 80-82. In that span, the Indians made the playoffs more often than they didn’t and even came within one game of ending the painful World Series drought that dates back to 1948.
This year’s team won’t end it either, but this is a very important year for the future of the franchise. Pinching pennies is just standard operating procedure for this ownership group, but the next great wave of prospects is not that far away. The Guardians have two elite players in Jose Ramirez and Shane Bieber and some good complementary pieces, but the real strength of the team lurks below the surface.
Ramirez is a bona fide superstar and may very well be on a Hall of Fame track, especially when the shift gets banned for 2023 and beyond. He batted .266/.355/.538 last season with a .372 wOBA and a 137 wRC+ . His 6.3 fWAR were more than double the next position player, Amed Rosario, who rode a .340 BABIP to the second-best offensive season of his career. The man known as “J-Ram” also stole 27 bases, blasted 36 homers and played Gold Glove defense.
The offensive philosophy has shifted in Cleveland. This used to be an organization that would preach patience at the plate and utilize platoon advantages, meaning a lineup loaded with lefties against a right-handed pitcher and the opposite against a left-handed pitcher. Now, the Guardians are a contact-oriented, straightforward offense that ranked 26th in BB%. They ranked 12th in average exit velocity and 16th in Hard Hit% (percentage of batted balls hit at least 95 mph). They were one of 12 teams to hit at least 200 home runs, but ranked 27th in OBP with a low batting average and the low walk rate.
The projection for the offense doesn’t look much better this season, though there are some bright spots. A full year of Myles Straw, who had a walk rate north of 10% and 30 stolen bases last season, will help tremendously. The team should be committed to taking a long look at 24-year-old OF Steven Kwan, who also walks at a high rate and slashed .328/.407/.527 across two levels last season. Andres Gimenez, the centerpiece of the Francisco Lindor deal with the Mets, didn’t have impressive full-season numbers, but posted a .325 wOBA in September and flashed a bit of power with six extra-base hits in 75 plate appearances.
Cleveland is mostly biding its time until some of the prospects from a deep minor league system graduate to the MLB level. They have a bevy of middle infielders, including Brayan Rocchio, Tyler Freeman and Gabriel Arias, as well as big power potential from 3B/OF Nolan Jones and OF George Valera. The Guardians may have some of the best Triple-A and Double-A lineups this season, but the hope would be that most of those guys get a look at the MLB level. If the kids get to the big leagues, Cleveland will go back to being a team that walks more often, which is very important for creating run-scoring opportunities in the high-strikeout environment with the lowest batting averages we’ve seen since the late ‘60s.
What’s most frustrating about the Guardians is that the offense doesn’t have to be great for the team to contend. Bieber is a Cy Young winner and one of the 10 best starting pitchers in baseball with an elite K/BB rate. He’s also coming off of a season in which he was limited to 96.2 innings, so he should be strong and ready for the rigors of 200 innings once again. He posted a 3.17 ERA with a 3.03 FIP and a 2.91 xFIP in his 16 starts last year and led the team in fWAR, despite playing only half a season.
The emergence of Cal Quantrill was huge, as the swingman turned full-time starter posted a 2.89 ERA with a 4.07 FIP and a 4.43 xFIP. Quantrill’s low K% is the reason for the high FIP, but the Guardians have a history of elevating strikeout numbers for pitchers with good stuff and good command. It wouldn’t be shocking to also see bumps across the board for Zach Plesac, Triston McKenzie and Aaron Civale, all of whom show a ton of promise.
The Guardians have had a brain drain on the pitching side in recent years. Ruben Niebla and Matt Blake were integral parts of the development of nearly every pitcher in the system. Blake joined the Yankees as the pitching coach after the 2019 season and Niebla just took the same role with the Padres in October. Both guys were tremendous losses for an organization that doesn’t spend money to win, but rather focuses on squeezing out every possible ounce of potential internally. We’ll see if Plesac, McKenzie, Civale and others can make the leap in spite of the key departures.
Even with all the question marks in the lineup, the Guardians may head into the season with more uncertainties in the bullpen. Emmanuel Clase was an elite reliever last season with a 1.29 ERA and a 2.11 FIP to go with 24 saves and over a strikeout per inning. However, the most important reliever in the pen is James Karinchak. He was arguably one of the most impacted pitchers by the sticky substance crackdown, suffering big spin rate decreases on his fastball and curveball. In just 16 innings in the second half, Karinchak allowed batters to post a .270/.373/.492 slash. After striking out 68 in 39.1 innings in the first half, he struck out 10 and walked 10 in those 16 innings in the second half.
If Karinchak, who was hurt in spring training, can return to dominance in the post-sticky stuff world, the bullpen looks a lot better. Sidewinder Nick Sandlin can be a matchup nightmare and outfielder-turned-pitcher Anthony Gose runs it up there in triple digits, but only has six MLB appearances to his name. The Guardians have a lot of fringy starting pitching depth that could be converted to bullpen roles as well. They’ll also look to guys with some MLB experience like Alex Young, Enyel De Los Santos and Ian Gibaut to fill low-leverage roles.
Player to watch
RP James Karinchak: Many bettors have gone to 1st 5 wagers as a way to eliminate bullpens. I prefer to try to handicap bullpens and usage to find some edges in the day-to-day MLB climate. Karinchak is such a huge part of the Guardians bullpen and his dramatic fall from grace when MLB took sticky substances away was a massive blow to the Cleveland relief corps.
From the start of the season through June 2, Karinchak’s curveball spin rate was 2,413 rpm; from June 3 on, it was 2,200 rpm. His fastball suffered as well, going from 2,452 rpm to 2,183 rpm. Spin rate is important because it creates movement on the ball. The higher and tighter the spin, the more a pitch is going to move. Karinchak’s stuff flattened out and he could no longer control it. As a two-pitch pitcher, he was largely rendered ineffective – and it showed. With a ton of questions in the bullpen as it is, the Guardians can ill afford to have the bad version of Karinchak.
With a win total in the mid-to-upper 70s, it looks like the Guardians are ticketed for their second straight losing season. The front office’s unwillingness to spend and the reasons to be patient with a crop of uber-talented youngsters are likely to make 2022 a season less about the present and more about the future. The biggest wins would be off the field, locking up Ramirez and Bieber to long-term deals.
The White Sox look like legitimate World Series contenders in a division that is lacking, but has gotten better with what the Twins have done and how the Tigers are developing pitchers. The Guardians really haven’t gotten better, aside from the return of a healthy Bieber and the promise and potential of the prospects coming up the ranks. Cleveland can hold its own in the 76 Central Division games, but the AL East looks strong and the AL West is also improved, so those games will be tough.
In light of the strength of the division, the early injury to Karinchak and a general dislike of manager Terry Francona with a young roster, I’m looking at the Guardians Under 76.5 wins.
Win Total Pick: Under 76.5