Transparency Item: Hot Shots is an opinion piece in which the writer shares their take on a sports topic.
Having the youngest team in the MLB and still winning the division is a testament to how successful the Cleveland Guardians can be in the upcoming years— especially once the veterans, emerging stars and farm systems all come together. The average age of Guardian batters is 26.1 years old, and pitchers are 26.5 years old, according to Front Office Sports.
On Oct. 18, the Cleveland Guardians failed to make it past the ALDS— falling short yet again. Batters 1-9 held their own against the juggernaut of a ball club from the Bronx. It can be taxing to come out of a hard fought wild card series and go head-to-head with a well-rested Yankees lineup.
Guardians Designated Hitter Josh Naylor taunted Yankees Starting Pitcher Gerrit Cole in Game Four after a home run. As he rounded the bases, he yelled “You’re my son!” while pretending to cradle a baby. Several Yankees fans took exception to this, as boos flurried through the stadium, according to The Sporting News.
The following night — every time the Guardians failed to some capacity — Yankees fans cradled at Cleveland players, mocking Naylor from Game Four, according to ESPN. The Guardians’ success was ultimately limited to one run, and 52,000 people “rocked” Cleveland out of New York.
Cleveland players and fans felt overwhelming frustration, as broadcaster Ron Darling mentioned following Game Five— Guardians third baseman Jose Ramirez was visibly upset when he had the opportunity to tie the game up with bases loaded, ESPN reporter Coley Harvey said. If Ramirez swung half a second earlier, the ball that was pulled by 15-feet could have been a game-tying grand slam.
Baseball can be a game of ifs, and this swing could have changed the whole landscape of the series.
Keep in mind, a World Series victory was in arm’s reach in 2016 when they were up 3-1 against the Chicago Cubs — a battle of the droughts, as the Cubs went 108 years without a championship. History unfolded in the Cubs’ favor, meaning the Guardians have the longest active drought in all of baseball, according to MLB.
Being one game away from winning the championship and then having your dreams snatched from you can be demoralizing. This has been the life of a Guardians fan for over 74 years. But, this season was nothing to scoff at.
Guardians Roster is Built to Last
Thanks to the pitching staff, the Guardians will be contenders for years to come.
Guardians Head Coach Terry Francona put a lot of trust in seasoned veteran Carl Willis, especially his ability to use intuition in order to properly utilize mound visits to their advantage, according to Cleveland.
This pitching staff seems to manifest talented, young arms out of thin air year in and year out. Shane Bieber, Triston McKenzie and Emmanuel Clase have emerged in the past few years — and now, are great pitchers, according to the Athletic.
Calming the pitcher on the bump is an instrumental duty of the pitching coach, and Willis has mastered this. He is known to keep his words brief and light hearted in hopes of taking away the nerves of the player, giving them a chance to regroup and stick to their strengths, according to The Gazette.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when he leaves that mound, a lot of times things go right,” Francona said on Willis’s use of mound visits for Cleveland.
Highly Touted Prospects
The following list describes the top prospects from the Guardian’s well-constructed farm system. General Manager Mike Chernoff produced a network that churns out MLB arms on the regular.
1. Daniel Espino (No. 1 Prospect)
The Guardians drafted Espino in 2019 with the 24th pick in the amateur draft, and he is currently ranked the No. 15 prospect in the MLB — arguably the best pitching prospect in Minor League Baseball, according to MLB.
2023 will be a big year for his development and potentially expedite his road to the show.
2. Gavin Williams (No. 3 Prospect)
Similar to Espino, he has a tenacious heater that can touch triple digits. The fireballer started out in triple AAA and allowed zero hits over four innings in his MLB debut.
3. Tanner Bibee (No. 6 prospect)
Bibee has moved up the ranks these past few years, officially moving into the Top 100 prospects list.
In juxstaposition with Espino and Williams, Bibee’s strength is in his command and ability to control the location of every pitch in his arsenal: four seam, slider, curveball and changeup.
Greg Maddux is the most comparable pitcher to Bibee’s playstyle.
That is not to say Bibee is going to become a Hall of Fame starter, but they are both finesse pitchers with stuff that is not overpowering.
Based on the trajectory of these three pitchers this far along with other established pitching prospects being hoarded down in the farm, it is likely that at least two of them will pan out and be strong contributors to the MLB rotation as early as 2024.
Emerging Stars for Cleveland
Kwan is an alumni out of Oregon State that blindsided the whole league and instantly became one of the top contract hitters in baseball, according to Cleveland Sports Talk. He had fans nationwide tuning in to his at bats to see if he would ever swing and miss – it took him 116 pitches to finally whiff.
Evidently, this was the norm for him considering he only swung and missed 2.6% of the time in the minor leagues, according to MLB. Translating extremely well to the major leagues, he hit .298 with a 9.3% K rate— the second lowest in baseball.
Needless to say, he has solidified his spot in the lineup and his contact is second to none. Being able to put the ball in play to get the offense moving is of tremendous value.
Gonzalez has raw power that is hard to come by, especially as a rookie. His Baseball Savant page shows he is already in the 99th percentile for arm strength and 91st percentile for exit velocity. Not to mention, he has a faster sprint speed than 88% of the league as a 6 ‘4, 240 pound individual.
Game Two of the Guardians vs. Rays Wild Card Series went 14.5 innings, waiting for either offense to show up. Both teams used eight pitchers, amounting to 16 different players pitching throughout the game. Gonzalez, a rookie, put an end to this lull and sent Cleveland to the division series with a walk-off home run off of Corey Kluber.
His family in Sabana Grande de Palenque, Dominican Republic, held a parade in his hometown despite the bitter end to the season. If any guy deserves a parade this October, it’s Gonzalez.
Guardians Locking up Proven Talent
In addition to the prospects and the young stars, the Guardians did a good job securing veteran talent. Ramirez, Bieber and McKenzie have signed multi-year contracts with the Guardians and are looking to make an impact the following season.
Less than a week after Cleveland changed their name from the Indians to the Guardians, they locked up arguably the best offensive third baseman in baseball, Ramirez, to a 7 year contract for $141,000,000.
Fansided mentions the long history of letting their ace pitchers walk away – Corey Kluber, Mike Clevinger and Carlos Carrasco. Bieber — the 2020 Cy Young award winner — is locked up in Cleveland until the end of the 2024 season. It is possible that GM Mike Chernoff extends him to a similar deal as Sandy Alcantra — a 5 year contract for $56,000,000. Both are All-Star pitchers in their late twenties.
McKenzie is making a base salary of $707,100, simply chump change for what he is worth. His estimated year four earnings is about $1,200,000, according to Spotrac. Not entering free agency until 2027, McKenzie will be sticking around for a while.
The AL Central is Going to have their Hands Full
We have seen what this team is capable of when firing on all cylinders — in the final month of the season, they went 24-6. This created some much needed breathing room between them and the Chicago White Sox, securing the division by 11 games.
It did not take long until Cleveland established their presence and knocked Chicago off their high rollers. As the youngest team in baseball, the Guardians will be feared opponents in October for years to come.
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