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The Six Keys to Success for the Guardians in 2023



The Cleveland Guardians heading into the 2023 remain the youngest team in baseball and the reigning American League division champs.


No longer are they under the radar with no expectations playing as the "hunter." Now they're the "hunted" who bear the weight of repeating the success they had a season ago.


Early in the 2023 campaign, the ballclub is off to a solid start (7-5 as of April 12th) in the midst of a tough first few weeks of series with 10 of their first 13 games against the Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees.


There's a lot of changes in baseball for this year including the pitch clock, larger bases, the ban of the defensive shift, and the implement of a balanced schedule. More than likely it's going to be quite a challenge for this team to build off an exciting first chapter in a new era in this franchise's history. But are they up to the challenge?

Here's what I believe to be the six keys to success for the Cleveland Guardians to repeat as American League Central champs in 2023:


1) Power and Protection Behind Jose Ramirez


Much has been said about last year's team and their lack of power bats. In 2022, the Guardians ranked 2nd to last in homers hit with 127 only behind the Detroit Tigers.

So in the off-season the front office added the first basemen free agent Josh Bell from the San Diego Padres and catcher Mike Zunino from the Tampa Bay Rays.

Bell has 130 homers in his 7 year career and in 2021 hit 27 while driving in 88 runs for the Washington Nationals. But so far with the Guards he's off to a horrid, miserable start batting over .100 with just 1 double and 3 RBI.


Zuino's defense has been quite shaky as he's coming back from a season ending surgery last year. However his offensive production has been great as he already has 5 doubles and a homer in 32 plate appearances.


Both free agent acquisitions must produce for a lineup that is starving for some power production.


Also Oscar Gonzalez and Josh Naylor have got to provide protection behind Jose Ramirez in the 3 hole. While Andres Gimenez could be moved up in the order to the 5th spot, he shouldn't be viewed as a reliable power bat in the middle of the order.


Ideally Bell, Naylor, and Gonzalez are needed to hit 15-20 homers each, driving in 70-80 runs, so that Ramirez is pitched to more often leading to him driving in more runs.


To date (leading up to Wednesday's finale against the Yankees) the Guardians are dead last in baseball in homers with just 5, having not hit a single homer in the span of over a week.

While they don't necessarily need to change our offensive approach from a year ago, in order to be a consistent and dangerous lineup for opposing pitchers, the power bats must produce in the middle of the order.


2) A Rookie Starter to Emerge and Stabilize Rotation


A few weeks into the season and the rotation is already in bad shape. Triston McKenzie is at least out until late May with a strained teres muscle in his back. Aaron Civale is out for several weeks with a strained left oblique.

Down two starters, manager Terry Francona is forced to have two rookie pitchers in the starting rotation in Hunter Gaddis and Peyton Battenfield. It's already leading to an overuse of the bullpen whose been relied on heavily early on.


For now the team must tread water missing two key arms in their rotation. Eventually, though, key pitching prospects should be coming up from the minors.


Tanner Bibee, Logan T. Allen, and Joey Castillo could be called up by June. The two top pitching prospects Gavin Williams and Daniel Espino (whose currently injured) might be late additions to the team as well.


With Civale's injury history, Plesac's wild inconsistency, and McKenzie's late start to the season---it's imperative at least one of these rookie starters rises to the occasion in providing solid starts proving to be a reliable to go to every fifth day.

While it's possible that the front office trades for a veteran starter at the deadline in July, it doesn't seem likely. Traditionally they've looked within for pitching help and it appears to be the case again this season.


The kids must quickly rise to the occasion, joining in on the young success of this ballclub if they're to repeat as Central division champs.



3) Win Season Series Against the Minnesota Twins


Starting in 2023, the schedule is now balanced for all 30 major league teams. In other words, every team will play one another at least once during the 162 game schedule.

Instead of playing 19 times against division opponents in six different series, three home and three away---it's been reduced to 13 games, two series at home and two away.


This means that these series against division foes are even more critically important than in year's past.


Many baseball experts view the American League Central to the weakest of the six divisions. The Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers are in the midst of long rebuilds, while the Chicago White Sox are contenders who struggled to meet lofty expectations last season.


While those White Sox could prove to a challenging foe, it's quite apparent that the Minnesota Twins will most likely prove to be the biggest challengers for Cleveland in repeating as Central division champs.


The Twins had a strong off-season in resigning Carlos Correa, adding the power bat of Joey Gallo, picking up Christian Vazquez as their new catcher, and trading for Pablo Lopez from the Miami Marlins.

Last season the Twins were in first place heading into August before being overtaken by the Guards. Due to Cleveland sweeping a series in September at Minnesota and winning 4 of 5 at home, the Twins fell to 2nd place and 11 games back by season's end.

With a record of 13-6 against the Twins it appears on the surface that we dominated the Twins last season. But that was hardly the case. Many of Cleveland's victories were walk-off, last at bat nail bitters in what was overall a hard fought season series between the two ballclubs.


Now with only 13 games against the Twins, it's critical that the Guards win the season series in order to stay on top.


Currently the two teams are neck in neck in the division and it could potentially be this way leading into their final matchup in early September at home. The outcome of these series most likely will unveil the 2023 American League Central champs.


4) Bullpen Stays Healthy


In the second half of 2023, the Cleveland bullpen proved to be their biggest asset with the emergence of lefty Sam Hentges, righty Eli Morgan, and setup reliever Trevor Stephan bolstered by elite closer Emmanuel Clase.


James Karinchak also returned from injury to solidify the backend of the bullpen. Santos and Sandlin offer key arms for the middle innings


In Spring Training, the team suffered its first injury to the bullpen when Hentges when down with an injury. He's currently slowly making his way back to full health and could prove to be key weapon for an already loaded bullpen with rookie lefty Tim Herrin adding to the punch.


Last season, the bullpen was healthy from start to finish for the most part. Lefty Anthony Gose early on along with Nick Sandlin in the playoffs were the only key injuries suffered to an otherwise fully healthy unit.


With no veteran arms to a very young bullpen, it's vitally important that there's no big injuries or several ailments suffered to multiple players in 2023.


As stated above, the rotation is getting younger which means less innings produced from the staff. The bullpen then will most likely anchor the pitching staff and needs to remain healthy.


If they don't----late leads will be lost, comebacks will be harder to come by, and the walk-off/last at-bat wins will lessen significantly.


It could ultimately lead to the difference between a winning or losing season once it's all said and done.



5) Few Or No Sophomore Slumps


Being the youngest team in baseball with 17 players making their big league debut in 2022, this year's team is faced with the reality of having to repeat their first year of success.


Players such as Steven Kwan, Andres Gimenez, Oscar Gonzalez, and Josh Naylor all experienced different levels of success as young position players in the lineup. Will Brennan got a "cup of coffee" with the big league team and played well in a couple of handful of games.


In 2023, the expectations are now there for these players to repeat or to go beyond their offensive production output from a year ago.

While there is some depth in the minors of up and coming prospects, big drop offs for Kwan, Gimenez, Gonzalez, and Naylor most likely will set this team back in 2023.

Small drop-offs, however, are to be expected. Young players rarely continue on an upward scale of success from their rookie season to their 30's.

What's vital for the overall success of the season, though, is that these players and a few others don't suffer a major decline in production after breakthrough rookie campaigns.



6) Continue to Play the Guardians Way


Last and most importantly is the signature calling card of the team playing their unique style of baseball. Working the count, putting the ball in play, aggressive base running, stealing bases, putting pressure on the defense----this is what made the 2022 Cleveland Guardians so much fun to watch last season.


With the rule changes now in place, this year's team is set up to have the advantage of many clubs who are still stuck in the all or nothing approach of striking out or hitting homeruns.


The pitch clock, bigger bases and ban of the defensive shift should favor this team's offensive approach. Cleveland must continue to put the ball in play and use their speed to generate offense.

Outslugging their opponents isn't going to work with this team's makeup. Kwan, Rosario, Gimenez, and Straw especially must get on base and put pressure on their opponents or our offense could significantly struggle in 2023.


Concluding Thoughts


There's much reason for optimism this 2023 season for Cleveland baseball fans. This is a young, talented, and fun team to watch. There's a ton of up and coming prospects in a loaded farm system that are set to arrive in the near future.


Francona is the reigning American League manager of the year and always gets the most of every one of his players. Ramirez and Bieber are in their prime and top players in baseball. Clase is a dominant closer. Kwan is an unique and pesky leadoff hitter whose only going to get better. Gimenez is a gold glove, clutch hitting second basemen locked up for many years to come. Straw is an elite defender in center field.


Adding it all up and this should be an exciting pennant race towards playoffs this season! Looking forward to writing more about this year's team in the upcoming weeks and months ahead---Let's Go Guardians!



References:


Pictures courtesy of Flickr

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