That the Cleveland Guardians have had a relatively quiet offseason is evidenced by the fact that the biggest news relating to the team recently was the theft of Manager Terry Francona’s scooter from his residence in downtown Cleveland.
Francona uses the scooter to go to and from Progressive Field on game days during the season. It was stolen from his residence last week, but Cleveland Police found the scooter, and returned it to Francona on Wednesday.
With Operation Scooter solved, Francona and Guardians officials can return to their preparations for the start of spring training next month at their complex in Goodyear, Arizona.
A year ago at this time the Guardians were putting the finishing touches on an even quieter offseason that left fans and media scratching their heads, given that the ballclub was coming off a dismal 2021 season, and a record of 80-82. That was Cleveland’s first losing season since 2012.
Francona was hired in 2013, and he’s since become the longest tenured and winningest manager in Cleveland history.
The concern at this time a year ago was that the Guardians had done nothing of consequence to improve their roster, and optimism among the fan base was non-existent.
But then the 2022 season happened, and everything changed.
Predicted by nobody to win their division, the Guardians not only won the AL Central, they won it handily – by 11 games over second-place Chicago. They followed that with an exciting postseason in which they went a combined 4-3 in a wildcard series vs. Tampa Bay and Division Series with the Yankees, coming within one win of reaching the ALCS.
The Guardians did it with the youngest roster in the major leagues, and became the first team in history to win its division or league title with 17 rookies making their major league debuts.
It was probably Francona’s finest hour as a manager, and, indeed, he was voted the American League’s Manager of the Year, the third time in Francona’s 10 years in Cleveland that he has won that award. In addition, Cleveland president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti was voted by his peers as Major League Baseball’s Executive of the Year.
What can the Guardians do for an encore in 2023? Well, they started by doing something they didn’t do a year ago. They added two proven major leaguers to fill two holes in their lineup.
Cleveland signed two free agents, first baseman Josh Bell and catcher Mike Zunino. The 30-year-old Bell, who should add some desperately-needed power to Cleveland’s lineup. Among all major league teams only Detroit hit fewer home runs in 2022 than the 127 hit by Cleveland. To that end, the Guardians signed free agent first baseman Josh Bell to a two-year $33 million contract, with the second year being a player option. They also signed catcher Mike Zunino to a one-year, $6 million deal.
Bell, who had career highs in home runs (37) and RBI (116) for Pittsburgh in 2019, will go into Cleveland’s lineup as the No. 4 hitter, and split first base and designated hitter duties with Josh Naylor.
Zunino will catch the bulk of the games and serve as a mentor to Naylor’s brother Josh, 22, who appears to be the Guardians’ catcher of the future.
Beyond that, Antonetti and company didn’t tinker with the Guardians’ still very-young core, which features plenty of speed and aggressiveness. Cleveland led the majors, by almost 100, in fewest strikeouts and the Guardians were third in the majors in stolen bases.
The ringleader, as usual, was All-Star third baseman Jose Ramirez, who hit .280, with 29 homers, 126 RBI and 20 stolen bases. All-Star and Gold Glove second baseman Andres Gimenez hit .297 with 17 home runs, and had the highest WAR (7.4) of all American League players not named Aaron Judge.
Rookie left fielder Steven Kwan hit .298 with 19 stolen bases, was the second hardest hitter in the American League to strike out, and was one of four Guardians who won Gold Gloves, the others being Gimenez, center fielder Myles Straw, and pitcher Shane Bieber, a former Cy Young Award winner who finished seventh in the voting on that award in 2022.
Positionally, the Guardians are not only set at every spot, they have plus hitters and excellent defenders at most of them.
As a group they are young, aggressive, talented, hungry to improve on the surprising success they had last season, and they have a future Hall of Fame manager sitting in their dugout.
So unlike the quiet offseason of last year, the Guardians, trying to build on their surprising and impressive 2022 season, have made a couple key additions to their roster this offseason, in hopes of going even deeper into this year’s postseason.