5 things to watch in September for Guardians

September 3rd, 2023

This story was excerpted from Mandy Bell’s Guardians Beat newsletter, which Anthony Castrovince is filling in for. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

We have reached September. Summer’s last gasp. Fall’s first flourish. Baseball at its best.

What kind of September will it be for the Guards? Well, here are five things we’re watching in the final four weeks of the 2023 season …

1. The AL Central race

We’re in Lloyd Christmas (“So you’re saying there’s a chance?”) territory here, but, yes, the AL Central race does still exist after the Guards took two of three from the Twins in Minnesota last week. That little burst of breath was enough to compel the Guardians to make the waiver wire claims of Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo L?pez and Matt Moore from the Angels to bolster the pitching staff for the final month. Quite a change in tone for a front office that focused more on 2024 at the Trade Deadline, but the only cost was money (about $3 million), not prospects.

The Twins are coming to town for the final three games between these two clubs. Giolito makes his debut in the series opener on Labor Day. These are, in no uncertain terms, the biggest games of the season for a Cleveland club trying to win its second straight AL Central crown. Remember: Despite the uninspiring records of these two squads, the winner nevertheless gets the third seed in the six-team AL field and hosts every game of the best-of-three Wild Card Series against the sixth seed.

2. Tito’s last ride?

Though he didn’t come right out and say it, Francona hinted strongly last month that this is his final season before retirement. He told reporters he’s “in a pretty comfortable place” and “at peace” with the thought of ending what is surely a Hall of Fame-worthy managerial career.

It’s impossible to overstate how valuable Tito has been to this franchise, helping to turn it into an instant contender in 2013, winning an AL pennant in ’16, achieving the second-longest win streak in MLB history in ’17 and shocking the baseball world with last year’s run to Game 5 of the ALDS with the youngest roster in the sport. In Tito’s time in Cleveland, his teams have amassed a winning percentage (.551) bested only by the Dodgers (.613) and Yankees (.559), as of this writing.

Francona has downplayed the possibility of retiring because he doesn’t want to be feted with pomp and circumstance down the stretch. But given the strong likelihood that this is it for the winningest manager in Cleveland history, he’ll be serenaded whether he likes it or not.

3. History for Jos?

Another guy whose impact on this club cannot be overstated is Jos? Ramirez, who is putting the finishing touches on a typically terrific 2023 season in which he was an All-Star for the fifth time and has already become the first player in Cleveland history to reach 20 homers, 20 doubles and 20 steals in five seasons.

Ram?rez has been around long enough to start to creep up various all-time franchise leaderboards. He’s already top 10 in homers (213) and stolen bases (196), through Friday. In fact, with just four more stolen bases, he will become the first player in Cleveland history and just the 53rd in MLB history to reach 200 homers and 200 steals in his career.

Not bad for a guy who turns 31 in two weeks.

4. Who’s a keeper?

Forget Opening Day. This Guardians roster looks a heck of a lot different than it did just five weeks ago. The trades of Aaron Civale, Josh Bell and Amed Rosario seemingly opened the door for more youth, but the subsequent additions of the aforementioned waiver claims (Giolito, L?pez and Moore), as well as Kole Calhoun and Ram?n Laureano, have changed the clubhouse a great deal.

So, are any of the five recent veteran additions going to be around in 2024? All but Laureano (on whom the Guards have two years of arbitration control, should they choose) are free agents at year’s end. Laureano’s right-handed bat and strong glove could be a nice complement for a needy outfield going forward, while Calhoun provided surprisingly instant offense after his arrival in the wake of the Josh Naylor injury. It’s too soon to tell how the working relationship with the three new arms will go, but there’s a lot of familiarity with Giolito and L?pez from their White Sox days.

These final weeks will be crucial in evaluating which pieces make sense for a team in transition.

5. Injury returns

A lot of factors led to a disappointing year for a Cleveland club that had hoped to be well out in front in the Central by now. Injuries are a big one.

Cal Quantrill just returned to the rotation, but we’re still waiting on Shane Bieber (right elbow inflammation) and Triston McKenzie (right UCL sprain). Both are in the midst of a throwing program, and it remains to be seen if they can get stretched out enough to log some innings before season’s end.

Naylor (right oblique strain) was activated on Sunday to resume his fantastic 2023 (.306/.346/.500 slash).