Kwan, Francona finalists for AL ROY, MOY awards

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With few expectations come more opportunities for a team to turn heads. The Guardians capitalized on the chance to do just that this season, and now they’re getting recognition.

On Monday night, Steven Kwan was named a finalist for the American League Rookie of the Year Award, and his skipper, Terry Francona, was selected as a finalist for AL Manager of the Year, as announced on MLB Network.

From the beginning of the season, Francona told his team that it needed to buy into a different mentality than what’s usually practiced in today’s game in order to find success. This wasn’t a lineup that was going to launch a lot of home runs. It was one that boasted plenty of speed with a handful of guys who could hit for average. To win games, the group would need to master the art of small ball, run the bases aggressively (but perfectly) and never hand opponents free opportunities on defense.

It was a recipe that led to a lot of close games and probably a higher blood pressure for Francona — though he’ll joke that his blood pressure wasn’t great to begin with, so who cares — but it resulted in 92 wins and the AL Central title.

The Guardians were projected to place toward the bottom of their division, while the White Sox were expected to run away with it. But Cleveland enjoyed being the dark horse while utilizing an underdog-like approach to the game. The team wanted to prove that you didn’t have to lead the league in power statistics to win a championship, but the Guardians fell short of their goal during the AL Division Series against the Yankees.

Regardless of when and how they finished, the Guardians made a run that no one expected, and it started with Francona’s plan to get everyone on board with a more unconventional style of play. Whether it was continually hammering home these small-ball concepts or relying on his antics with his friend (and Cleveland replay coordinator) Mike Barnett to get the clubhouse loose and laughing, Francona was the heartbeat of this young lineup.

The emergence of Kwan made Francona’s job even easier.

Just like the Guardians as a whole, the expectations for each of the young players coming up to the big leagues were low — at least to start the season. Kwan, Konnor Pilkington and Bryan Lavastida were the three prospects who forced their way onto the Opening Day roster. Kwan had built a solid reputation for himself throughout the Minors and had an impressive Spring Training, but there was no way to predict that he’d have the level of success he had in 2022.

Kwan caught all the attention in the early days of the season, seeing 116 pitches before his first swing and miss, the most of any player to start a career since at least 2000, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He scuffled a little in May, which prompted him to get moved down in the lineup, but he proved he was ready to be a big leaguer by making quick adjustments.

It didn’t take long for Kwan to find his permanent home in the leadoff spot, ending his year hitting .298 with a .773 OPS (124 OPS+), 25 doubles, seven triples, 52 RBIs, 19 stolen bases and 62 walks with just 60 strikeouts in 147 games. His defense was just as critical as his offense, and he was awarded an AL Gold Glove Award on Nov. 1 for his play in left field.

“We saw a consistent guy in the clubhouse, in the batting cages, on the field with his defense, every single day,” Guardians general manager Mike Chernoff said. “And I think that may have been one of the things that was so impressive to us.”