Youthful Guardians look to exceed expectations in ’22

April 5th, 2022

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — There’s no hiding it — the Guardians know that they’re now the underdogs of the American League Central. But that doesn’t mean that their goals have changed.

The team is in a transition period of trying to pass the torch to the up-and-coming generation of prospects, while also trying to learn what a handful of younger players who have been on the big league roster for the last season or two are capable of before making decisions regarding their futures. It’s put the Guardians in a difficult position, trying to balance remaining competitive with the hiccups that will come from an inexperienced roster.

Regardless, the core of the returning players from last season are adamant that their youth will not hold them back. And instead of approaching the year as if it’ll be a daunting task, the team is instead looking forward to discovering its own new identity.

“[Josh Naylor] and I were talking exactly about that. I was like, ‘Bro, we can win this thing,'” Franmil Reyes said. “We’re pretty young. We like to play. There are teams that are going to come to us like [we’re] easy because they think we’re pretty young, but we’re going to fight. Bro, we can win.

“Imagine if we win the World Series with this group. Imagine us in the World Series. It makes me excited just to think that.”

What Needs to Go Right?
Despite Reyes’ optimism, nearly everything has to go right for the Guardians this season in order to live out his and Naylor’s dream. The rotation will need to be as dominant as ever, while avoiding the injury bug that was so prevalent last year. The bullpen will need to evolve quickly, as Bryan Shaw and Emmanuel Clase (who has 93 career innings) are two of the most experienced arms in the ‘pen. And finally, the bats will need to wake up more than they have over the last few years with Jose Ramirez and Reyes anchoring the lineup.

Great Unknown
Cleveland may need to learn more about how Amed Rosario fits into its roster or what Bobby Bradley can turn into as a Major League hitter, but the biggest unknown heading into the 2022 season is Naylor. After a gruesome collision in the outfield last June prompted an 8 1/2-month rehab stint, Naylor returned to Cactus League action without any restrictions, but will start the year on the 10-day IL to give him time to get more games under his belt. When he inevitably returns, the team will need to see if he can turn into the player it was hoping he could be last year before injuries got in the way. Could he be a long-term answer in the outfield or will he find his home at first base? Regardless of when he gets to the big league squad, this team needs help offensively and he’ll need to be a big contributor.

Team MVP Will Be … Ramirez
The rotation — assuming it stays healthy — will be an integral part of the team’s success this season, but it can only do so much to keep the Guardians in the win column. The club will need offense and, as he’s proved over the last handful of seasons, Ramirez seems like the obvious choice to step up and produce at the plate. It may be the safe answer, but it’s likely the correct answer, yet again.

Team Cy Young Will Be … Shane Bieber
Again, it seems like an obvious choice, but in a season during which there will be some growing pains, the team will need to have a stable veteran presence on the mound to help overcome the hurdles and Bieber fits that bill. On the heels of a disappointing, injury-riddled year, Bieber will be champing at the bit to get back into regular game action and the team will certainly welcome 2020-like results.

Bold Prediction
Reyes will become the eighth player in Cleveland history to join the 40-homer club. Jim Thome (1997, 2001, ’02), Albert Belle (’95, ’96), Manny Ramirez (’98, ’99), Al Rosen (’53), Rocky Colavito (’58, ’59), Travis Hafner (’06) and Hal Trosky (’36) are the only players to have launched at least 40 homers in a season in franchise history. Although Reyes has been streaky in his time with Cleveland, he’s primed for a more consistent (and powerful) year. And with the expectations of the club dropping from the outside, a lower-pressure environment may allow him to settle in and shine, prompting more wins than maybe some are projecting.