Guardians ace Shane Bieber was musing about Cleveland manager Terry Francona’s importance to the club earlier this spring when he made a somewhat surprising acknowledgement of what baseball’s youngest team had done a year ago.
“We kind of maximized our input,” Bieber said, “and our output.”
Indeed, that young bunch of Guardians rolled to the AL Central title by a whopping 11 games last season. They did it by relying on one of the best bullpens in baseball, crafty hitting and speed on the basepaths, and some wisdom from their 63-year-old manager, who heads into a new year feeling good after a series of serious health concerns.
“Just him being in the clubhouse, it breeds confidence,” Guardians outfielder Steven Kwan said.
The Guardians return largely intact, poised to defend their title in an otherwise down division, though with some extra pop in the lineup with the arrival of switch-hitter Josh Bell and catcher Mike Zunino.
Bieber again tops the rotation, while Jose Ramirez should finally be at his best for Cleveland after dealing with a thumb injury much of last season.
“The way we played last year, we had to play a pretty clean game,” Francona said. “If that’s the way it is, I’m OK with that. Just know that if someone hits a three-run homer every once in a while, it makes it easier.
“Sometimes you can outslug some mistakes,” added Francona, who is beginning his 11th season in Cleveland. “We didn’t have that ability last year and I didn’t mind it because it’s a fun way to play, but it’s a demanding way to play.”
HOW THEY PROJECT
1. Cleveland Guardians. Their dream season a year ago, which included a wild-card win over Tampa Bay, ended with a loss to the Yankees in the divisional round. But the arrival of Bell and Zunino, and help from top prospects Bo Naylor and George Valera at some point this season, could have Cleveland in the mix for its first World Series title since 1948.
2. Minnesota Twins. The return of Carlos Correa on a club-record $200 million contract signals the Twins, who led the division for 108 days before fading badly, aren’t planning to give up easily. It would help their cause if lineup mainstays Byron Buxton, Jose Miranda and Jorge Polanco can stay healthy.
3. Chicago White Sox. After one of the most disappointing seasons in recent memory, Tony La Russa headed off into retirement and the White Sox hired longtime Royals coach Pedro Grifol as their new manager. He has work ahead of him after Jose Abreu, their biggest star, signed a three-year deal with Houston last November.
4. Detroit Tigers. The last go-around for Miguel Cabrera could be a bumpy one. AJ Hinch is back as the manager with new GM Scott Harris calling the shots in the front office, but the club hasn’t had a winning season since 2016 and are a longshot to end that streak. Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson at least provide hope for the future.
5. Kansas City Royals. The Royals fired GM Dayton Moore late last season, giving the job to his longtime understudy JJ Picollo, and hired Matt Quatraro from the Rays to replace fired manage Mike Matheny. But when it comes to the roster, little has changed from a team that went 65-97 and finished last a year ago.
Cabrera is coming off the worst year of his Hall of Fame-caliber career, hitting just .254 with five homers and 43 RBIs in 112 games for Detroit. But while Cabrera, who turns 40 in April, no doubt hopes to have a big final year, the truth is no matter how much he struggles, fans are going to head to the ballpark to see the two-time MVP one last time.
“I’m going to go out there and be me,” Cabrera said earlier this spring. “If I can hit, I want to be in the lineup.”
Naylor and Valera are two of the division’s top prospects, but the Guardians’ duo are hardly the only ones that could make a splash this season.
The White Sox have high expectations for 24-year-old Cuban outfielder Oscar Colas; the Twins are hopeful that second baseman Edouard Julien can build off a dominant performance at Double-A and shortstop Royce Lewis can return from a torn ACL at some point this season; and the Royals could see the midseason arrival of outfielder Tyler Gentry.
Perhaps a couple of those hot prospects can follow in the footsteps of Kwan, who finished third in voting for AL rookie of the year, and Royals infielder Bobby Witt Jr., who finished right behind him in fourth last season.