The measure of success for every team should be simple: championships. Right? If the goal is not to win a World Series, then what exactly are we doing?
The thing is, you have to make the postseason in order to even get a shot at the title, so winning regular-season games is step #1 to achieving the ultimate goal. Below is a table of regular-season wins & losses by team in MLB since 2016 sorted by winning percentage:
We find the usual suspects at the top with the Dodgers and the Astros followed by the still- somehow-ring-less-since-2009 Yankees. At number five and six we have the Red Sox and Cubs who have each won a World Series since 2016.
You might notice I skipped a team, and that was by design. The Cleveland Guardians at number four in wins might surprise some people, as it has been a wild ride lately for Cleveland fans.
To summarize: they were mere outs away from winning the 2016 World Series and forever re-defining how we think of the Cubs' previous cores legacy (Rizzo, Baez, Bryant, etc.), all with a team that didn't have the fully actualized versions of Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez that we have come to know and love (the fWAR totals they put up in that season were their 3rd & 4th highest totals of their career, respectively). Since then, they have been to the playoffs three times, although they have not made it past the first round in any year since.
Why then, am I writing an article about them? Simply put, it's because I think this organization is incredibly well-run and provides fans with a sustainable & entertaining product on the field that doesn't get enough love from the baseball community. While I won't dispute this franchises perceived frugality, that doesn't mean that they don't have some positive things going for them.
The Guardians seem to be particularly adept at pitching development, producing with talents who largely went unheralded until their breakthrough at the major league level (think Bieber, Plesac, Carrasco, Clevinger, etc.). It seems as though Cleveland hit big on a market inefficiency before others: identifying pitchers with plus command who may have subpar velo, and then teaching them to throw hard. This philosophy makes sense in the modern game where Driveline style teachings have crept into MLB and makes it more possible than ever to gain 5 MPH on your fastball seemingly overnight. The logic presupposes that command is harder to teach than velo (I believe this to be true as well), and there may even be some innate ability tied to the skill that some players may just never be able to harness.
Look for no further proof that Cleveland is a pitching development behemoth than the fact that since 2016 they have seen the likes of Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger, and Carlos Carrasco leave the organization and have seen very little drop-off in production from the rotation.
The flip side of this is that they don’t seem to have the same talent for developing hitters. Ramirez notwithstanding, the rest of the lineup over the years has… left something to be desired. I would not blame you for pointing fingers at ownership for this issue however, running out an Opening Day outfield consisting of sub-replacement level players for 5 straight years shows a thrift level that not even the most frugal among us can comprehend. I mean seriously, this is the team's list of Opening Day outfielders since 2019 (according to MLB.com):
This group (and their replacements) has produced a whopping 8.1 fWAR combined since 2019 (otherwise known as a single season of Mike Trout), good for 27th in the league in that span. For a team that is actually trying to compete, this is simply unacceptable.
However, a reason for this glowing article is that it seems they are starting to figure it out. Myles Straw is not going to produce a Trout level season on his own, but he doesn’t have to. Straw’s speed and defense are so good that if he can hit at even an average level, you’re looking at a 3-4 win player (he posted 3.7 fWAR last season with a 98 wRC+). Steven Kwan, easily the best story of the young 2022 season, literally refuses to swing-and-miss, and Oscar Mercado goes in the same bucket at Straw (speed/defense over bat), with a little less extremeness.
With the rejuvenated outfield, Jose Ramirez around for the long haul, and the pitching development machine fully churning, will it be enough to challenge for the AL Central crown? Perhaps not this season, but this writer wouldn’t be surprised if it happened sooner than the consensus thinks, and with the expanded playoffs rewarding teams just like the Guardians, don't write them off just yet.
In the meantime, enjoy these tweets (made before game time on April 15th):
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