Sixteen MLB debuts. A payroll tens of millions of dollars shy of where it stood only a few years ago. A complete overhaul of the roster built on player development and youth.
Through it all, that was the recipe for the Guardians to reclaim the American League Central Division. They did just that, clinching their first American League Central title since 2018, and did so in such resounding fashion that the last nine-game homestand has been rendered meaningless.
In what has been an unlikely success story — at least considering outside expectations and the youth movement that has overtaken the organization — the Guardians are set to be just the eighth team in baseball history to make the playoffs as the league's youngest team and the first to do so since the 1986 New York Mets, who went on to win the World Series.
It is culmination of a roster overhaul that took place since Cleveland lost to the Chicago Cubs in the 2016 World Series. The nucleus of Francisco Lindor, Corey Kluber, Jason Kipnis, Trevor Bauer, Michael Brantley and many others either moved on or were traded as the team sought to reallocate resources and cut payroll.
The goal was always to compete now while setting up tomorrow. Except, tomorrow arrived today, and it allowed the Guardians to celebrate in Texas after Sunday's game as division champs.
The youthful Guardians not only soared past expectations but handled a playoff push with the poise of a much more veteran club, and are set up even better for the immediate future than in 2022. But how it was it built?
That can be answered with a few crucial trades in which the Guardians hit home runs and a handful of drafts that have paid dividends.
Here's how the current 28-man roster (29, including Zach Plesac) was built.
The three big trades: Francisco Lindor, Mike Clevinger, Corey Kluber
President of Baseball Operations Chris Antonetti and General Manager Mike Chernoff were faced with a difficult task to keep the Guardians competitive in the short run, set up a contention window in the future, flip some major league players for younger, more unproven talent and do so with a limited payroll.
It meant some major trades would be needed, and the Guardians would need to do well with whatever return packages they could acquire. Lindor, especially, wasn't going to remain in Cleveland much longer. Even as painful as it can be to deal a star player, it was a must if the front office wanted to continue to lean into building with a long-term view in mind.
A healthy portion of the roster can be traced to three key trades: the Francisco Lindor (and Carlos Carrasco) deal with the New York Mets, the Mike Clevinger trade with the San Diego Padres and the Corey Kluber swap with the Texas Rangers.
First, it was the Clevinger deal, which brought in starting pitcher Cal Quantrill, infielder Gabriel Arias, catcher Austin Hedges, first baseman Josh Naylor and infielder Owen Miller.
Quantrill has become a central part of the rotation who could be in line to start Game 3 of the Wild Card Series. Arias hasn't yet made much of an impact at the major league level but is a highly-touted infielder. Naylor has had a strong season and has become one of the clubhouse leaders, a young player who is a veteran presence on a young club.
Hedges, although lacking in offensive production, carries value for his defensive abilities, on which manager Terry Francona puts a premium. And Miller has filled a regular role in the infield.
The Lindor deal built the Guardians' middle infield from the ground up. Andres Gimenez' breakout season is a central figure in how Cleveland claimed the AL Central. Amed Rosario's impact at the top of the lineup, especially in the second half of the season, cannot be understated. The Guardians gave up a ton, but Gimenez has his place within the team's long-term plans etched in stone, and Rosario's torrid bat played a role in the club's scorching-hot September that left the rest of the division behind.
Cleveland Guardians:2022 postseason tickets to go on sale to public Thursday
Those two deals left the Guardians with their current starting catcher, first baseman, second baseman, shortstop and two key infielders on the major league roster. In that way, the infield was largely built thanks to the team's player scouting of the San Diego Padres' system, one with which the Guardians are now familiar.
Another deal that was difficult for Cleveland fans to accept, but one that with 20/20 hindsight has become one of the most lopsided trades in baseball the past several years: the Kluber trade. As it turns out, the Guardians dealt all of 18 pitches to the Rangers in exchange for All-Star closer Emmanuel Clase, arguably the best reliever in the game today.
Kluber pitched all of one inning for the Rangers before being lost for the rest of the season due to injury and then moved on to the New York Yankees and then the Tampa Bay Rays. Clase, with a new deal, can remain in with the Guardians through 2028.
The one miss, as it turns out, was the three-team Trevor Bauer deal with the Padres and Cincinnati Reds. Yasiel Puig, Logan Allen, Scott Moss and Franmil Reyes have all since moved on. Victor Nova, currently with the RubberDucks, is the lone holdover.
Building the starting rotation with the 2015 and 2016 drafts and development
Much of the infield was crafted with trades, but the starting rotation was almost all an inside job.
The 2016 draft helped to launch the possibilities that the 2022 club could contend. It produced ace Shane Bieber (4th round), Aaron Civale (third round) and Zach Plesac (12th round), not to mention outfielder Will Benson in the first. Triston McKenzie, who is in line to start Game 2 of the Wild Card Series, was the club's first-round selection in 2015. In roughly 12 months, Cleveland crafted its future starting rotation, though it woulda take years of development to get there.
But it cannot be underrated how vital Cleveland's pitching development has been to the club's success, not only allowing the organization to field a cost-controlled, talented pitching staff but also set up the possibility for some crucial trades to address needs elsewhere. Without it, it's extremely unlikely the Guardians would be celebrating much of anything in 2022.
The grand slam signing and re-signing: Jose Ramirez
As Jose Ramirez goes, so go the Guardians. Few players in baseball have delivered as much of a return on an investment than Ramirez has given to Cleveland.
Ramirez was signed as an international free agent in 2009, blossomed into one of the game's elite position players and signed a seven-year, $141 million extension this spring that can keep him in Cleveland though 2028 (along with Clase and Myles Straw, acquired from the Houston Astros for Phil Maton, who also signed extensions). Even with the re-worked deal, which was expertly front-loaded and actually becomes much cheaper the next few years than in 2022, Ramirez offers the Guardians one of the best per-dollar values in the game. His strut and energy that have become part of the soul of the club are just extras.
The other player development success stories: Steven Kwan, Oscar Gonzalez, James Karinchak, Trevor Stephan
It can be difficult to place precise timelines on any individual's player development. Every prospect can be labeled with some expected arrival times, but the actual landing times are about as reliable as your standard airlines these days.
One reason the Guardians overtook the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins so convincingly? The arrivals of outfielders Steven Kwan (fifth-round pick in 2018) and Oscar Gonzalez (international free agent in 2014), the return of James Karinchak (ninth-round pick in 2017) and, just to accomplish player-acquirement bingo, Trevor Stephan, who was a Rule 5 pick in 2020 that Cleveland took from the New York Yankees.
Considering the accomplishments of the 2022 club, Antonetti, Chernoff and Francona would easily be considered among the game's best at their respective jobs. Cleveland's player development staff throughout the minor leagues would likely be right there with them as Kwan, Gonzalez serve as examples.
2022 Cleveland Guardians by the numbers: trades, drafts and signings
Of the players on the 28-man roster, and counting Plesac as a 29th for consideration, nine were acquired via trade, 14 through the amateur draft, two via the international draft, one by way of the Rule 5 draft and three were signed as free agents (Bryan Shaw, Luke Maile and Enyel De Los Santos).
All of those moves, utilizing every avenue for player procurement in the book to build a roster that is not only baseball's youngest but one of its least expensive and most controllable, eventually led to a champagne-soaked celebration in the Rangers' visiting clubhouse on Sunday. Up next: this collective group's first foray into playoff baseball.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more about the Guardians at www.beaconjournal.com/sports/cleveland-guardians. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.
Rays at Guardians
Time: 6:10 p.m. Thursday
TV: Bally Sports Great Lakes
Pitchers: Jeffrey Springs (9-4, 2.56) vs. Cal Quantrill (14-5, 3.49)
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: How Cleveland Guardians 2022 roster was built