The top 3 factors to determine whether Cleveland Guardians win or lose AL Central in 2023
Hope springs eternal. It's true for every club playing in Arizona and Florida, ramping up for a grinding 162-game season (thanks to a normal schedule not truncated by an owners' lockout this year).
For the Guardians, they're entering what appears to be a three-team race with the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox in the American League Central. The Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals are still working through extended rebuilds. After all, Bobby Witt Jr. is only one man.
With Major League Baseball's new, more balanced schedule, the Guardians will play these teams less often than they had in the past. The AL Central has tended to be a lighter group in recent years, allowing for the contenders to beat up on teams within the division, but that won't be the case in 2023, which could impact the Wild Card race.
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But as for the Central, the Guardians enter as the reigning division champs coming off of a 92-win season that few outside of their own clubhouse thought they'd put together. Here's a look at the biggest factors that could determine whether they repeat as champs or fall short to the Twins or White Sox in 2023.
The Guardians lineup: Young, contact-based hitters are adjusting to league's adjustments in 2023
One of the biggest storylines of the Guardians' 2022 season was their contact-first, old-school lineup that reversed the recent league-wide trend built on power and the three true outcomes (home runs, walks, strikeouts). Led by Steven Kwan, who perfectly embodied that style of play while taking over the leadoff spot as the season progressed, the Guardians were able to ground teams down with a series of difficult outs and another top-six MVP finish from Jose Ramirez.
Kwan and Oscar Gonzalez made their MLB debuts and left a major mark on the lineup. Andres Gimenez had a breakthrough year en route to starting at second base for the AL in the All-Star Game.
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And one of the key factors of the 2023 team will be how those young hitters adjust to the adjustments the league is making to them. Baseball is a game of constant adjustments and, later, counter-adjustments. Pitchers are always scouring for ways to attack hitters differently. And the sport can be cruel, in a way, and one that leads to slumps that are sometimes unavoidable. Kwan, for example, went ice cold for several weeks before breaking out of it and finishing the season as one of the top rookies in the American League.
If the Guardians are to succeed in 2023, they'll need to avoid — at least to an extent — the kind of hurdles that can accompany young players, as many are entering their sophomore seasons or, like Gimenez, hoping to build off a steppingstone year. The additions of veterans Josh Bell and Mike Zunino certainly help in that regard.
Manager Terry Francona noted at multiple times last year that they knew to expect bumps in the road with such a young roster. Francona then helped the Guardians to navigate those speed bumps en route to a return to the postseason. One of the main keys to 2023, again, is how the Guardians handle heightened expectations and what the league does to counter their lineup.
Health: Can the White Sox and Twins finally stay healthy for a full season in 2023?
The AL MVP race is always one that feels crowded even by Opening Day. Shohei Ohtani is perhaps the most well-rounded, gifted athlete the sport has ever seen, and he'll be the favorite going into the year as one of the best hitters and one of the elite pitchers in baseball. That's over Aaron Judge, who just had one of the best seasons of any hitter in the game's history. Then there's Ohtani's teammate, Mike Trout, the best player in baseball over the last decade. Then there's Ramirez, in Cleveland, who has finished in the top-six in voting in five of the last six seasons.
But if Twins outfielder Byron Buxton can ever play at least 140 games again, he might beat them all, and the Twins' chances of challenging the Guardians rise exponentially. In 2021, Buxton was on an absolute tear, hitting .306 with an OPS of 1.005. He had 19 home runs and 21 doubles in only 61 games. The problem? He only played in those 61 games, and the Twins were without his services for 101 games. Last year, Buxton struggled through injuries again, playing in only 92 games. Even in 2020, he only played in 39 of the 60 games during the shortened season. In 2019 and 2018, he played in 115 games combined.
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He is crucial to what the Twins are doing, but he simply hasn't been able to stay on the field. He was an MVP candidate in 2021 before being hurt and an All-Star in 2022. But if he can't remain healthy, the Twins might again fall short of expectations. It also hasn't helped that Royce Lewis, a former No. 1 overall draft selection, hasn't been able to stay healthy, either.
It's a similar story for the White Sox, a team with a young core, but one that hasn't been able to log as much time on the field together as they'd like. Eloy Jimenez has played in only 55 and 84 games the last two years, respectively. Luis Robert has logged only 166 games over the last two years.
It's a tale as old as time, a song as old as rhyme, White Sox on I-L.
Of course, health is always an obvious and needed component of a successful season. But the AL Central seems to have been hit especially hard. Cleveland, in 2021, had an entire season derailed due to a severe number of pitching injuries. That reversed itself in 2022, and the Guardians were propelled to a double-digit-games division win. If the White Sox and Twins can't reverse their own trends, it'll be difficult to overcome a Guardians repeat. But if they can, the baseball world might finally see their ceiling.
Guardians Pitching: Ability to develop pitchers remains a top asset in 2023
The Guardians' recent track record of developing pitching compared to league average is a real weapon, and it offers them the benefit of the doubt in many ways. The Guardians have a secure top five for the rotation, a number of youthful options in Triple-A (enough to create a logjam) that could step into a spot if needed and three top-50 pitching prospects (Daniel Espino, Gavin Williams, Tanner Bibee) making their way through the minors.
They also now boast one of the best bullpens in baseball led by Emmanuel Clase, though that can fluctuate from year to year more so than other areas of the roster.
Meanwhile, the White Sox have played catch-up and now boast a rotation led by Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn and Dylan Case and the Twins have patched together a rotation that is now headlined by Sonny Gray, Pablo Lopez and Tyler Mahle. Few teams have been able to replicate what the Guardians have done with their internal pitching development. And while other teams have more of a safety net in the way of financial flexibility to cover up any mistakes, the Guardians have been able to rely on their development of pitchers to surge to the top of the AL Central.
Again in 2023, it'll likely be a deciding factor.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at email@example.com. Read more about the Guardians at www.beaconjournal.com/sports/cleveland-guardians. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Guardians 2023: Top 3 factors to determine who wins Al Central