Sweet & Sour

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

I love Cleveland baseball, but there has not been a good Indians/Guardians year where they have not broken my heart. A sober contradiction for one of my favorite pastimes. The 2022 Cleveland Guardians inaugural season was electrifying, surprising and exciting. I entered the season with low expectations (I was not alone), and they far surpassed them. Cleveland won the AL Central in spite of a low payroll (lower than everyone else in the division), debuting 17 rookies, and basically adding nobody either before the season or at the deadline. Instead breakout campaigns from Stephen Kwan, Andres Gimenez, Triston McKenzie, Josh Naylor, Sam Hentges…you get the idea, led a young team to the playoffs.

Nobody expected it, some declared Cleveland played in October with "house money" leading to relatively low expectations. Again: Cleveland surprised us all.

The Guardians swept Tampa Bay in the Wild Card round. Two teams who operate with similarly low payrolls, with many of their stars shuttling out once arbitration increases their salaries, but Cleveland came out on top. Facing the New York Yankee juggernaut, with a massive payroll of over $250M dollars, the Guardians showed no fear. They won Game 2 by grueling it out with their bullpen and shocked the world in Game 3 with an extraordinary comeback (the first successful multi-run rally against New York in the 9th inning in postseason history). All looked bright, Cleveland could slay the Yankee beast and advance to the ALCS for the first time since 2016 (and only the sixth time in franchise history).

It was not to be; Cleveland blew a lead in the playoffs. Again, the third time since Tito took over Cleveland failed to close out a series despite an imposing lead. An especially bitter pill to swallow after the thrilling comeback in Game 3.

There are debates on our decisions in the playoffs, but I do not find that debate particularly interesting. Instead I prefer to think on the facts. Let’s be honest: New York is a better team than Cleveland. Their run differential was far better, their offense is better, and it’s not like their pitching is much worse. The fact Cleveland held a lead over the Yankees at any point in the series is impressive. But I do want to make a couple of other points which I think we need to keep in mind.

The Season was Successful

I focus on the bitterness more often than not, and honestly losing to the Yankees (for the third time in a row) makes it hard for me to feel much else. But I will still think back on this season fondly. Game 3, the Spongebob Squarepants rally, ranks up there with the Bug Game, Rajai’s homer, and basically every game Kluber pitched in 2016, as absolutely thrilling postseason baseball. The Wild Card series against Tampa was also enjoyable, just like the 2016 ALDS/ALCS were as well.

Signing Jose Ramirez to an extension changed the course of the franchise. He is entering his early 30s, so there is some chance for volatility, but I think ending the shift will help Jose. I also think he’s a shrewd enough hitter to make adjustments. He tried some adjustments this year, he will learn from them in 2023. This was crucial to buying some goodwill with the fanbase, and hopefully Ramirez can become the kind of icon fans remember for decades.

Finally, yes, this team is potentially set up for several years. They’re young, many of them are cheap, and with Jose as a lineup anchor we should be able to find ways to improve the roster (even if we are obviously not signing Aaron Judge, as fun as that would be). Our starting pitching farm hopefully will churn out more pitchers (which we need desperately), even if our bench is not as deep as it was with Kluber/Carrasco/Bauer/Clevinger.

That being said, I do not think it’s all good news.

We Blew Another Chance

Cleveland has been a highly successful regular season team. Nobody questions that, and if they are they need to review the data more closely. The team has won a ton of games, won more division titles than any team in the Central (and more division titles than most other teams too). But this team blew yet another lead in a postseason series. Cleveland has blown many in the Wild Card Era. By my count this team has blown six series when given multiple opportunities to close it out. Postseason appearances are precious, and there is no guarantee you will return anytime soon.

Nor is there any guarantee the team will build on its current success. 2022 is not the first time Cleveland has built a promising young team. 2007 felt like the start of a potential AL Central dynasty, with a young core (bolstered by a newly locked up Travis Hafner). C.C. Sabathia won a Cy Young, but Roberto Hernandez pitched nearly as well; even the bullpen looked promising with Rafael Perez (Raffy Left) & Rafael Betancourt (Raffy Right) cementing the 7th & 8th innings. It all collapsed in a year (despite Cliff Lee emerging as a Cy Young Award winner in 2008). 2016 did begin a mini dynasty of sorts, and the 2017 team was one of the best in franchise history. But the team never came close to replicating its postseason success in 2016.

In short, this team came close to knocking out a 99 win Yankee team in the ALDS despite a low payroll and avoiding improvements both before the season and at the deadline. The team did not lack resources to improve the roster, but chose to roll the dice on the rookies anyway. To their credit: it largely worked, but the team still entered the postseason with a weak bench, a relatively weak starting rotation, and at a disadvantage against New York due to playing in the Wild Card series. The expectations were low, but higher expectations (even justified ones) in the future do not guarantee future success.

Losing to the Yankees

Sucks. It really sucks. In fact, I can describe my feelings about losing to the Yankees perfectly:

We let the Yankees off the hook (for the third series in a row)! They advanced to the ALCS, for the 3rd time. The Guardians are 1-7 in elimination games: we have not won one since beating…the New York Yankees (of course) in 1997. For a team with a nearly 75 year World Series drought, the only team to lose two Game 7 World Series games (and probably the only team to lose this many elimination games, although I have not investigated that claim yet) is maddening.

Anyway, Cleveland has faced New York more often than any other team. Our record in the postseason against New York is not great. We’re 2-3 in series, and 12-15 overall. In short, the Yankees do not consider Cleveland a rival. Many in the national media do not take us seriously, which results in frustrating articles like this one. We had them, we should have won! We came back and had a downright superb comeback to take the lead.

So yes, it is demoralizing to once again be sent home, hoping for a better result next year. It will take time to get over it.

Looking to 2023

I do not have much to say here, I do not enjoy the off-season too much. I only have a few requests. Most importantly: I never want to see Owen Miller or Austin Hedges play for Cleveland ever again. They are both awful hitters, and I am not at all convinced Hedges is the defensive asset people claim. Next, I hope they extend some young players: Shane Bieber & Steven Kwan are my first choices, but I won't be picky. Finally, I pray this team does not let the future hostage the present. The future is uncertain, but we do know that 2023 is a darn good opportunity to make a splash and a deep run into October. Who knows if 2024 will be any better?

Overall, there are lots of reasons to think 2023 will be a great year. 2022 was a lot of fun, this team has come a long way, and we cannot let the sour ending of the season cloud the sweetness we experienced this year. Baseball fandom can be contradictory, but we must take the sweet with the sour, and this year was mostly sweet.

Have a good winter everyone, and I shall spend the remainder of the MLB season rooting for whomever is playing the Yankees.

Thank's for reading! You can find more posts on my Substack, and this post here.

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