After the improbable, almost magical, run that the young Cleveland Guardians had in 2022, anything seems possible in 2023. The majority of the roster returns, plus potentially big offensive additions with Josh Bell and Mike Zunino.
So the Guards are a year more mature and upgraded their two biggest holes, surely they’ll top their 92 wins last year, right? Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out like that. It could! But it’s hardly a guarantee.
With that in mind, let’s look at the possible best- and worst-case scenarios for what could happen. I’ll be using a mix of PECOTA projections (which can be downloaded if you’re a subscriber) and good old-fashioned making things up, as is tradition this time of year.
I want you to look at this stat line, and let it wash over you. Don’t just read through it and jump to the next paragraph. Really savor it. Let it into your soul. Breathe it.
José Ramírez (2023): 45 HR, .304/.401/.634, 191 DRC+, 9.6 WARP
That is Ramírez’s 99th percentile PECOTA projection — in other words, the best-case scenario for his projection. Almost a 10-win player on his own, with 45 home runs (six more than his previous career-high), and 91% better than the average hitter. Are you tingly? I’m tingly.
It’s unlikely to happen, of course, because this is purposefully the high-end of his projections. Just like there’s a dark pit of despair that is the low end, also known as the one percentile projections. More on that later, but we’re in happy town right now, and we’re not leaving for a bit.
Looking at a couple more 99th-percentile projections, it is extremely easy to see the Guardians winning 100 games and then some when everything goes off without a hitch — seemingly the only thing that could stop them would be some kind of supernatural force from outer space. On top of José’s incredible season, we’re talking Steven Kwan as a 6.0 WARP player, Josh Bell at 5.3 wins and belting 31 home runs (and obviously leaving for a huge payday after the season). Mike Zunino adds 30 home runs himself, Oscar Gonzalez makes his wonky plate approach work and just doesn’t stop hitting — 25 home runs, 134 DRC+, 4.0 WARP.
In this dreamland, the whole starting rotation manages to hit their 99th percentile projections. Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie form one of the best 1-2 punches in baseball. Aaron Civale figures it out and becomes a man who can throw a half-dozen pitches with ease. Zach Plesac is the best No. 5 starter in baseball. Cal Quantrill ... well, PECOTA doesn’t like him very much. But he’s still really good.
- Shane Bieber: 2.38 ERA, 207 K, 4.2 WARP
- Triston McKenzie: 2.86 ERA, 181 K, 3.0 WARP
- Cal Quantrill: 3.44 ERA, 115 K, 1.8 WARP
- Aaron Civale: 2.58 ERA, 123 K, 2.9 WARP
- Zach Plesac: 3.17 ERA, 107 K, 2.0 WARP
All of this would make the trade deadline fascinating. Do the Guardians hold onto a suddenly ace-like Aaron Civale or trade him while one of the big pitching prospects are presumably showing they are ready to take the next step? Do they trust Zach Plesac to keep being around 3.00 ERA, or is he on the verge of tanking again? Even at his top-end projections, Amed Rosario hardly turns into someone who will get a huge return for a rental, so I imagine he stays either way.
In the playoffs, Oscar Gonzalez walks off all four wins against the Yankees in the ALCS. In a joke tweet, the city of New York bans the SpongeBob Squarepants theme song from being played in city limits for 24 hours, but a Guardians fan hacks the account and changes it to a SpongeBob theme:
Needless to say, the best-case scenario for the Guardians is a World Series, bar-none. This season shouldn’t be a World Series or bust, but they can absolutely have it in their sights.
Everyone hitting their one percentile projection at the same time would be the kind of apocalyptic event that starts costing people their jobs. Even with how young the Guardians are going into 2023, this would probably be the kind of performance that makes an organization rethink its entire philosophy. It’s the worst of the worst and then some.
Dive with me into the darkness.
The Guardians don’t win a game until June.
José’s thumb injury isn’t fully healed after all and he starts off the year looking like a mess. But he’s tough and doesn’t miss a game even though he probably should.
Steven Kwan’s sophomore slump is real and, based on PECOTA’s one percentile projection, he slashes .250/.316/.339 and is a 2.3 WARP player. The lack of power finally catches up to him and he’s just some guy who walks occasionally and plays good outfield defense.
Andrés Giménez turns back into a pumpkin and can’t even get on base at a .300 clip: .228/.291/.336. The world weeps as Amed Rosario continues to get everyday playing time at shortstop despite a .248/.284/.339 slash. He bats second every game and sets a new MLB record for hitting into double plays. He and José Ramírez haven’t talked in weeks by the time the season ends.
Shane Bieber is the only starting pitcher with an ERA under 4.00. Zach Plesac eventually retires to start a YouTube vlogging channel with his two brothers.
The SpongeBob Squarepants theme is a distant memory by May, as Oscar Gonzalez falls flat on his face out of the gate and swings and misses at everything. He’s designated for assignment and is claimed by the Pirates.
Finally, midway through June, the Guardians get their first win, snapping their historically awful 0-58 start to the season. In a show of mock applause, the Terminal Tower begins to glow red, as it normally does for such monumental events.
... only it doesn’t stop. It keeps getting redder, and redder, and redder until finally, it bursts, and fires a beam into a dreary Cleveland sky. The blindingly red beam pierces the clouds and summons terrible winged beasts that descend on an unsuspecting city and its hapless baseball team.
The cap of the tower itself flowers open to reveal countless droves of midges that flow into the streets and mildly irritate everyone. Thousands of miles away, Joba Chamberlain begins to weep and he doesn’t understand why.
As if summoned to life by the terrible events unfolding around them, all four Guardians of Traffic statues in the shadow of Progressive Field shift awake and reveal their giant, stone legs that have been hidden since their creation. The tiny trains and automobiles they once held in death transform into great weapons in the blink of an eye.
The statues, along with the members of the Guardians baseball team, team up to fight the Space Beasts. A terrible battle ensues over the following days and into weeks. Games are still played, somehow, between the terrible shrieks of the beasts and the sounds of a city on the verge of being wiped from existence.
Through it all, with their foes defeated in the final hours of the regular season and billions of dollars in property damage facing the city, the Guardians finish 11-150 (one game against the Royals was postponed and never played). It’s a miracle any of them survive, but Bill from Medina calls in to 92.3 The Fan to let them know that he thinks Myles Straw is a bum and he should have been traded at the deadline before he was taken by the Space Beasts in August and never heard from again.
José Ramírez still hits 22 home runs and finishes in the top 10 in MVP voting.
Most likely scenario
The odds of every Guardians player performing to their 99th percentile or one percentile projections at the same time is basically nill. The way these things almost always turn out is that some will outperform, some will underperform, and they’ll wind up somewhere in the middle — that’s baseball, baby.
The Guardians are especially unpredictable right now because their foundation is made up of so many young players, many of which probably haven’t even debuted yet. Opening Day lineups rarely reflect what the team looks like at the end of the season, and the 2023 Guardians will be no different. But I think it’s safe to say that the Guardians have the talent to come out closer to the positive end of these scenarios than the negative.
Purely as a prediction, I think the Guardians can improve upon their 2022 season with the luck of a couple of strong debuts, Andrés Giménez potentially coming back down to earth but not completely crashing, and the pitching staff holding together until one of Gavin Williams, Tanner Bibee, Logan Allen, and/or Daniel Espino are ready. Somewhere right around their 92-wins last year, maybe a bit below with the balanced schedule, seems about right.
It’s going to be a fun ride either way. Just keep an eye on the Terminal Tower if things don’t start out great.