April 20, 2024

So if you’re a Guardians fan and the six-game road trip that just concluded doesn’t have you feeling inspired, I get it. Going 3-3 against what will likely be the cellar dwellers of two of baseball’s divisions (including our own division) was definitely not the desired outcome for the last week.

Last October’s playoff exuberance lurks in the shadows of what has so far been a springtime malaise for the Guardians. The aforementioned six-game road trip is really a metaphor for the entirety of the early weeks of the season.

Missed opportunities have abounded. First, there was Sunday’s controversial home plate collision rule review that allowed the Nationals to tie the game on a sacrifice fly. The call, initially in the Guards’ favor as an out at the plate, was ultimately reversed allowing Washington not just to tie the game but extend the inning where they would take the lead for good. Then there was Tuesday’s doubleheader vs. the Tigers that saw two Guardians’ rookie starting pitchers perform well enough to win ballgames but have their efforts squandered by the offense (three if you count Xzavion Curry‘s two scoreless innings out of the bullpen). Peyton Battenfield‘s outing in Game 2 (both of the doubleheader and for him as a Major League starter) was especially disheartening because the Guards would go scoreless and lose by a mere 1-0 margin. The early going has been full of these type of games. The road trip is just a microcosm.

That anemic offense carried on for a full 19 innings without a run before Jose Ramirez‘s three-run blast that would be the difference in Wednesday’s series finale against Detroit. Ultimately, the Guardians scored in a grand total of two innings in the three-game series at Comerica Park. They exit Detroit and head home to play Miami with a 10-9 record, sitting a game behind the Minnesota Twins in the American League Central Division.

To call the Guardians road trip and start the season middling sounds perfectly appropriate. Their run differential of -3 states the same. Cleveland has specialized in playing close ball games thus far. Of their 10 wins, only one came by a margin of more than two runs (their first win of the year, 9-4 vs. Seattle). They’ve already played four extra-inning games, having won all of them. Still, all these close games have been nerve-wracking, particularly when they come against seemingly lesser teams like the Nationals, Tigers and Athletics. The Guardians have averaged scoring 3.2 runs a game in their non-extra inning games and the team is 2nd worst in hitting home runs so far this year. Wins have come from scratching, clawing and holding on for dear life. Hence, the opportunity for lack of enthusiasm to creep in.

All that being said, there is definitely some reading between the lines that can be done and this season’s start is definitely not all bad. While the Guards haven’t come out of the gate with a bang, that doesn’t mean they are doomed to mediocrity or worse until the end of time. If you’re looking for some reason to be optimistic, I really think there is reason to be so. Here’s five reasons why.

For one, Josh Bell is finally starting to heat up.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3FpOBfVn7oM

Bell initially seemed to really feel the pressure of being the new guy tasked with adding thump to the middle of the Guardians lineup. He was absolutely abysmal at the plate in his first 10 games of the season where he hit a putrid .079 without a single extra-base hit. However, since Tuesday, April 11th’s game vs. the Yankees, Bell has hit .333 with seven extra-base hits in eight games including his first home run as a Guardian. His K-rate in those first 10 games was 27.5%. It has been nearly half of that at 14.7% in the last eight. Bell is hitting a lot more closely to the player the Guardians wanted to bring in this winter, and he has a track record to suggest his more recent form can stick in Cleveland.

Secondly, Triston McKenzie is throwing again and the Guardians may have found young arms to help stem the tide until his return.

McKenzie picked up a ball and began a throwing program last Friday and remains on pace for a return around the end of May. The Guardians’ righty suffered a right teres muscle strain around the end of Spring Training and has been shelved since. His presence in the Guardians rotation would be a huge boost as the team’s number two starter. In the meantime, the likes of Battenfield and Curry will have to hold down the fort. To their credit, the pair have combined to pitch to a 2.78 ERA in the early going. Fellow rookie starter Hunter Gaddis, who actually initially took McKenzie’s spot in the rotation, has struggled to a 7.64 ERA and was sent back down to the minors this week. Battenfield is filling in for the also injured Aaron Civale which means Gaddis’s demotion leaves a spot in the rotation open. One is left to wonder if Curry’s strong performance out of the bullpen, with his last appearance being on the same day Gaddis last pitched, has earned him the chance to assume the open spot in the rotation. If Battenfield, Curry or both can establish themselves as the real deal, then the Guardians will find themselves with an abundance of starting rotation talent upon the returns of McKenzie and Civale. So far, so good.

Thirdly, Myles Straw is an offensive weapon now.

Straw has been more aggressive at the plate, making more contact earlier in counts and being more willing to pull the ball on the ground than he did in an offensively disappointing 2022 campaign. Interestingly, this newfound aggressiveness hasn’t hurt his walk rate (12.9%), which is actually the highest it’s been compared to his other two seasons with the Guardians. At the same time, it seems MLB’s new rules are playing right in his favor. The lack of a shift makes it easier for Straw to leg out hits. Once he reaches first, he is poised to pilfer second. Straw is tied for 4th in baseball with seven steals thus far to go along with a strong On Base Percentage of .389. Combined with his Gold Glove-caliber defense, this could end up being the best all-around season of Straw’s career if early indications hold true.

Fourthly, I think we can relax about Emmanuel Clase and the rest of the bullpen. Perception isn’t reality.

Does anyone remember what Clase’s ERA was in 2022 thru April 30th? It was 4.91, which makes his 3.00 ERA so far this season look fine. Clase would go on to be an All-Star and arguably the most feared closer in the game last year after that slow start. There is absolutely no reason to believe he can’t repeat the process in 2023. Additionally, the Guardians bullpen as a whole feels like it has teetered on disaster for most of the early season, but that has more to do with all the close games they have played than any actual fault with the ‘pen. The Guardians sported the 7th best bullpen ERA in the game coming into Wednesday (3.10). The late innings have been white-knuckling not because of poor pitching at the back end, but because the offense to this point hasn’t left a lot of margin for error, making every run allowed a life-and-death prospect. If the offense gets hot, the perceived bullpen issue goes away.

And fifthly, lastly and most importantly, we are only 19 games into the season, people!

Some get frustrated with the “its too early to make judgments” argument, and I may be contradicting myself by talking about how great Straw/Battenfield/Curry/etc have been and then playing the small sample size card, but really, to be 10-9 after nineteen games is hardly anything to be uneasy about. The Guardians at this point last year were 7-12. They were coming off getting swept in a four-game series in Los Angeles by the Angels and were four games back in the division. The last game of that Angels series would see the team start Franmil Reyes, Owen Miller, Oscar Mercado and Ernie Clement. 12 months later, we know who our everyday second baseman, left-fielder and designated hitter are and none of them are Reyes, Miller, Mercado or Clement. Sure, the team has some holes largely caused by injuries, but the Guardians have so much more of an identity and so many fewer question marks now than this time last year. Little did we know the wild and wonderful ride that those next five months would be and all the good young ballplayers that would step up. My suggestion is to let the season breathe a little more before we even know what problems may need to be solved.

Relax and enjoy the ride. We got more than five months to go of this season, there is plenty of time for belly aching later on if it’s really merited.

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