CLEVELAND (AP) — The scripted name atop the giant scoreboard at Progressive Field is new. So are the team’s caps and jerseys, signaling a fresh start for Cleveland baseball in 2022.
Everything else pretty much looks the same.
This isn’t so much a rebranding as a replay.
No longer known as the Indians for the first time in 107 years, the Guardians enter this season with expectations nearly as low as their payroll.
Cleveland didn’t throw money at free agents — the club rarely does — like the big-market clubs or make any substantial trades, so the Guardians will again count on a strong starting rotation led by Shane Bieber, third baseman José Ramírez’s perennially productive bat and hope some young players develop quickly to be competitive in the AL Central.
That’s the plan, anyway. It’s worked before.
“We need guys to take advantage of the opportunities that are in front of them,” team President Chris Antonetti said during camp in Arizona. “And to the extent they’re able to do that, we think it could make for an exciting year.”
Something needs to get the ball rolling for the Guardians, who had a splash-less offseason.
While the team’s name change from Indians was finalized following last season, it still isn’t sitting well with some Cleveland fans. Also, the club’s inability to upgrade the roster this winter — after the team’s first losing season in nine years — has increased criticism toward owner Paul Dolan.
Antonetti said the team swung in free agency, but missed.
Beyond its fan base, the Guardians took shots from Giants outfielder Joc Pederson — he was on Cleveland’s radar — and White Sox pitcher Dallas Keuchel, who aimed their remarks at the Guardians and other teams who don’t spend.
The backlash was nothing new to Antonetti.
“I probably shouldn’t be in the chair I’m in if I’m too sensitive to criticism,” he said. “It doesn’t really impact us. I think what we’re focused on is what’s the best thing for us to do for our organization.
“Our objectives haven’t changed. If I was going to ask you what our payroll was in 2016, no one cares. What they remembered is that we played in Game 7 of the World Series. Our goal is how do we find a way to win that last game.”
Things are already looking up for Cleveland. Manager Terry Francona is back after being sidelined most of the past two seasons with serious health issues.
As they get comfortable with their new name, the Guardians will deal with growing pains in ‘22 — maybe a lot of them.
Another positive is Bieber, the 2020 Cy Young winner. He’s fully recovered after making just 16 starts last season due to a shoulder strain.
The 26-year-old anchors a starting staff featuring Aaron Civale, Zach Plesac, Triston McKenzie and Cal Quantrill, who went 7-1 in the second half of last season.
Bieber is under contractual control with the Guardians through 2024, and while the team would like to sign the right-hander to a long-term extension, there doesn’t seem to be much momentum for that to happen.
Ramírez has established himself as one of baseball’s best all-around players, and it might be time he got paid like it.
The 29-year-old has expressed interest in spending his entire career with Cleveland, and his representatives have talked with the Guardians about that.
Ramírez will make $26 million over the next two years, an absolute steal for a three-time All-Star who affects the game at the plate, in the field and on the bases.
ROOKIE TO WATCH
Steven Kwan puts the bat on the ball, and that goes a long way for Francona.
“In an age of baseball where swing and miss is pretty prevalent, he doesn’t miss a lot,” Francona said. “It’s really refreshing.”
The 24-year-old Kwan had an impressive spring and may be on the opening-day roster. Kwan batted a combined .328 at Double- and Triple-A last season, and the Guardians think the 5-foot-9, 170-pounder can help them now.
“When you look at him it’s easy to sell him short maybe when you look at his stature. But if you can get past that, (Dustin) Pedroia seemed to find a way to do it,” Francona said, referring to Boston’s former scrappy All-Star infielder. “I know not everybody can, but there are guys that can still be good players. Steven is going to be one of those guys.”