5 hopes for the Cleveland Guardians in 2022

James Karinchak, Cleveland Indians

James Karinchak #99 of the Cleveland Indians (Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images)

It’s brand-new year (and name) for the Cleveland Guardians, so here are our five hopes for the team as they embark on the 2022 season (whenever it actually starts)

For Cleveland sports, 2021 was a jam-packed year that saw an exhilarating Browns playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, a resurgent Cavaliers squad take the NBA by storm, and the Indians transform into the newly-christened Guardians. Some points across the Cleveland sports landscape have been great highs, and others have been frustrating lows.

For a Guardians squad that finished below .500 for the first time since 2012, there is a ton of potential to see the team get back above that threshold in the 2022 season. Between savvy personnel moves, better health around the organization, and the rise of youngsters through the system, there are many potential boons to the team having a bounce-back during the upcoming campaign.

Here are 5 hopes for the inaugural season of Cleveland Guardians baseball in 2022.

1. Health and durability across the organization are better in 2022 than in 2021.

The amount of injuries and shortened seasons in Cleveland and around the organization during 2021 was a major point of disappointment for Guardians fans. Starting with the man in charge, Terry Francona was forced to step away from the team on the back of health of problems that have plagued him the better part of the last two years. He should be back and ready to go in 2022, which would provide the team with stability and a better chance of competing later in the season.

On the major-league level, there was a plethora of injuries the team was forced to overcome. The pitching staff saw IL stints for most of its starting rotation, including the likes of Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac, and Aaron Civale. Josh Naylor saw his season end after a devastating and gut-wrenching collision with Ernie Clement in the outfield. Roberto Perez suffered what was essentially a lost season to injuries, and Franmil Reyes had his own bout on the IL. The end of Nick Sandlin’s season was claimed by injury as well. Having fewer high-impact injuries is not a given, but it would help the Guardians in 2022 if the health of crucial pieces (especially rotation pitchers) was better than last year.

In the minors, a couple of high-value prospects spent the end of year out of the lineup. Tyler Freeman and Nolan Jones both ended their campaigns hurt, taking away some potential time for development (albeit at the end of the season). George Valera also spent time on the IL during the year. These are three players (amongst others) that Guardians fans don’t want to see out for any extended stretches as the new season draws closer, due to their potential to contribute to the major-league club in the near-future.

Injuries are always going to be a problem over the course of a 162-game season, but we can at least hope they are far less prevalent in 2022 than they were in 2021.

2. The Guardians fortify their outfield with one (or more) new pieces. 

The Guardians have not been known for their stellar outfield play, and adding an outfielder via trade or free agency to shore up a corner spot would be a fantastic move for the front office in 2022.

Cleveland has not had a truly consistent outfield presence since Michael Brantley, but Myles Straw has the the potential to change that narrative. Getting him some help in right or left field would make a lot of sense in terms of production in the lineup. Cleveland’s outfield has a lot of defensive potential, and configurations including Oscar Mercado, Bradley Zimmer and Straw are among the strongest defensively in baseball.

That being said, the impact on the scoreboard doesn’t manifest with those three together, and Zimmer and Mercado have struggled to maintain longterm success in Cleveland. Acquiring an outfielder with defensive versatility and a plus bat (Bryan Reynolds, anyone?) would be a dynamic move to improve the team immediately.

In the free agent market (following the end of the MLB lockout), names like Michael Conforto, Nick Castellanos, and Jorge Soler are still available. Although Conforto and Castellanos may be priced out of Cleveland’s range, Soler could be interesting fit in the lineup, with a bat capable of 30+ home runs (he’s only two years removed from clubbing 48 in 2019).

Within the organization, Cleveland will have a couple of players that could step up to become contributors. Steven Kwan made waves last season between AA and AAA, hitting a combined .328 with a .407 OBP. He is in position to make a run at a spot during spring training if he can continue to hit like he did to finish out 2021. Although he probably would not make Cleveland’s roster by Opening Day, George Valera could be a possibility to debut at some point during the season.

Following the devastating injury that ended his 2021 season, Josh Naylor looks like he could be ready for the start of 2022. If he is, he could slide back into right field as a potential everyday option depending on how fast he gets back on track. When Naylor’s season ended, it seemed as if he was just getting into a rhythm, so hopefully he can make up for lost time and continue his development as a potential long-term piece in Cleveland’s outfield (or at first base depending on other factors).

3. The Guardians leave Amed Rosario at shortstop for the 2022 season.

With the talks of potential roster deficiencies in the outfield and not having a set second baseman for 2022, Amed Rosario’s name has been thrown around as a potential piece that could fill one of those vacancies.

Although this is a decision for the front office and management team to make, I personally hope to see Rosario stay at shortstop for the entirety of the 2022 campaign. After taking the job from Andres Gimenez during the 2021 season, Rosario shined and made the Francisco Lindor deal look like a win for Cleveland. Although not the greatest defensive shortstop in the organization, he slashed .282/.321/.409 and provided much-needed stability in the top third of the lineup on a daily basis.

It is worth noting that at this point, it does not seem like the organization is going to move Rosario anywhere else on the diamond. However, it is not outside the bounds of reality that he could be moved to make space for one of the up-and-coming middle infielders in the organization. I understand the idea of maximizing the value on the field and getting the most bang for your buck in the lineup, but messing with Rosario’s rhythm is not worth the risk. He played well enough in 2021 to earn the position in 2022, barring injury or a catastrophic regression on the field or at the plate.

4. James Karinchak figures it out for the Guardians in 2022.

James Karinchak started out 2021 at a torrid pace, striking out batters left and right with his plus-fastball and dynamic curveball. However, the season quickly soured when he seemed to lose his command and ability to decimate opposing lineups with the same voracity as he did in the early months of the campaign. Questions over the usage of “sticky stuff” entered the conversation with Major League Baseball’s crackdown on foreign substances taking place, and eventually Karinchak would be demoted to the minors towards the end of the season.

Karinchak was credited with 11 saves and 13 holds in 2021, but also carried five blown saves as well. With the emergence of Emmanuel Clase at the backend of the bullpen, he will at best be confined to the set-up man’s role if he can find his form again this season.

For Karinchak to get back to high-leverage usage, he must get better command of his pitches and cut down on free passes he issues to opposing batters. Throughout last season, he allowed 35 hits and walked 32 batters through 55.1 innings of work, good for 5.7 hits and 5.2 walks per nine innings. He also was dinged for nine home runs. If those numbers do not change, there may not be a consistent position for Karinchak at the backend of the bullpen.

It is worth noting that there was a much higher usage rate on his fastball in 2021 compared to 2020 and 2019, so perhaps reestablishing a better balance between that and the curveball would be a move in the right direction. Pairing better pitch usage with keeping the fastball above the letters and the curveball down around the knees would help to drive Karinchak back into the discussion about high-leverage appearances. Guardians fans certainly hope to see Karinchak return to form as 2022 gets underway.

5. A suitable Guardians-themed team nickname emerges from the woodwork.

Through the history of the Indians, “Tribe” was used interchangeably as a stand-in for the team name, a reference to the fandom, and a great piece for chants at Progressive Field. Thus far, nothing of this caliber has been applied to the Guardians. I’ve seen Paul Hoynes of cleveland.com use G-Men, but it doesn’t quite have the same staying power as Tribe did for the Indians. I’m sure we will hear various ideas come and go as the 2022 season ramps up, but one can only hope a settled-on option emerges and it’s on the same level as Tribe was for years of Cleveland’s baseball history. I know that is probably a big ask, but one can at least hope!