The Cleveland Guardians are back on their underdog stuff. That high of a young team hungry, clawing for each win and doing it in style has lifted the city of Cleveland to a euphoric point in the first year of the “Guardians” name. What a better way to usher in the rebrand of a team?
Now, that team at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, the one that graduated 17 prospects onto its professional field, the one that won’t quit (and frankly doesn’t know how) is heading to the playoffs. Nay, it’s steamrolling into the wild-card round.
There’s something about this team that the city likes. They’re overlooked, up and coming and cast off by the best in the prediction business. Sound familiar? Cleveland loves the underdog story, that blue-collar attitude that drives a team and reflects the city in the process. They stuck a big finger up to predictions and the industry that told them they can’t win with such a young roster, such a low payroll.
It didn’t matter: they’re here.
But there’s something eerily similar about another team Cleveland saw rise from the ashes after being cast away before the season. The 2016 season started much like 2022 did in many ways, and it’s hard not to draw comparisons when looking at this year’s group of AL Central champions.
Consider this: Prior to 2016, the then-Indians had Francisco Lindor going into his first full season. A true budding All-Star, the beginning whispers of whether or not the Indians would be able to keep him long-term surfaced, just like they did before this season with José Ramírez. Lindor wasn’t traded – though he would eventually be dealt four years later – and went on to have a stellar, Gold Glove-winning year. Ramírez signed with the Guardians for seven more years before this season and is at the top of the American League in average, RBIs and home runs.
Then compare starting lineups. Six years ago, Marlon Byrd, Juan Uribe and Collin Cowgill trotted out for Opening Day, a game the Indians lost. The trio all finished the season without a team or in a different organization. This year, Bobby Bradley, Yu Chang and Franmil Reyes made up a third of the Guardians’ Opening Day lineup. They were all designated for assignment throughout the season, and the Guardians also lost their first contest of 2022.
Next, once both teams got going into the season, there were long stretches of struggles. Both teams got off to a sluggish start in April and dropped more games than not in July. The defining factor that got both teams into playoff contention was a stellar final stretch of the season. While this 2022 Guardians team didn’t rattle off 14 straight wins like the 2016 squad did in June, they barnstormed their lineup in August and into September to put themselves in a firm position to win the division.
The similarities are glaring. Yes, there are the “fun” identifiers, such as the first playoff series seeing Cleveland as the top seed and that round two would be against an AL East opponent that is record-wise much better than Cleveland (Toronto Blue Jays in 2016 and New York Yankees in 2022).
But Cleveland has somehow created a young team with a centerpiece All-Star player, a lockdown backend of the bullpen, and a number of veterans to aid with the youth on the team. There are two consistencies in terms of personnel: Manager Terry Francona and Ramírez. Mike Chernoff and Chris Antonetti ensured those two would be the focal point of any team with a chance at the playoffs. The rest, the periphery, became players like Emmanuel Clase, Andrés Giménez and Steven Kwan. It wasn’t supposed to work. This season wasn’t supposed to be like this – this magical, this exciting. These final few games were supposed to be meaningless, and Cleveland was supposed to be reclining back to watch the rest of Major League Baseball compete for a World Series.
Then again, 2016 wasn’t supposed to work either. Yet it did. Place it on the shoulders of a Hall of Fame manager or spread it to the energy that the promotion of 17 rookies gives any team. Say Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis were too old to be on a World Series roster. Cast off a bullpen of journeymen and pitchers that started in the minors. That’s fine. They did it in 2016.
Can they do it again in 2022? Or can they do more?