Cleveland Guardians: 3 biggest X factors heading into the 2023 season

Arizona Diamondbacks v Cleveland Guardians
Arizona Diamondbacks v Cleveland Guardians / Patrick Mulligan/GettyImages

The 2023 season is about to kick off, with the Cleveland Guardians squaring off against the Seattle Mariners on Thursday night. Likely the most anticipated season since 2017 when it was coming off a World Series berth, Cleveland looks primed for another, even deeper postseason run in hopes of winning its first World Series since 1948.

Boasting a young core with a talented sprinkling of veterans and a number of stud pitchers, the Guardians - favorites to win the AL Central division - have plenty to look forward to in 2023. 

But there are always questions before the start of a season. No roster is perfect, and not even the Guardians can avoid the injury bug, most recently learning that Triston McKenzie might be out for as long as two months. The catching position, of which Cleveland will carry three members, is once again in flux after the team passed on Austin Hedges and awaits the arrival of Bo Naylor. What can Josh Bell do? Which rookie will make the biggest leap? Will Mustard’s season-long struggles persist in the Sugardale Hot Dog Derby?

Plenty of questions, per usual. Below are the three biggest X-factors heading into this pivotal season.

Pitching past Shane Bieber

The recent news of McKenzie’s injury puts an already up-and-down rotation into flux to begin the season. I wrote last week that I was concerned about the lack of starting pitching depth, signaling that a rotation that included Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale - both of whom can be dominant and downright bad - was probably going to have to rely on guys like Hunter Gaddis or Konnor Pilkington at the beginning of the season before starters like Tanner Bibee and Gavin Williams are ready. 

Bieber is a lock to be in the running for the AL Cy Young award once again and looks to, if possible, improve on a stellar 2022 ERA of 2.88 and WHIP of 1.08. The possibility of a midseason trade is always there, which would further throw the starting rotation into a frenzy of uncertainty, but talks of an extension are there, too. McKenzie could slide in behind Bieber as an ace, but his teres major strain, delaying his start to the season, could throw the rotation out of whack for the first few months of the season.

Cleveland, all of a sudden, might be left with a pitching staff that lags behind its hitters. When’s the last time that was the case? 1997? So the season might hinge on whether the back half of the rotation, specifically Cal Quantrill, Plesac and Civale, can hang in it enough to be competent pitchers that don’t have major blowups on the mound. It also means new guys could quickly get forced into the fold and asked to perform, just as some of the Guardians’ 16 players who made their major-league debuts last year were asked.

Any production from the catchers?

Since the early days of Yan Gomes, Cleveland’s catching position has been a black hole in the lineup, as they’ve instead opted for defense-first catchers who struggle to eclipse the Mendoza line at the plate. After Gomes slashed .278/.313/.472 in his All-Star 2014 campaign, catchers, from Robert Perez to Hedges, have muddled along and seen short-lived careers as everyday starters behind the plate. This year, more than any in recent years, the catching position is one big question mark. Surprisingly, the Guardians opted to add three catchers - Mike Zunino, Cam Gallagher and Meibrys Viloria - to their Opening Day roster. 

Zunino was the second free-agent signing after Bell this offseason, but is coming off an injury-riddled season. Gallagher is a journeyman who has played in 117 games since 2017, and Viloria, though four years younger than Gallagher, is in a similar position. Gallagher and Viloria are likely on the roster as an insurance policy for Zunino, and Cleveland clearly believes neither Naylor nor Bryan Lavastida are ready. The question becomes whether or not a flier on Zunino will pan out, or if a rotating cast of catchers will plug up the eight-hole in the lineup and suck up the room until Naylor arrives.

The other question, and probably the more important one, is how the catchers can handle the pitching staff. Zunino is the only one with consistent major-league experience, and Naylor will continue to build his rapport in Triple-A, but Gallagher and Viloria have limited experience and might have trouble handling pitchers in the back half of Cleveland’s rotation, especially when they start struggling. The whole thing hinges on Zunino’s health and if Naylor arrives in time to contribute.

Can Andrés Giménez and Steven Kwan repeat their dominance?

Giménez and Kwan were expected to at least be pieces for the 2022 Guardians that could help them win a few games. But no one expected the seasons that those two All-Stars ended up having. Two years ago, Giménez was optioned to Columbus and told to rework his swing. Kwan essentially forced his way onto the roster and won a spot by simply getting on base. Now, one of them just signed a long-term extension. But still, one-hit wonders have happened before and hurt Cleveland in the past. 

Every indicator signals that both Giménez and Kwan are going to follow up their stellar 2022 campaigns with an even more explosive 2023 season, and Giménez has the benefit of more time in the majors and experience from the World Baseball Classic. I’m a little worried about Kwan taking a step back into a sophomore slump, leaving the outfield at greater risk for volatility than I’m sure Cleveland feels it has right now. José Ramírez is obviously the headliner for this lineup and hopefully continues to be for the next six years.

The tertiary characters in the starting nine are all up-and-coming players that basically have to perform well to keep their spot on the roster and place in Cleveland. When this lineup clicked last year, it was because it had four or five contributors that could reliably get on base and generate runs. Kwan and Giménez were catalysts for a combined 12.9 WAR, 314 hits and 121 RBIs. Cleveland should have their leadoff hitter in Kwan set and can move Giménez around wherever it feels he can contribute, even if he stays at the six or seven hole. If, in the worst case possible, both take a step back, Cleveland is going to be searching all season to replace nearly 13 wins of production, an impossible feat.