Monday, March 27

Can The Cleveland Guardians Muster More Offense Than The Cleveland Indians?

Last year, in addition to getting no-hit twice in the span of 16 days, Cleveland Indians hitters were held to one or no runs in 22 games.

During the offseason Cleveland chose to stand pat offensively by not adding, through a trade or free agency, a hitter, or two, who could help the team’s anemic offense.

Thursday, on opening day in Kansas City, the Cleveland Guardians made a seamless transition to a new name and a new season while facing an old problem: a lack of hitting. The Guardians debuted with a quiet 3-1 loss to the Royals.

To the surprise of nobody, Cleveland’s only run came on an RBI double by the Guardians’ best player, third baseman Jose Ramirez, who last year drove in 103 runs, 18 more than anyone else on the team.

On Wednesday the 29-year-old Ramirez halted a long line of star players in Cleveland who have left the team either through free agency or trade, when he and the ballclub agreed on a five-year $124 million contract extension.

“We love Jose being the leader of our club and representing us in every way. He checks all the boxes,” said manager Terry Francona.

How important to the Guardians is Ramirez? Well, last year he belted 36 home runs and stole 27 bases, and he has finished in the top three in the American League MVP voting in three of the last five years.

To further appreciate Ramirez’s importance to the Guardians, consider the other players in Cleveland’s opening day lineup Thursday, with their batting averages last year in parenthesis: shortstop Andres Gimenez (.218), catcher Austin Hedges (.178), second baseman Yu Chang (.228), first baseman Bobby Bradley (.208), designated hitter Franmil Reyes (.254), left fielder Amed Rosario (.282), and center fielder Myles Straw (.285).

The only newcomer was rookie right fielder Steven Kwan, who in Thursday’s loss had two walks and a single in his four plate appearances. The 24-year-old left-handed hitting Kwan, who was added to the major league roster during the offseason, hit his way not just onto the opening day roster, but into the opening day lineup with a blistering spring training.

Kwan did not strike out in 34 spring training plate appearances, while hitting .469 (15-for-32), with a .500 on-base percentage and .531 slugging percentage. That was business as usual for Kwan, who in three minor league seasons after being selected by Cleveland in the fifth round of the 2018 draft, has never hit below .300.

The arrival of Kwan on the big-league roster appears to have triggered a changing of the Guardians in the team’s outfield. Following Thursday’s game Cleveland announced that outfielder Bradley Zimmer had been traded to Toronto for pitcher Anthony Castro.

Zimmer was Cleveland’s first-round pick in the 2014 draft, but was never able to get his career off the ground. In his five years with the Guardians, Zimmer hit just .225 with over 200 more strikeouts (286) than walks (71). In spring training this year, he hit .156 (5-for-32), with 16 strikeouts and one walk.

Ramirez wasn’t the only Guardians player to get a contract extension as the season began. Cleveland also locked up closer Emmanuel Clase with a five-year $20 million deal. The 24-year-old right-hander had a 1.29 ERA and was tied for fifth in the American League with 24 saves last year. Opposing hitters batted .209 against him, and he held left-handed hitters to a .179 average.

The new deals for Ramirez and Clase are significant and important. But neither deal addresses the Guardians’ biggest need, which was on display again in the season-opening loss to Kansas City – a lack of hitting.

In the 3-1 loss, Indians hitters were 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position, and they left nine men on base in a two-run loss.

FanGraphs’ ATC Projections projects Cleveland for 79 wins and a third-place finish in the AL Central. That would be Cleveland’s fewest wins and lowest finish in the division since 2012.

The signings of Ramirez and Clase to long-term deals are encouraging, but neither adds a much-needed bat to the lineup, it only prevents the team from losing its biggest bat, Ramirez’s.

Thus, the Guardians’ biggest need at the end of the 2021 season remains its biggest need at the start of the 2022 season: a lack of productive bats.

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