2022 Cleveland Guardians season preview: Key storylines, players to watch and final predictions

There's a mix of optimism and concerns when it comes to Cleveland's upcoming season.

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The last few months have been in constant flux for professional baseball at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. The organization is under a new moniker – dropping the nickname Indians after embracing it for over 100 years and adopting Guardians as their new identity. Sure, there were a few legal battles to get there but it's a new era of Cleveland baseball this season.

But, when the Guardians take the field on Thursday in Kansas City to take on the Royals, it'll still be a lot of familiar names and faces out there – for better or for worse. This season is expected to be marked by change throughout the organization, and eventually, the team's front office will catch on. The Guardians are a young team with the fourth-lowest payroll in the league and have the potential to be good this year, possibly even great.

That's all well and good, but, it's on the Guardians organization to build upon that potential and momentum towards a serious playoff threat. Unfortunately, there's also the avenue of getting younger and slowly building things out for the long-term as well. But, that's all down the line. Today, Right Down Euclid will be breaking down key storylines, players to watch as well as final predictions for the inaugural season of Cleveland Guardians baseball.

What will happen between Jose Ramirez and the Guardians?

Last week, a reader asked Right Down Euclid in a mailbag question (you can submit your questions here!) what team the Guardians should trade Jose Ramirez to. At the time, the stance here was that Cleveland should sign the All-Star third baseman to an extension and that sentiment still hasn't changed.

Ramirez is the only player on the roster earning more than $6 million this season. The club has no future salaries on the books and no player is guaranteed a cent beyond 2022. That outlook, plus a quiet offseason, equip the club with as much payroll flexibility as it possibly could have under team ownership restrictions. The two sides are expected to maintain dialogue in the coming days as they attempt to pinpoint something before Opening Day.

Well, with opening day tomorrow and nothing being announced, it's natural for Guardians fans to panic a bit. Thankfully, Ramirez is still connected to Cleveland for two seasons. He is in line to enter free agency as a 31-year-old, and if no agreement is reached, likely as a member of another organization. The Guardians would strongly consider a trade this summer if the two sides can’t strike a deal and the team is out of the playoff race.

So, more than anything, it all depends on whether or not Ramirez and the Guardians can come to an agreement. Ramirez has expressed a desire to remain with Cleveland, but that talk is drowned out while cash is always screaming. If Ramirez was to be traded, keep an eye on the Toronto Blue Jays as the team to swoop in to acquire him.

Just kidding. ESPN's MLB insider Jeff Passan has reported that Ramirez and the Guardians have agreed to a five-year, $124M contract extension:

See @JeffPassan's post on Twitter.

With Ramirez locked up, they have their best player on the payroll for years to come with tons of intriguing prospects coming as well. More about them in the next few sections.

Things will likely be different come summertime for the Guardians

Ramirez might not be the only player where Cleveland might see some shakeup this season. For the Guardians, the pitching staff and relievers’ roles will drastically change as the season unfolds. Cleveland will lean heavily on multi-inning relievers like Eli Morgan, Logan Allen and Sam Hentges to cover for the starting pitchers while they fully stretch out.

When they do, the Guardians could have one of the league's best pitching rotations. Shane Bieber is always going to be a surefire bet to remain steady but, Cal Quantrill, who posted a 1.94 ERA in the second half of last season, could push Cleveland over the edge. If the Guardians get Zach Plesac throwing as he did two seasons ago as well, on top of reining Aaron Civale in, Cleveland will be elite on the mound.

But, again, it's all hypothetical at this point and we won't truly know until we're a few weeks into the season where the Guardians stand. If they sputter out the gates, a few of those aforementioned players could be traded. Bradley Zimmer, Oscar Mercado, Yu Chang and others are all out of minor league options and could be sent packing as well. It becomes even easier to justify this with the advent of players like Gabriel Arias, Steven Kwan, Nolan Jones and plenty of others needing playing time as well. Because of this, the roster the Guardians have now could be dramatically different come summertime.

After suffering a gruesome leg injury last season, Guardians first baseman Josh Naylor is a player to watch this season for Cleveland.

Three players to watch for in Cleveland this season

  • Josh Naylor – Last season, first baseman Josh Naylor suffered a gruesome leg injury in Minneapolis against the Twins and has been slowly recovering since then. Last week, in his first at-bat in a non-minor-league game in nine months, he ripped a double to left-center, showing progress in Naylor's recovery. That's a promising sign of things to come as this is a critical year for Naylor with the Guardians. He'll spend the beginning of the season knocking off any remaining rust in the minor leagues but, he has to return to his old form in order to prove he belongs in the rotation.
  • Triston McKenzie – Cleveland pitcher Triston McKenzie has unlimited potential in his time with the Guardians, he now has to capitalize on it. McKenzie has flirted with a perfect game but, he has failed to escape the first inning at times as well. He said he feels more comfortable this spring, his third in major-league camp, and opposing hitters would likely confirm, as the 30 of them he has faced have accounted for only three hits. Now's the time for him to step up and further push Cleveland's pitching rotation to its limits.
  • Bobby Bradley – If Naylor is unable to return to form, then the path is more than clear for Bobby Bradley to become the starting first baseman for the Guardians. It would also give him a chance to prove he belongs in the batting order, too. Bradley hit .208 and slugged 16 home runs in 245 at-bats last season. The problem is he also struck out 99 times. Bradley easily has 40-homer potential with a full season, but limiting the strikeouts is a must.

Final predictions for the inaugural season of Guardians baseball

Again, this Cleveland team has the potential to be good, maybe even great depending on how this team performs. But, there are so many questions and uncertainty around things and the Guardians could end up having a fire sale this summer and fully embrace a youth movement and rebuild.

While Cleveland missed the playoffs last year, they also have finished no lower than third in the AL Central since 2012. Unfortunately, after Ramirez and Franmil Reyes bat, the offensive firepower dips considerably for the Guardians. Cleveland could grind it out with teams and win low-scoring affairs. But, with how high-powered some teams have become, it could spell a rough first season for the Guardians.

Final record: 77-85, fourth place in the AL Central


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