Let’s be frank, the AL Central is arguably the weakest division in baseball. The Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox could be good on paper and contend for the playoffs. But, based on how last season and this offseason went for either ball club, there isn’t much room for optimism.
For those who don’t remember, the Twins and White Sox were in the mix for the AL Central title. But, as the regular season ended, the Cleveland Guardians won the division by a staggering eleven games. Neither the Twins nor the White Sox was even within reach of earning a wild card bid and, in the end, the AL Central only had one representative in the postseason.
So, with that in mind, the AL Central will likely be the punching bag division again this season. It’ll be like that for a while too since the Guardians this offseason are seemingly prepared to put it in a stranglehold. This offseason, Cleveland addressed their glaring need for power at the play by signing first baseman Josh Bell and catcher Mike Zunino to team-friendly deals. Bell and Zunino’s signings still don’t stymy the opportunities waiting overwhelming amount of young talent waiting in the wings for the Guardians. Instead, it gives Cleveland the power to contend now and down the line simultaneously.
This embarrassment of riches for the Guardians is the clearest indicator that Cleveland will remain one of baseball’s more consistent divisional champions. Mind you, that consistency is already here and often overlooked. Since the Guardians hired Terry Francona for the 2013 campaign, the organization has only had one losing season in 2021, where they were only two games below .500. Sure, playoff success probably means more in the grand scheme since Cleveland has only advanced past the ALDS once under Francona. But, the fact that the Guardians are consistently there more often than not under Francona’s stewardship also means a lot.
There will be a point when Francona’s run will end since he did flirt with the idea of retirement at the end of last season. But, with eleven years in Cleveland under his belt, Francona has built a rock-solid foundation for success with President of Baseball Operations Chris Antonetti that seems almost too strong to fail for the foreseeable future. That foundation makes the Guardians the likely favorite to contend as AL Central champions this year.
But, it doesn’t just start and stop with the leading ball club either, mind you. Ripples from what Francona has built are cast all the way from Cleveland to Columbus to Akron to Eastlake all the way to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Lynchburg as well.
It’s what initially led to Cleveland signing Jose Ramirez to a contract extension before the start of last season. Ramirez’s extension was the first time in 20-plus years of ownership by the Dolan Family that they invested heavily to retain a homegrown star. It’s why the Guardians signed Emmanual Clase, one of the best relievers in baseball, to an extension last year as well.
Fast forward to now and it’s what led Cleveland to sign breakout star Andres Gimenez to a whopping seven-year, $106.5 million contract extension that includes an eighth-year club option. Giminez made his first All-Star team, won a Gold Glove and finished behind only Aaron Judge and Shohei Ohtani in the AL with 7.4 wins above replacement. He also was a crucial component in the transition from Francisco Lindor being incredibly smooth, which makes signing a homegrown star that wants to be here even sweeter for Guardians fans.
It’ll eventually lead to more signings in time, too. The team came to terms on a four-year extension with reliever Trevor Stephen on Opening Day and it’s expected that deals with shortstop Amed Rosario, pitcher Triston McKenzie and outfielder Steven Kwan will be coming soon as well. The Guardians are rewarding the talent that has made them so consistent up to this point. Again, it’s also worth noting that Cleveland has an overabundance of riches on their roster with plenty of players still on their way to make them even better.
This approach is emblematic of how Francona and Antonetti operate and have them opening up the payroll despite being the youngest teams in baseball. It’s also what the Guardians set up beautifully to contend in the AL Central for the foreseeable future. Sure, it’s a different ball game when they break through to the playoffs. But, based on how things are looking, Cleveland seems set to contend for a World Series title sooner instead of later.
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Evan Dammarell is a sports journalist covering all things Cleveland right off the shores of Lake Erie. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can also email him at [email protected] He can also be found three to five times weekly on Locked On Cavs, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network.
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