On the first day of spring training, Terry Francon called out Jose Ramirez to a meeting. That conversation between a manager and his star third baseman back in March set the tone for the amazing success of the youngest team in baseball, the Cleveland Guardians, who are on the verge of winning the Central American League.
Francona asked the ultra-talented Ramirez to just play hard and passionately for the upcoming season because the Guardians weren’t built to make the playoffs.
“I told him, ‘This is how we should play, everyone is following your lead,'” Francona recalled, sitting in the visitor’s dugout at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago earlier this week. “And I said, ‘If you don’t do this, I can’t ask a bunch of young guys to do this.'”
His teammates already knew that Ramirez played with “burning hair” and they followed suit, specializing in baseball built on contact, base management and defensive play, which is atypical for 2022.
The results were almost historic for a roster of players with an average age of just 26. The Guardians are on track to become the youngest team in the wild card era to not only make the playoffs but win the division.
“I don’t know if it’s possible to compete in age,” Francona said.
And even before the team proved anything this season, Cleveland management knew one thing about their roster in 2022: it would be full of opportunities for a group of talented young players.
“We made some deliberate decisions, even coming back in the offseason, to give some of these young players the opportunity to come out and do their part,” Baseball Operations President Chris Antonetti said. “To their credit, many of them have stepped up and made a significant impact.”
But, as Francona says, no one has a “crystal ball” and it took shape faster than anyone could have expected. With the possible exception of the very star player of the Guardians.
“These guys are very talented,” Ramirez said through the team’s interpreter. “They won a lot in junior high so they know how to win. I’m not surprised by their performance this year.”
Second baseman Andres Jimenez, shortstop Amed Rosario, and left fielder Steven Kwan are three of those players who made big contributions at a young age.
The two fielders came to Cleveland together in a blockbuster trade for Francisco Lindor, while Kwan was a little-known fifth-round pick in 2018. fewer times than any team in large companies.
“It’s nice to see baseball like this,” Kwan said. “It all starts with Tito [Francona]. He felt that if we have a chance, we have to play the game right. We took it to heart.”
Kwan called Francona a “goat” for his management style. According to those who know him best, one of the best things about the 63-year-old veteran coach is his ability to adapt the team to maximize its strengths and minimize its weaknesses.
The young Guardians learned how to win baseball through the hardships of a long season. It’s not an easy task, and Francona pushed her when the moment called for it. Kwan remembered the time after the victory over Minnesota.
“He called me into his office, which he doesn’t usually do,” Kwan said. “And he opens the video and it’s a runner in first place and I hit the single from the right. The runner goes from first to third, the right fielder dribbles, and I stand in first.
“He asks me why I didn’t take second base? I told him that I didn’t have any strokes at the time and I got to the first one and I was happy to be there. He’s like, “No baby, that’s not what we are” oh. If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it right.”
“It stayed with me.”
Interspersed with these instructive moments, the Cleveland Club was filled with lively celebrations, fueled by several dramatic victories, including several big wins coming from behind and side cases. Perhaps nothing defined Cleveland’s season better than a thriller in early May, when the Guardians used a six-run ninth to tie the White Sox 8-8 before a three-run 11th sealed the deal. An emotional Josh Naylor hit a home run in both innings, and it proved to the youth in Cleveland that they could take on the reigning division winner.
Those kinds of wins have begun to pile up, including last Saturday’s 15-inning win over Minnesota and another 11-inning win Tuesday in Chicago. In fact, the Guardians beat their division rivals throughout the season, going 24–13 combined against their closest rivals and 12–4 in extra innings overall.
“Everyone says we shouldn’t be doing this,” starter Shane Bieber said. “And maybe that was the story that came before. But not right now. It’s a different kind of baseball and we like to play it and we do it very well.”
Bieber smiled and nodded his head when Ramirez’s name came up. Conversations in the club often return to the five-tool player.
“What I find so special and invaluable about him is the way he plays the game,” Bieber said. “It’s hard to put into words. For our superstar to play the way he plays, with such infectious energy, and putting his body at risk every day with the intent to win, he really sets the tone.”
Ramirez is a first to third machine, and that’s another way he epitomizes the Guardians’ unique baseball brand. In their just-concluded streak against the White Sox, the Cleveland nearly knocked them out of contention for the division title.
“It can be a little frustrating for our opponents and with so many young guys watching him. [Ramirez] such a fuss, they think, “Why can’t I do this?” Bieber said.
They can and have. No wonder the Guardians are leading the league, rising from first to third in singles. This is just one trait that prepared them for the October run. Cleveland has five players with 15 or more stolen bases, the most in baseball and the most in a franchise since 1919.
“They are young, but they do not back down from challenges,” Francona said. “Everything we tried to live, they try to do.”
Shaw believes that the groundwork was laid years ago when Cleveland was going through its last window of contention. It included participation in the World Series in 2016. Several current players were in junior highs or joining the organization at the time and are now on the verge of getting their first chance to play in the postseason.
“Tito was at the helm throughout the race,” Shaw said. “We won, and everyone saw how it was done. Now it’s happening again.”