'Our expectations are to win': Low-budget Cleveland Guardians not sneaking up on anyone in 2023

GOODYEAR, Ariz. – Cleveland Guardians manager Terry Francona hoped to get to their spring training complex early this one morning, but there was a problem.

He couldn’t find the key fob to his car.

He searched everywhere in his hotel room.

Nothing. He finally gave up, and telephoned Mike Barnett, the Guardians video replay coordinator, for a ride.

“I didn’t panic at first,’’ Francona says. “I know there’s a way to start your car when your fob is dead. But then I realized you have to have a fob.

“It’s an unsettling feeling.’’

Yes, just like when he decided to cook some pasta in his microwave the first week of camp, only not nearly long enough.

“It was frozen at the bottom,’’ Francona said.

Only he didn’t realize it until he started chewing so hard that he broke a chunk off his back molar.

“I started chewing,’’ he says, “and then I said, 'That tastes awful.’ Not only did I swallow the tooth, I chewed it.’’

And all of this drama comes on the heels of having his beloved scooter stolen in downtown Cleveland in late January.

“It can only happen to me, right?’’ Francona says, shaking his head, laughing. “It’s been that kind of spring.’’

Well, the truth is that this is a spring in which Francona has shown new life, new energy and gusto. This is the healthiest he has felt in years. He ditched his walking boot, tossed away his crutches, and gave away his electric golf cart.

There’s just something about managing a young, talented and athletic team, believing it can go where no Cleveland baseball team has gone since 1948.

“This is as energetic as I’ve seen him,’’ said Guardians GM Mike Chernoff, “in the 11 years he’s been here. It is really, really fun to see. And so good for our team. People feed off that energy that he brings.

“But even when he was in tremendous pain, and not doing well, he’s still really, really good, and in my opinion, the best manager in baseball.’’

Francona has been a walking medical billboard the past five years. He needed heart surgery in 2017. He managed just 14 games in 2020 with gastrointestinal and blood-clotting problems. He missed the final 63 games of 2021 to undergo hip replacement surgery along with surgery on his left foot for a staph infection. And he spent most of last season in a walking boot and crutches with a rod placed in his left foot to combat the staph infection.

Guardians third baseman Jose Ramirez looks to bring a championship to Cleveland.
Guardians third baseman Jose Ramirez looks to bring a championship to Cleveland.

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“These last three years have been hard as hell,’’ Francona told USA TODAY Sports, “probably to the point of, 'God, Can I do this? Should I do it? Am I shorting the organization?'

“I’m dragging that boot on. I’m on crutches. It was just getting hard. I was putting too much on the coaches. I leaned on them too much, it wasn’t fair.’’

Francona, health issues and all, still won the American League manager of the year award, stunning the baseball world a year ago by leading the low-budget Guardians to the American League Central title, their sixth postseason appearance in 10 years.

No one outside that clubhouse expected the Guardians to win the division.

Now, they’ve got bigger things in mind.

“After what we did last year,’’ Guardians reliever Eli Morgan said, “winning the World Series is definitely our goal this year. We couldn’t say that with a straight face before the season last year. Our goal was just to have fun, and the success followed. Now we’re thinking, “let’s actually do the whole thing this year.’’

The youngest team in baseball, playing the game with with a relentless, aggressive style, believe now they can go toe-to-toe with anyone. This is a team that had the fewest strikeouts in the major leagues, led all baseball in infield hits, and went from first to third on singles more than any other team.

“Last year proved to us that we can compete at that level,’’ said Guardians starter Triston McKenzie, who will open the year on the injured list with a right shoulder strain,  “even though everybody doubted us and said we were too young. But that’s what fueled us, proving people wrong.

“It proved to us that we can win the ship. We’re going into this year with even more confidence.’’

The only difference this time around, is that they won’t be sneaking up on anyone, not after winning 92 regular-season games, and pushing the New York Yankees to the limit before losing in the AL Division Series.

Certainly, the Guardians seized the Chicago White Sox’s attention, and made their bold prediction of a Guardians’ late-season collapse look absurd. The Guardians instead ran away with the division in September, winning it by 11 games over Chicago.

“Cleveland is the most unselfish team I saw last year,’’ White Sox veteran starter Lance Lynn said. “They play the game hard. They catch the ball. They run the bases. They pitch. They’re not afraid to do anything in the box. They put the bat on the ball. And they score runs."

Says White Sox reliever Aaron Bummer: “Look, those guys are hungry. They went out there and took the division. Whether it was overachieving or underachieving, they went out there and took it. That’s all that matters.’’

The Guardians, who had 17 players make their major-league debut last season, say it was a New York scuffle with fans that brought their team together.

It was just the second week of the season, in the aftermath of a Yankees’ walk-off victory, when Guardians outfielders found themselves dodging a barrage of beer cans and bottles thrown at them from the bleachers, with Myles Straw climbing the outfield fence to confront a fan.

“That really sparked our team,’’ Guardians starter Zach Plesac said. “It showed how everybody had each other’s backs. We rallied around each other. We were down to get dirty. It was crazy.

“We were a bunch of hoodlums, a bunch of young kids, running around, stealing bases, diving for balls, and winning.’’

They morphed from a team littered with rookies just trying to stay in the big leagues into a close-knit fraternity. They played cards before games, golfed together on off-days, and ate out together on the road.

They stayed in touch with each other during the winter, and arrived this spring vowing to continue their fun through October, and become the last team standing.

“There’s a different feel in here because now all of the guys in here have been together, and know each other a lot more,’’ Plesac said. “I think we really surprised ourselves last year, but now we can see what the reach is, and I think [the World Series] is more attainable to us.

“We’re going to play the same game of baseball, but now we’re just going to get better at it.’’

Says ace Shane Bieber: “I mean, a lot of people were saying we overachieved, but I think we had higher expectations for ourselves.’’

Cleveland still has one of baseball’s smallest payrolls at $91 million, but they brought in some power with the signing of first baseman Josh Bell, who has hit 81 homers the past three full seasons, along with veteran catcher Mike Zunino. They also were uber-aggressive pursuing Oakland A’s catcher Sean Murphy, offering several of their top prized prospects, only for Oakland to instead trade him to Atlanta.

“We were in it heavy,’’ Chernoff said. “Real heavy.’’

It reveals how much the Guardians’ front office is committed to winning a World Series title before Francona hangs up his spikes, even if it means trading some of their future stars from their elite farm system – ranked fourth by Baseball America and MLB Pipeline – for immediate help.

“I remember in our first meeting last year saying, 'Hey, we’re going to be really young,’’’ Francona said. “That’s kind of the elephant in the room, but we can’t let that get in the way of us competing. And we never did.

“I never dealt with that many young players before. Sometimes, you get 15 young guys, it can almost feel like the minor leagues. But it didn’t. We didn’t do any babysitting. Instead of saying, 'God, we were too young,’ at the end of the year, well, we weren’t.

“So, this spring, I said the same thing, but you’re going to be asked different questions because we did win. But I explained to them don’t think you can just show up and think we’re going to be good and it’s going to happen again. It doesn’t work that way.

“Our expectations are to win, just like last year, but now we’re trying to win even more.’’

There’s really no reason why the Guardians can’t be a World Series contender. They have one of the game’s premier talents in third baseman Jose Ramirez. Bieber is a perennial Cy Young candidate after winning it in 2020. Emmanuel Clase is the greatest closer in the American League. And they have plenty of versatility, depth and a loaded farm system.

“I think we have a top-to-bottom complete team that can do some damage in any series,’’ starter Aaron Civale said. “It’s not super reliant on any one thing. Everybody’s hungry.

“And we got a Hall of Fame manager.’’

Francona, of course, was the manager who ended the 86-year curse in Boston when they won the World Series in 2004, and again in 2007, and still vividly remembers those duck boat parades.

“I was so freakin’ cold,’’ Francona said. “I leaned over to Jack McCormick, our traveling secretary, and said, 'Geez, I wish we had lost. I was freezing.'

“Obviously, I didn’t really feel that way, but I’d sure love to know how it would feel doing it in Cleveland.’’

Can he possibly imagine what it would feel like winning it all in Cleveland, where his dad, Tito Francona, played for six years and earned an All-Star berth?

“The cool thing about emotions is that you don’t know what it would feel like until it happens,’’ said Francona, the longest active tenured manager in baseball. “But I mean, there are so many reasons I would love to win one. It’s Cleveland. My first six years of my life were in Cleveland. My dad played there. I have so many close people there.

“I’m telling you that if we ever won, and if they have the parade, I might just keep going.

“They might have to come and get me.’’

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Low-budget Guardians have 'higher expectations' in 2023