Francona, Guardians aim to be best they can be amid higher expectations

Jan. 21—The ante has been upped for the Cleveland Guardians.

A year ago, the Guardians shot past most everyone's expectations when they were 92-70, won the American League Central by 11 games thanks to a torrid finish, and took the Yankees to the brink of elimination in the ALCS.

The Guardians, the youngest team in Major League Baseball in 2022, were the feel-good story of professional baseball by most accounts.

They don't want to settle for being a feel-good story in 2023.

As fans crammed into the GuardsFest festivities at the Cleveland Convention Center on Jan. 21, Manager Terry Francona and the player in attendance said they have every ambition of showing that they weren't just a flash-in-the-pan team a year ago that will settle for the same this season.

Buoyed by a young roster, a dominating pitching staff and a pair of key offseason acquisitions, the Guardians will head off to spring training in Goodyear, Ariz., in a few weeks intent on one-upping the achievement of the 2022 campaign.

"It started about a minute after the tough loss to the Yankees," Francona said of the 5-1 loss last October. "I wanted them to know (2023) couldn't be just another feel-good story. I knew just about everybody was going to be coming back. Where do we take it from here?

"I wanted them to hear it right then and there because I wanted them to think about it during the winter. Now that we're coming back for another year, the object isn't to talk about last year, it's to take our experience from last year and see how it can make us better this year."

The Guardians return their entire starting rotation from a year ago in Shane Bieber, Tristan McKenzie, Cal Quantrill, Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale. The Emmanuel Clase-led bullpen is also chocked full of experience from a year ago.

PHOTOS: Cleveland Guardians' Guards Fest, Jan. 21, 2023

The only real changes are on the offensive side. Slugger Josh Bell was signed via free agency to play first base and designated hitter, while 2021 All-Star Mike Zunino was signed to replace light-hitting-but-great-game-caller Austin Hedges behind the plate.

Those additions were carefully thought through, said team president Chris Antonetti.

"Bringing in Josh Bell, a switch-hitter who controls the strike zone well, fits somewhere in the middle of our lineup and gives us another switch-hitter to lengthen out our lineup and protect us against lefties and righties. He's a good compliment to what we have."

Bell said he figures to slot into the lineup right behind All-Star third baseman Jose Ramirez.

"I'm going to have countless opportunities to drive in runs, whether they are from first or third," said Bell, who signed a two-year deal this offseason.

Bell is coming off a 2022 season in which he batted .266 with a career-high 147 hits, 29 doubles, 17 home runs and 71 RBI.

"It's exciting," outfielder Steven Kwan said of Bell's addition. "He's a really intimidating guy. You want as many tough guys on your team as possible to strike fear into the other team.

"(Such signings) shows we're trying to win."

Zunino missed most of last season with an injury, but was an All-Star in 2021 when he hit 33 home runs.

"I think we've shared openly how much we value defense behind the plate and leadership of a pitching staff," Antonetti said. "He comes with an extraordinary reputation as a great leader and great defender."

The big key will be not settling for last year's standards, when the Guardians took the league by storm with hustle plays, aggressive base-running and an infectious love of the game.

"I think last year the first day of spring, Rosey (Amed Rosario) got on first and went from first to third on Day 1," Josh Naylor said. "I was like, 'All right. This is what we're going to do.'"

That effort didn't change the rest of the season. Nor will it be going forward.

Naylor said the team fed off of how the team was counted out last season because of a young roster with minimal experience.

"We kind of proved everyone wrong in a way when we went semi-deep in the playoffs," he said. "We had fun through the entire year and won our division. I don't think anyone thought we'd do half of that."

This year, the Guardians want more.

It won't be easy. A balanced schedule means the Guardians won't be able to fatten up on AL Central wins as much as before. Francona said that is challenging yet fair.

On top of that, the Guardians won't be sneaking up on anyone this year, having blown their cover with their breakout season in 2022. External expectations will be greater.

"That doesn't matter," Francona said. "What matters is what WE think in that room. And I know they think they can win. That's what matters to us."

Goals haven't changed.

"Same as they always are," Francona said. "Try to be the best team we can be. You don't know what's going to happen, what adversity might come your way. .. If you show up every day and be the best you can, we'll figure it out.

"I tell them, if we're all going the same direction, even if it's the wrong direction, if we're doing it together, we'll figure it out."