Young (kinder) Guardians quickly developing into contenders

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CLEVELAND — It’s still three hours from the scheduled first pitch and the young Cleveland Guardians are already playing games.

Meet the kinder-Guardians.

Jumping on an electric scooter, pitcher Triston McKenzie rolls by a ping-pong table and barely taps the brakes while jetting past the Mario Kart arcade game, whose joystick is often manned by All-Star third baseman Jose Ramirez.

In the corner, utilityman Ernie Clement fires shots on a Nerf basketball court with a 3-point line taped to the clubhouse carpet. The team’s trash-talking chess club will get a match going soon, and a card game will break out before the Guardians take the field.

“This is absolutely as much fun as I’ve ever had, and it’s not just the team,” said catcher Austin Hedges, who at 29 is one of Cleveland’s oldest players. “We enjoy each other and pull for each other. There’s no cliquey-ness.

“I don’t think that happens in every clubhouse.”

Under manager Terry Francona, baseball’s youngest team – the Guardians’ average batting age (26.1) and average pitching age (26.5) are below Triple-A averages – is having fun while also developing into a playoff contender sooner than expected.

They’re a work in progress, but making strides.

“We’re so young,” said the 63-year-old Francona, invigorated by his team’s youth in his 10th season with Cleveland after health issues sidelined him the previous two. “But that’s not an excuse. When you have youth, you have some enthusiasm that comes with it.

“We make mistakes, but we don’t play dumb baseball. I get a kick out of that.”

The Guardians reached the All-Star break at 46-44, only two games behind first-place Minnesota in the AL Central despite an uneven unofficial first half that included scheduling challenges due to wet weather.

Perhaps it was fitting their last game before the break was postponed – Cleveland’s ninth home rainout.

And while they lack household names or national TV appearances, the Guardians, whose solid first half could prompt the front office to make moves at the Aug. 2 trading dealing, are a team to watch, both this season and beyond.

In Ramirez, they’ve got one of the game’s best all-around players and he’s under contract through 2028 after signing a seven-year, $141 million deal. Ramirez hit the break leading the AL with 75 RBIs.

Second baseman Andres Gimenez, acquired last year when Cleveland sent Francisco Lindor to the New York Mets, made the All-Star team in his first full season and has the look of a perennial star.

Shane Bieber anchors a starting staff that hasn’t been as good as advertised, but the bullpen’s loaded with power arms, none bigger than 24-year-old flamethrower Emmanuel Clase, the team’s third All-Star selection.

Cleveland’s minor league system is stocked and the arrival of minority owner David Blitzer – he also has ownership stakes in the Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Devils and soccer clubs in the U.S. and Europe – could lead to a significant bump in payroll.

This season was supposed to be about development, but the Guardians have played their way into contention. They just might stay there.

They’ve already had 10 players make their major league debuts in 2022 with rookie outfielders Steven Kwan, Oscar Gonzalez and Nolan Jones all making positive contributions.

“It’s impressive,” New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone said during a recent series in Cleveland. “They’re kind of coming of age. They’re athletic. They have a lot of young, interesting players that are turning out to being winning players, winning pieces.”

The Guardians’ style is unorthodox in today’s swing-for-the-fences-or-bust game. They’ve only hit 71 homers, third fewest in the majors. But with a patient approach at the plate, they attack in smaller ways, using a base-to-base approach that has worked.

And they don’t quit.

Following fiery first baseman Josh Naylor‘s lead as he makes his own comeback from a gruesome leg injury, Cleveland has posted 19 come-from-behind wins. After a recent walk-off homer, Naylor head-butted a helmeted Francona, bending his glasses.

“They might not show us on SportsCenter for very long, but if we’re winning, it doesn’t really matter,” said right-hander Cal Quantrill. “I feel like we’ve kind of bought into that. We’ll do things the right way. We’re going to grind, we’re going to continue to play good baseball after the fifth inning, we’re going to really show up and do things the right way.”

Teaching while trying to contend can be tricky, but Francona appears to be threading the needle.

“Patience is the key when you’re managing and allowing the mistakes to happen,” Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “Keep a positive environment when guys are breaking in and let players be themselves. Tito is one of the best at it, from afar.

“I’ve never been in the clubhouse with him. But seeing the joy his teams play with it’s no secret that he’s got a special touch with young players while maintaining a pretty high standard for his veteran players.”

Along the way, there have been growing pains.

A 7-2 road stretch was followed by a 1-6 slide, and when the Guardians recently dropped four straight in Detroit, postseason chatter dissipated. Cleveland, though, closed the first half with three wins in a row, and an 11-game trip against the White Sox, Red Sox and Rays after the break will be pivotal.

Whatever lies ahead, one thing is certain: the Guardians will have fun doing it.

“We all love and respect each other, and enjoy hanging out together,” said McKenzie. “That’s what makes this team so great.”

Texas Rangers ink free-agent ace Jacob deGrom to 5-year deal

Jacob deGrom
USA Today

ARLINGTON, Texas — Jacob deGrom is headed to the free-spending Texas Rangers, who believe the health risk is worth the potential reward in trying to end a six-year run of losing.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner agreed to a $185 million, five-year contract Friday, leaving the New York Mets after nine seasons – the past two shortened substantially by injuries.

“We acknowledge the risk, but we also acknowledge that in order to get great players, there is a risk and a cost associated with that,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said. “And one we feel like is worth taking with a player of Jacob’s caliber.”

Texas announced the signing after the 34-year-old deGrom passed his physical. A person with direct knowledge of the deal disclosed the financial terms to The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the club did not announce those details.

The Rangers were also big spenders in free agency last offseason, signing shortstop Corey Seager ($325 million, 10 years) and second baseman Marcus Semien ($175 million, seven years).

The team said deGrom will be introduced in a news conference at Globe Life Field next week following the winter meetings in San Diego.

“It fits in so many ways in terms of what we need,” Young said. “He’s a tremendous person. I have a number of close friends and teammates who played with Jacob and love him. I think he’s going to be just a perfect fit for our clubhouse and our fans.”

Texas had modest expectations after adding Seager, Semien and starter Jon Gray ($56 million, four years) last offseason but still fell short of them.

The Rangers went 68-94, firing manager Chris Woodward during the season, and then hired Bruce Bochy, a three-time World Series champion with San Francisco. Texas’ six straight losing seasons are its worst skid since the franchise moved from Washington in 1972.

Rangers owner Ray Davis said the club wouldn’t hesitate to keep adding payroll. Including the $19.65 million qualifying offer accepted by Martin Perez, the team’s best pitcher last season, the Rangers have spent nearly $761 million in free agency over the past year.

“I hate losing, but I think there’s one person in our organization who hates losing worse than me, and I think it’s Ray Davis,” Young said. “He’s tired of losing. I’m tired of losing. Our organization is tired of losing.”

After making his first start in early August last season, deGrom went 5-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 11 outings. He helped the Mets reach the playoffs, then passed up a $30.5 million salary for 2023 and opted out of his contract to become a free agent for the first time.

That ended his deal with the Mets at $107 million over four years, and deGrom rejected their $19.65 million qualifying offer in November. New York will receive draft-pick compensation for losing him.

The fan favorite becomes the latest in a long line of ace pitchers to leave the Mets for one reason or another, including Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and David Cone.

The Rangers visit Citi Field from Aug. 28-30.

When healthy, deGrom is perhaps baseball’s most dominant pitcher. His 2.52 career ERA ranks third in the expansion era (since 1961) behind Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw (2.48) and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (2.19) among those with at least 200 starts.

The right-hander is 4-1 with a 2.90 ERA in five career postseason starts, including a win over San Diego in the wild-card round this year that extended the Mets’ season. New York was eliminated the next night.

A four-time All-Star and the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, deGrom was a ninth-round draft pick by the Mets in 2010 out of Stetson, where he played shortstop before moving to the mound. He was slowed by Tommy John surgery early in his career and didn’t reach the majors until age 26.

Once he arrived, though, he blossomed. He helped the Mets reach the 2015 World Series and earn a 2016 playoff berth before winning consecutive NL Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019.

But injuries to his elbow, forearm and shoulder blade have limited him to 26 starts over the past two seasons. He compiled a career-low 1.08 ERA over 92 innings in 2021, but did not pitch after July 7 that year because of arm trouble.

DeGrom is 82-57 with 1,607 strikeouts in 1,326 innings over nine big league seasons. He gets $30 million next year, $40 million in 2024 and 2025, $38 million in 2026 and $37 million in 2027. The deal includes a conditional option for 2028 with no guaranteed money.

The addition of deGrom gives the Rangers three proven starters along with Gray and Perez, who went 12-8 with a career-best 2.89 ERA in his return to the team that signed him as a teenager out of Venezuela. Young didn’t rule out the addition of another starter.

With several holes on their starting staff, the Mets have shown interest in free agents Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodon to pair with 38-year-old Max Scherzer atop the rotation.

Now, with deGrom gone, signing one of those two could become a much bigger priority.