CHICAGO — Guardians manager Terry Francona spent his All-Star break rearranging his drawers. He’s organized his t-shirts, his underwear, and all the other areas of his wardrobe that he neglects when the season unfolds at its usual relentless pace.
“And I loved it,” Francona said Friday afternoon from the cramped and stuffy tour director’s office at Guaranteed Rate Field.
During the four-day break, Francona watched two Liam Neeson films and the “30 for 30” documentary “Requiem for the Big East.” He caught part of the Home Run Derby, but admitted he was ‘applauding José (Ramírez) for doing OK, a bit like he did, but no further’, to avoid any risk of injury or fatigue to the star third baseman. He said he got dressed up a few times in anticipation of making plans, but ended up lounging in his downtown Cleveland apartment, preferring to do “as little as possible” instead.
He won’t get another chance to catch his breath until at least early October. The first half is in the rearview mirror, and the Guardians have more than just Francona’s dresser to settle in the final two months of the season. And, oh, by the way, AL Central is up for grabs and the trade deadline is looming. Much more on these topics this week. Daydreams…
1. Before his flight departed earlier this month for Kansas City, where he made his major league debut, Nolan Jones called Steven Kwan. Nerves swallowed Jones whole, but he knew he could rely on Kwan, an expert in meditation, mental preparation and making his Kauffman Stadium debut.
A few months earlier, Kwan was the rookie outfielder trying to catch up with Cleveland. Now he has established himself as the club’s leading hitter, having bounced back from a tough time at home plate a few months ago.
“I think that’s a sign of a guy who’s going to stick around for a long time,” Cal Quantrill said. “The league is adapting. None of us will let you beat us over and over again with the same thing. The league has adapted. He struggled a bit. He bounced back. And he’s doing exactly what he was doing at the start of the year. I think it’s almost more impressive.
Going into the nightcap of Saturday’s doubleheader, Kwan had racked up multiple hits in seven of his last 13 games.
Average and base percentage of Kwan, per month:
April: 0.354 average, 0.459 base percentage
May: 0.173 average, 0.271 base percentage
June: 0.341 average, 0.412 base percentage
July: 0.308 average, 0.349 base percentage
“It was really kind of a roller coaster,” Kwan said. “Obviously I started really high, I braked with a lot of things, I felt a doubt set in, then I had really good people around me who picked me up and came back on the momentum.”
His resurgence, coupled with Amed Rosario’s recent tear — eight multi-hit efforts in his last 10 starts — has fueled the offense. When Kwan and Rosario reach base at a sufficient clip and go wild on the bases, it sets up Ramírez and Josh Naylor with plenty of run production opportunities. The Guardians are 26-10 when Ramírez scores at least one point.
“It’s Cleveland baseball,” Kwan said. “We might not hit home runs every time, but we’ll get our way, we’ll take the extra sack, we’ll work the count. … If the three of us go, it’s going to be a problem.
2. Outfielder Alex Call was the latest goaltender to receive what Francona dubbed “being baptized,” a beer shower to celebrate his first major league success on Friday night. It’s a standard ritual this season, as 10 players made their league debuts for Cleveland in 2022.
“I’m excited for more,” said Kwan, who was the first recipient this season.
Outfielders Will Brennan and Will Benson, outfielders Gabriel Arias and Tyler Freeman, catcher Bo Naylor and starting pitchers Peyton Battenfield and Xzavion Curry are among the prospects who could be primed for an opportunity in the final two months of the schedule. But will opportunities arise?
With Kwan and Myles Straw filling two of the three outfield spots on a daily basis, that leaves only one vacancy for Nolan Jones and Oscar Gonzalez, once Gonzalez returns from the injured list. (He’s due to start a rehab assignment on Tuesday.) As long as Rosario is patrolling shortstop, there’s no room for Arias or Freeman to earn consistent playing time, especially now that Andrés Giménez has become an All Star.
“I probably came into this year thinking Giménez was elite defensively and I wasn’t really sure offensively what type of player he was,” Quantrill said. “I was blown away. He hits for power and average and plays an excellent second goal.
Arias and Freeman are already on the 40-man roster. Brennan, Benson, Naylor, Battenfield and Curry must be added in late November or the Guardians risk exposing them in the Rule 5 draft.
Another name to keep in mind: Cody Morris probably got a ticket to a spot in the bullpen either on opening day or early in the season before he injured his shoulder / upper back during spring training. It should be activated from IL in the next few weeks. He began a rehabilitation mission earlier this month in Arizona. He thinks he will make his debut at some point before the end of the season.
3. Cleveland’s bullpen is a bit of a mystery, aside from the fire-breathing dragon that occupies the mound in the ninth.
James Karinchak was the team’s ace reliever for the first half of last year, but now he’s a complete unknown, right down to his new look of long hair and tight pants. Eli Morgan has played admirably for much of the season in an unexpected setup role – before his seventh-inning hiccup on Saturday afternoon, at least – but does his future lie in the bullpen? Francona said anything is possible next year and wondered if Morgan’s success stemmed, in part, from facing the batters only once in a game, or if he could follow Quantrill and Carlos Carrasco to make a triumphant transition to the rotation.
“If you know the answer,” said Francona, “tell me.” We will do it.”
The Guardians are not a team that prioritizes the relief market in free agency, but whether they target a reliever in a trade this winter could depend on how Karinchak, Trevor Stephan, Nick Sandlin and Enyel De Los Santos s come out in the second half. Stephan could be the joker; he’s handled the eighth inning for the past few weeks, and his stats are even more encouraging than his 2.70 ERA or his strong strikeout rate. The evolution of his splitter – his opponents are hitting .171 against him – has made him much less predictable and much more effective.
Here’s one thing we can say with certainty: Bryan Shaw for a second inning against the heart of the opposition is not a recipe for success.
4. Emmanuel Clase’s goal at the All-Star Game? “To try to hit everyone,” he said. “My goal was to win the MVP of the game. Unfortunately that didn’t happen. No, he had to settle for an almost pristine inning, a five-minute clinic on how to protect an advantage from a point against a trio of All-Stars on the national stage.
(Top photo by Steven Kwan: Ken Blaze/USA Today)