How the Guardians grew up to become baseball's most surprising division winner

Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire

The Cleveland Guardians weren't supposed to be here -- not yet. They entered the season with the youngest roster in MLB, at least a season or two behind a Chicago White Sox team that many pundits believed would run away with the American League Central race.

And yet, here they are, after taking the division with 92 wins and sweeping the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL Wild Card Series, now facing off against the New York Yankees in the division series.

Their unexpected success can be attributed to a number of things: smart promotions from the front office and successful debuts from many of the franchise's 25-and-under crowd. But, most importantly, the presence of a bona fide superstar in veteran Jose Ramirez -- the heart and soul of the team and a man who, in early April, was hours away from being traded.

On the final day of spring training, the Guardians' front office had hit its deadline -- if it couldn't get a contract extension done with its All-Star third baseman that day, he was going to be traded before Opening Day. The San Diego Padres, among other contenders, were waiting for a call.

Team interpreter Agustin Rivero, who was coaching first base in a split-squad game that afternoon, was pulled away for one last conversation between the player and his front office, and to help Ramirez share his take: He wanted to stay in Cleveland.

"I'm so grateful Jose wanted to be here, and he made that a priority," Guardians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said during wild-card weekend. "He got personally involved. ... We wouldn't be standing here without that."

After a few hectic hours, Ramirez went from the trade block to a long-term commitment from the only franchise he has known. And six months after Ramirez signed a seven-year, $141 million deal, he and his squad celebrated their first playoff series win since the 2016 AL Championship Series.

"I'm really happy, especially for the commitment the organization made," Ramirez said through Rivero recently. "It's very really special. The most important part is family. The city has given me the opportunity to take care of my family. Cleveland is my family."

As one of the only veterans in a clubhouse full of youngsters, Ramirez has led his squad to an unlikely extension of its season -- first with an MVP-caliber season that got the Guardians to October, then with a go-ahead home run in Game 1 of the AL Wild Card Series against the Tampa Bay Rays.

But how far Ramirez could lead this team came down to how quickly a roster that debuted 17 rookies this season was ready to follow.

A lot of the Guardians' success as a young team is a credit to the franchise's culture, according to Antonetti. The current rookies watched as previous Cleveland teams made the playoffs while they were doing the same in the minors. Winning begets winning, in his estimation.

"Our Double-A team won a championship in the Eastern League in 2021," Antonetti said. "And there's like seven to nine of those guys up here now that are AL Central champions."

The rookies got their first taste of a pennant race during that minor league season, but there is a level of pressure in the major leagues that is impossible to replicate anywhere else. And perhaps the number of intense showdowns they needed to put away two division competitors to clinch this season gave the kids a little extra edge when their October moment arrived.

And arrive it did, when Oscar Gonzalez -- a rookie with fewer than 100 games under his belt -- provided the only run in a 1-0 Game 2 win by depositing a 15th-inning pitch into the right-center-field bleachers -- and sending Progressive Field into a frenzy.

"I could never imagine anything like this," another rookie, Steve Kwan, said on the field after the wild-card series win. "And how it's happened as well. Tito [manager Terry Francona] expressed at the beginning of the year that we're going to play the game right because we can't live and die by the home run."

It wasn't lost on anyone that the Guardians' two wins against Tampa Bay came via the long ball, as did their only run in Tuesday's 4-1 ALDS-opening loss at Yankee Stadium. But no one, including the Guardians, thinks that's how Cleveland is going to win a championship -- at least not this year.

Their 127 home runs in the regular season ranked second to last in the majors, and while three runs might have been enough to get past the Rays, the Guardians are going to need to score some runs to take down the Yankees in the division series. Part of what helped spur a 16-2 run in September that vaulted Cleveland into the playoffs was putting the ball in play and working the basepaths: That month, the Guardians posted the second-highest batting average in the majors (.264), fourth-best OBP (.331), fifth-fewest strikeouts (195) and most stolen bases (31).

Cleveland is known for that scrappy, high-energy style of baseball -- not for mashing balls into the stands. But what might matter more to the Guardians, who were as many as five games below .500 twice this season, is their resolve.

"There's a quiet confidence in our group of guys," 26-year-old reliever Sam Hentges said. "We come to the ballpark every day and we don't really back down from challenges. That's preached from Tito ... and that's how we attack each day."

Hentges, in his first full year in the big leagues, compiled a 2.32 ERA in 57 games then followed that up with three pressure-packed scoreless innings Saturday to earn the clinching win over the Rays.

But now after grinding out that wild-card series over a fellow small-market team, Cleveland is being put to the ultimate test against the big-market, big-money 99-win Yankees, who won five of the six regular-season meetings between the teams before grabbing a 1-0 ALDS lead Tuesday night in New York.

"I was kind of wide eyed the first time," Kwan said of playing in New York back in late April. "Hopefully, we can play baseball like we always do."

While the Guardians' front office would never use the payroll discrepancy as an excuse for whatever happens on the field this week, it's hard to overlook the David vs. Goliath nature of this matchup as Cleveland brings an $82 million payroll that ranks 28th in all of baseball against New York's $265 million roster.

"We operate in very different markets, but we have the same goal," Antonetti noted with a smile.

That goal -- to win in October -- might have seemed far-fetched in March, but it became a bit more obtainable once Ramirez signed. Then as each youngster began to contribute and the team kept racking up wins, the concept of the postseason emerged as a reality. Cleveland went from a complete unknown, with just a 7.5% chance to win the division at the start of the season, to an ALCS contender. Now, facing their first series deficit of the playoffs, it's time to see if the Guardians can quiet their doubters once again.

"They didn't let anyone else write their season story for them," Antonetti said. "They took the reins and wrote their own story."