Guardians might be MLB's biggest surprise team for a surprising reason

Cleveland's first-place standing in the AL Central has been fueled by its offense

There has been no organization in baseball better at developing premier starting pitching over the past decade than the Cleveland Guardians. From Corey Kluber to Carlos Carrasco, Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie, the team’s track record of developing talented arms has continued to be its strength. In recent years, the team’s success and its key to any postseason berth has often rested on the shoulders of its rotation.

But this season, the Guardians are using a different recipe as they sit atop the AL Central.

The Guardians’ offense has been the team’s driving force through nearly the first two months of the season. Through 52 games, Cleveland (35-17) is fifth in MLB in runs scored, with a +72 run differential that ranks fourth in the major leagues.

Unlike teams such as the Dodgers, Phillies, Rangers and Orioles, the Guardians' lineup doesn’t feature the types of stars you usually see on the best offenses in baseball. That said, third baseman José Ramirez is a superstar talent who remains a constant force in the middle of Cleveland’s lineup. After an unusually slow start, the five-time All-Star has started to turn it on with an OPS over 1.000 in his past 15 games entering Friday. (Ramirez hit three homers in the past two games, helping Cleveland win eight straight entering Sunday.)

First baseman Josh Naylor has put himself on the map as one of the American League’s best hitters, and since the beginning of last season, entering Friday, Naylor’s .291 batting average ranked 11th in baseball. His increased power since arriving in Cleveland adds a much-needed boost of thump.

With a standout superstar such as Ramirez and a rising star in Naylor, the jump in offense still comes as a surprise. Last season, the Guardians ranked 27th in baseball in runs scored and finished third in the AL Central. This is the highest the team has been since finishing third in runs scored in 2018.

To make that type of leap, Cleveland has needed production from other spots in the order, especially while spark plug Steven Kwan, who was leading the American League in hitting, has been sidelined due to a hamstring injury.

It takes more than one person to make up for Kwan’s absence. And the Guardians have gotten help from three players. Second baseman Andrés Giménez, center fielder Tyler Freeman and utility man David Fry have each contributed in big ways. Giménez has rebounded to his 2022 form that saw him make his first All-Star appearance and finish sixth in AL MVP voting. Before going 2-for-4 on Friday, the 25-year-old second baseman had an .844 OPS the past two weeks.

Freeman and Fry are the two unknowns who have started to make names for themselves this month. Freeman is tied for the team lead in doubles, while Fry has been arguably Cleveland’s best hitter this season, with a team-leading 1.128 OPS.

Carrying on the legacy of former manager Terry Francona, the Guardians are keeping their same DNA under first-year manager Stephen Vogt and being aggressive on the basepaths. Not only are they taking the extra base, but they're also seventh in MLB in stolen bases.

As the Guardians look to keep their grip on the AL Central, don’t expect a major move at the trade deadline to launch them into October. Cleveland has never been the team that makes a big swing at the deadline. Their moves are often internal, with one or two ancillary deals to round out a roster.

As June approaches, can Cleveland's offense stay at this level or even improve? Kwan’s return in the coming weeks should have an immediate impact and boost, and with Ramirez playing at his usual levels, he has the ability to put the team on his back for stretches.

The benefit of the early-season success is it hasn't come from one person, which might be the key to the Guardians sustaining their production.

The Guardians’ newfound offense has also come at an opportune time, as the Royals, also on an eight-game winning streak, appear to be their closest competition in the division so far. And with Kansas City’s rotation one of the best in baseball, having a lineup that can put runs on the board will be crucial in Cleveland's quest to win the division.

Even bigger than the division, any team in the American League that has hopes to compete in the postseason needs to score runs in bunches. The Guardians, Yankees, Royals and Orioles each sit top-10 in MLB in runs scored.

The Guardians are a good team, and after dealing with injuries in their rotation early, they have started to stabilize. Meanwhile, their bullpen ranks first in baseball. But an offense that can consistently put runs on the board, giving their pitchers cushioned leads and showing the ability to fight back, makes for a well-rounded team.