CLEVELAND — With a 6-5 extra-innings win over the Minnesota Twins on Tuesday night, the Cleveland Guardians moved into first place of the American League Central Division.
But while there's plenty of baseball to still be played this regular season -- 99 games, to be exact -- the Guardians finishing the first day of summer in first place remains significant nonetheless.
Entering the 2022 campaign with an over-under win total of 76.5 games, Cleveland entered the year projected to finish in fourth place of the division. Yet despite relying on the youngest roster in baseball, the Guardians enter the summer in pole position of the AL Central and are currently showing no signs of slowing down.
How did Cleveland seemingly accelerate what many expected to be a rebuild? Let's take a look.
The Trevor Bauer trade
Take a look at the Guardians' lineup from Tuesday night and you'll find that only one position player remains from the last time Cleveland won the American League Central in 2018 (more on him later). Using timely trades and deft drafting, the Guardians have retooled a lineup that to this point has carried an average age of 26.1 years, the youngest in baseball.
The first trade that helped shape Cleveland's current lineup came in 2019, when the then-Indians traded Trevor Bauer to the Cincinnati Reds in a three-way deal that also included the San Diego Padres. While outfielder Yasiel Puig headlined the return for Cleveland at the time, it's been designated hitter Franmil Reyes who's been more impactful for the franchise.
Although his numbers this season haven't been impressive -- .196 average, .550 OPS, four home runs and 14 RBI -- his return from the injured list on Tuesday was a welcomed one. For a lineup that largely lacks pop, the 26-year-old Reyes is capable of providing just that, as evidenced by the 30 home runs and 85 RBI he tallied in 2021.
The Corey Kluber trade
Roughly four months after dealing Bauer, the then-Indians traded another one of their top pitchers, Corey Kluber. Sending the two-time American League Cy Young Award winner to the Texas Rangers, Cleveland received outfielder Delino DeShields Jr. and a right-handed pitching prospect, Emmanuel Clase.
DeShields' time in Cleveland would last just one season and Clase would miss the entirety of the 2020 campaign while serving a suspension after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. But since making his debut for the franchise in 2021, the hard-throwing 24-year-old has emerged as one of the best closers in baseball, recording a 1.36 ERA and 40 saves in 102 appearances from 2021-22.
The Mike Clevinger trade
When it comes to trades that have shaped the Guardians' roster, it might be tough to find one that made a bigger impact than the 2020 deadline deal that sent Mike Clevinger to the Padres.
In return for Clevinger, Greg Allen and Mike Waldron, Cleveland received six players: Austin Hedges, Josh Naylor, Owen Miller, Cal Quantrill, Gabriel Arias and Joey Cantillo.
Of those six players, three have become everyday players for the Guardians, with Hedges serving as their primary catcher, Naylor manning duties at first base and Miller playing all over the infield while putting together an impressive offensive campaign (.262 average, .732 OPS, four home runs and 31 RBI). Meanwhile, Quantrill has emerged as a cornerstone of Cleveland's starting rotation while Arias is one of the top prospects in the Guardians organization.
The Francisco Lindor/Carlos Carrasco trade
Of all the noteworthy trades the Guardians have made over the last few seasons, none was as polarizing as the deal that sent Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco to the New York Mets in early-2021. In return for its franchise shortstop, Cleveland received a pair of infielders in Amed Rosario and Andres Gimenez.
While Rosario obviously isn't the same caliber of player as Lindor -- few are -- he's put together a solid season-and-a-half at the plate while primarily playing shortstop, in addition to sporadic appearances in the outfield. Gimenez, meanwhile, has bounced back from a disappointing debut season -- in which he was demoted to Triple-A Columbus -- and put together an All-Star caliber 2022 campaign, hitting .305 (.841 OPS), seven home runs and 33 RBI while manning duties at second base.
While the Guardians' front office hasn't been known for its drafting -- at least when it comes to position players -- one of Cleveland's breakout players this season has come in the form of 2018 fifth-round pick Steven Kwan. Through the first 52 games of his rookie season, the left-handed-hitting outfielder has tallied a .281 average (.724 OPS), two home runs and 16 RBI and has recently been moved to the top of the Guardians' batting order.
In addition to Kwan, Cleveland has received contributions from centerfielder Myles Straw, who it acquired in a trade with the Houston Astros last season, as well as international free agent Oscar Gonzalez. As far as pitching is concerned, the Guardians have drafted four out of their five starting pitchers in Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale and Triston McKenzie.
Jose, Jose, Jose
In this case, last is certainly not least.
In fact, it almost seems silly for any conversation regarding the state of the Guardians to not start with Jose Ramirez, who signed a franchise-record five-year, $124 million extension ahead of the start of this season. But if there were any concerns about Ramirez not living up to his new deal, they haven't come to fruition yet, as thus far, the three-time All-Star has turned in yet another MVP-caliber season.
In fact, Ramirez, who currently leads the American League with 62 RBI, is currently on pace for his best offensive season yet, despite being the most consistent part of a lineup otherwise short on firepower. While Cleveland has spent the past few seasons retooling its roster, Ramirez has remained the constant and is the biggest reason why the Guardians find themselves in the position that they currently do: first place.