The 2023 Cleveland Guardians eulogy: A season that didn’t go according to plan

The tune starts with a dramatic hammering of piano keys before the smooth melody takes over. Triston McKenzie walked from his locker to the other end of the room one morning during spring training, circled an imaginary mound and synced his every movement to the song blaring from the clubhouse speakers.

The way McKenzie envisioned it, fans would be downing a hot dog and sipping a beer on a steamy summer afternoon as he tossed his warmup pitches, their feet tapping to each note of the (secret) song released a quarter-century before the Cleveland Guardians pitcher was born.

That was the plan. But this Guardians season didn’t go according to plan. This was the season of off-script, a trying year requiring plenty of improvisation.

McKenzie injured his right shoulder during his final Cactus League tuneup. He made two starts in June before returning to the injured list with an elbow sprain. He’s finally nearing a comeback, but not in time to save the Guardians.

On Thursday night in Southern California, Emmanuel Clase blew his league-high 10th save of the season in a 3-2 loss to the Los Angeles Angels, dropping the Guardians seven games behind the Twins in the loss column with about three weeks remaining in this slog to the finish line.

Time of death on this Guardians campaign: 12:29 a.m. ET, Sept. 8. Well, maybe.

It’s debatable. You could argue the clanging of Royce Lewis’ grand slam against the metal bleachers during the Twins’ 20-run romp on Monday served as the final buzzer on this dismal season. You could point to the sinking liner that skipped past Myles Straw’s glove and scooted toward the center field wall on Tuesday night, which secured Minnesota another critical win as fans at Progressive Field initiated the chant that signals a change of seasons.

Here we go, Brownies, here we go. Woof, woof.

Some would argue this Guardians season met its demise at the trade deadline, with the exodus of Aaron Civale, Amed Rosario and Josh Bell for prospects and spare parts. Some would suggest the punchless lineup and unreliable bullpen and wounded starting rotation doomed this season long before the front office intervened.

Nonetheless, this season won’t be one to remember.

It was the year Meibrys Viloria made the Opening Day roster and then totaled four plate appearances in five weeks. It was the year Mike Zunino nearly went 0-for-May. It was the year Clase looked mortal. It was the year the Guardians plucked Kole Calhoun from near-retirement in an effort to rescue the lineup and clubhouse. It was the year Rosario tested the limits of the defensive runs saved metric (and not in a good way). It was the year José Ramírez boosted his hard-hit rate at the expense of Tim Anderson’s jaw.

It was the year the entire rotation was on the sideline or in Triple A by the All-Star break. It was the year the front office wielded the anti-Midas touch. It was the year David Fry made the longest appearance on the mound by a Cleveland position player since some guy named Milt in 1936. It was the year the Guardians were no-hit hours after trading their cleanup hitter. It was the year Ramírez stole home with two strikes and two outs in extra innings … only for the Guardians to lose the game 10 minutes later. It was the year of the shocking waiver claims that paid shockingly low dividends. It was the year Bell rediscovered his swing the instant he escaped Cleveland. It was the year the bullpen proved trustworthy in every moment but the pivotal ones. It was the year Noah Syndergaard sounded like a broken man after every outing.

It was the year the Guardians failed to stand tall in a division marked by its shortcomings. And it appears it’s the last hurrah for Terry Francona, the longest-tenured manager in franchise history.

All the Guardians can do now is flush the negatives and aim to build on the encouraging developments that sprouted up among the weeds.

Better luck next year. (Jason Miller / Getty Images)

It was the year the Naylor brothers blossomed, Josh into an imposing, middle-of-the-order threat and Bo, albeit in a smaller sample since he waited behind Zunino and still isn’t regularly facing lefties, into a toolsy catcher. It was the year the next wave of pitching factory products burst onto the scene, with Tanner Bibee and Gavin Williams showcasing their ability to bloom into front-line starters. It was the year Xzavion Curry bounced between roles, patching leaks that sprung up on the pitching staff.

There’s more to learn over the next few weeks. Maybe Ramón Laureano can play his way into a 2024 roster spot, rather than a non-tender. Maybe Gabriel Arias can seize the shortstop job. Maybe Tyler Freeman can earn more at-bats and put his contact prowess to use. Any further experience for Bibee, Williams and Logan Allen is a plus. A full bill of health for McKenzie and Shane Bieber, complete with a return to the big-league mound, would be beneficial both for the pitchers and the team.

The front office has a ton to solve this winter, beginning with identifying a new manager. They still need to sort out their middle infield glut, an unchecked box on their to-do list for two years running. They need to determine the best course of action with Bieber, who can become a free agent after next season. They need to find a way to fortify their outfield, a source of weakness for much of the last two decades. They need to assess their hitting development philosophies, which have fueled an offense that ranks ahead of only the Tigers and Athletics in runs scored. They need to hope and pray that Kyle Manzardo is one answer to the lack of thump in the center of their lineup.

For now, though, the Guardians are resigned to dreaming about better days ahead, with hot dogs and beer and catchy rhythms. Perhaps next season will go according to plan.

(Top photo of Xzavion Curry: David Berding / Getty Images)

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