The Guardians are one of the biggest surprises of the MLB season

Back in the offseason, you would’ve been hard-pressed to find baseball observers and/or fans who were excited about what either of the Central divisions in the National and American Leagues were up to. It was clear that all the action was going to take place in the coastal divisions. It honestly would’ve been a pretty safe bet to assume that only the divisional champions in the Central divisions were going to be represented when the Postseason rolls around.

Now that the All-Star break is looming, it appears that we might’ve all been wrong about the quality of baseball’s Central divisions. As of right now in the NL, the Brewers have managed to stay on top of the division despite taking some losses in the offseason and the Cardinals currently find themselves in possession of the third and final Wild Card spot as they are one of the six teams in the NL right now with a winning record. While the rest of the NL Central is stuck in the sad purgatory of being in the .460-to-.480 winning percentage range, it’s still impressive that both the Brewers and Cardinals have managed to subvert expectations and play some quality baseball so far this season.

With that being said, the real action is taking place in the AL Central of all places. It would’ve been fair to rate the AL Central as being the weakest division in baseball heading into this season. The Twins were seen as the only real threat in this division and if you don’t believe me then I’ll direct you to our season preview concerning this group of teams. Well, here we are with the mid-season break coming up and the Twins are in second place. With that being said, the Twins aren’t in second in a bad division — in fact, they’re currently in second place in the Wild Card hunt. That’s not all, either — the Royals have kept up their winning ways and are 49-43 with only two games separating them from a Wild Card spot.

However, while the Twins and the Royals have simply been good this season, the current AL Central leaders have been great and it’s to the point where we really might end up with AL’s best record at the All-Star break coming from the Central! That’s because Stephen Vogt’s Cleveland Guardians are proving that they’re no joke. Now granted, the Guardians are always a team that needs to be taken seriously for the sole reason that they have José Ramirez on their team and he made that abundantly clear during the initial portions of the season. How hot was José Ramirez at one point? Hot enough to where we eventually got this quote:

While the answer to that proverbial question is always “No, you’re not as hot as Barry Bonds was,” we do have to give it to Ramirez that he definitely gave his best attempt at trying to be like Bonds during the month of May. From May 1 to June 1, Ramirez hit .303/.379/.678 for an OPS of 1.058, .376 in Isolated Power with 11 home runs and a 191 wRC+ over that span. While that’s still (somehow) not close to what Barry Bonds was capable of during a month of baseball, those stats are still indicative of someone who was clearly seeing the baseball like it was a beach ball during the month of May. It’s also indicative of a player who continues to shine on a regular basis — we’re going on nine seasons now of José Ramirez essentially being one of the most consistently productive hitters in the sport.

However, the story of the Guardians here in 2024 is that José Ramirez hasn’t been forced to do it all. He’s getting a ton of help, with the lion’s share of it coming from Steven Kwan. Ramirez’s incredible performance in the month of May came just in time since it followed what had been an excellent late March/month of April for Kwan. Kwan has been a very solid player since making his debut with the Guardians in 2022 but this appears to be the season where Kwan is trying his hardest to go from “solid” to “star,” as he started the season by hitting .350/.395/.483 with a .384 wOBA and 153 wRC+ over his first 129 plate appearances. Kwan was locked in to start the season as he helped get Cleveland to the top of the division very early on.

Steven Kwan did suffer a setback in the following month as he ended up missing basically the entire month of May due to a hamstring strain. However, two things happened in the aftermath of this injury: The first is that the Guardians simply just kept it pushing in Kwan’s absence. It helped that José Ramirez certainly stepped his game up once Kwan went down injured but it was truly a team effort — Cleveland maintained a 106 wRC+ as a team from May 5 through May 30, which is the time that Kwan spent on the IL and was good for being a top-10 mark in all of baseball during that span.

The second thing that happened is that once Kwan returned from injury, he got even better. Ever since coming back to the lineup on May 31 against the Nationals, Kwan has hit .372/.430/.566 with a .431 wOBA and 185 wRC+. Not only did Kwan’s return immediately give this Cleveland lineup a boost but it also confirmed that what Kwan was doing earlier on this season was no fluke. Steven Kwan is in the midst of a breakout season and he’s been as big of a reason as anybody when it comes to Cleveland’s continued presence at the top of the division here in 2024.

Back in the start of the 2021 offseason, the Guardians and Brewers came to an agreement on a trade that saw J.C. Mejia get traded to Milwaukee in exchange for a player to be named later and it was only in March 2022 that that player was finally identified in order to complete the trade. Fast forward to 2024 and the former player to be named later has been hitting .298/.404/.497 with a .387 wOBA, eight homers and a 155 wRC+. The former PTBNL has also proven to be incredibly versatile as he’s started in Cleveland’s lineup in four different positions (including the Designated Hitter) and has played six positions overall this season. For being a PTBNL in a trade that sent away a pitcher who has produced a grand total of -0.6 fWAR for his entire career, this is absolutely incredible.

By now, I’m sure you’ve figured out that I’m talking about David Fry. You’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger surprise in baseball this season than the fact that Fry has emerged as one of the impact players for the team that currently has the highest winning percentage in the American League. This is a guy who was figured to be a utility guy at best — someone who you could plug into the lineup on any given day if a better player gets injured or just needs a day off.

Instead, David Fry has gone from simply being one of those glue guys that keeps a baseball team afloat during the marathon season to getting into the All-Star game as a reserve. Fry certainly deserves the accolades but it still doesn’t make it any less shocking that Fry has gone from having expectations basically on the floor to suddenly bring a key cog for a potential World Series contender.

While any talk of the Commissioner’s Trophy finally returning to Cleveland is still very premature (even with the All-Star break right around the corner), there’s still plenty of reason to be excited if you’re a Guardians fan. I didn’t even mention the great work that the pitching staff has been doing and I also haven’t mentioned the other All-Stars who will be representing Cleveland as Josh Naylor and Emmanuel Clase will be joining Ramirez, Kwan and Fry in Texas next week. There’s a lot to like about the Guardians, which is nice to see after the expectations were initially so low for both the Guardians and the AL Central as a whole.

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