Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

It’s easy to miss just how good a player development system the Cleveland Guardians have.

What’s more astounding is the team breaks several rules along the way. They stack their lineup with contact hitters who don’t strike out instead of power bats. They’ve been developing strong homegrown pitchers for over two decades.

In another example, the Guardians traded star shortstop Francisco Lindor to the Mets before the 2021 season and were already back in the playoffs last year. They lost in the ALDS to their regular playoff rivals, the New York Yankees.

And of course, Cleveland will play both New York teams this year. Lindor will face his former squad for the first time since the trade when the Guardians visit the Mets for a weekend in May. Cleveland also visits the Bronx in early April before the Yankees head to Progressive Field the following month.

The games won’t mean anything over the course of the season but even then, expect the recent New York-Cleveland playoff rivalry to get more than a few mentions.

Greatest Addition: Josh Bell. Cleveland won 92 games and the AL Central last year despite ranking second-to-last with just 127 team home runs. Jose Ramirez and Josh Naylor hit 49 of them, so adding Bell on a two-year, $33 million deal filled a big need.

The big switch-hitter hit .266 with 17 home runs, 71 RBI and a .784 OPS for the Nationals and Padres last year and should slot in as the Guardians’ everyday designated hitter. Bell also posted a solid 126 wRC+, meaning he’ll give Naylor and Ramirez plenty of protection in the heart of Cleveland’s order.

Greatest Loss: Brian Sweeney, though most probably don’t know who he is. The former MLB reliever joined Cleveland’s major league coaching staff in 2017 and got promoted to bullpen coach before the 2020 season. In the offseason, Sweeney left the Guardians to be the Kansas City Royals’ new pitching coach.

A bullpen coach doesn’t sound like a big loss, but think of their actual job. The pitching coach sets the gameplan, but the bullpen coach handles the preparation. The Guardians ranked sixth with a 3.46 staff ERA last year and Sweeney also helped develop Cleveland’s next round of young arms. Triston McKenzie is practically a second ace behind Shane Bieber and Cal Quantrill has finally lived up to his potential.

The Royals have some exciting young arms too. It’s not just that the Guardians lost Brian Sweeney, but losing him to a division rival hurts even more.

Greatest Strength: Terry Francona. Yes, his team plays in baseball’s worst division, but look at last year’s Guardians. We’ve already discussed how little power they had, but Cleveland was also a middling team in terms of runs scored.

Such is the pattern in Francona’s eventual Hall of Fame career. He builds up teams lacking in traditional talent but overflowing with motivation into consistent winners. Francona is entering his 11th season with the organization and has finished under .500 just once. As long as he’s in the building, Cleveland should keep contending.

Greatest Weakness: Myles Straw. Yes, he had 12 outfield assists in center field last year along with a +16 defensive runs saved (DRS) and 13 outs above average (OAA). The problem is Straw has never been a good hitter, put up a weak .564 OPS last season, and still has four years and $20 million left on his deal. He makes $2.5 million this season and his salary only grows from there annually.

Meanwhile, prospect Will Brennan hit .357 in a small sample last year. He’s primarily a corner outfielder but still deserves a solid look in center. Myles Straw, on the other hand, is a late-innings defensive replacement who makes starter money.

Will there be a Yankees-Guardians playoff rematch in 2023? It’s certainly possible. The AL Central is weak. The only threats to Cleveland are a surprise White Sox run or the Twins holding a division lead. Otherwise, they’re in a prime position to run it back after improving where needed. A heart of the lineup featuring Jose Ramirez, Josh Naylor, and Josh Bell is one that can put lots of runs on the board.

This means that the Yankees’ early season series with Cleveland are very much early scouting reports. The Guardians could very well be a playoff opponent and have been three of the last six years. Throw in some bad blood from last year, and some fans might pay extra attention in April or May.

Regardless of how those respective series pans out, there’s no doubt the atmosphere in another Yankees-Guardians playoff series would be electric.

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Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.