Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Guardians just don’t make sense, and perhaps it took coming in third place in the AL Central last year for them to see it.

The team finished dead last in home runs, 27th in runs scored, and didn’t draw nearly enough walks. Despite that, Cleveland still struck out the least and team batting average was a clean .250. The Guardians’ pitching staff also overcame some injuries and underperformance to finish 10th in MLB with a 3.99 staff ERA.

The 2024 season figures to be a big one for this scrappy team as change takes over and the post-Francisco Lindor era takes shape. Rippling change could soon be coming to Progressive Field, from personnel changes to, potentially, upcoming trades.

Thus is the next step in the Cleveland Guardians’ evolution. Overachieving on the back of strong pitching won’t cut it anymore. After just 76 wins in 2023, Mike Chernoff needs a new blueprint for 2024.

Greatest Addition: Stephen VogtA fresh young team needs a fresh young manager, and Vogt certainly fits the profile at just 39 years old. The two-time All-Star catcher and 10-year veteran only just retired in 2022 and was the Mariners’ bullpen coach last year before the Guardians hired him in November. The last time Cleveland gambled on someone with such limited experience was when Hall of Fame slugger Frank Robinson was named player-manager in 1975. He went 186-189 in two-and-a-half years.

Vogt, by comparison, is in a much better position. Robinson took over when the Cleveland then-Indians had finished at or near last place for nearly a decade and the front office was desperate. Vogt was universally beloved by fans and respected by his teammates during his playing days. Just call him Peter Quill as he steps up to lead this next era of Guardians.

After all, having played in Oakland for five-and-a-half years, he’s no stranger to rebuilds.

Greatest Loss: Terry Francona. It finally happened after years of speculation. Future Hall of Fame manager Terry Francona retired from managing the Guardians at 64 years young. “Tito” spent 11 years in Cleveland and is the team’s all-time leader with 921 managerial wins. His greatest accomplishment was leading Cleveland to the World Series in 2016, their first in two decades, where they lost in seven games to the Cubs.

Vogt must now fill Francona’s enormous shoes. Enormous enough to hold 1,950 wins and two World Series rings, plus three AL Manager of the Year trophies. Ongoing health issues forced him away from the game but make no mistake. If he could, Terry Francona would be back in the dugout in 2024.

Greatest Strength: Pitching development. The Guardians should consider themselves lucky that what their lineup lacks in power, they usually make up in pitching. Cleveland figures to have another good year on the mound with a healthy (and probably eventual trade chip) Shane Bieber, plus AL Rookie of the Year runner-up Tanner Bibee. Triston McKenzie is also back from an injury-riddled campaign, and there’s also the high-upside Gavin Williams.

There’s a reason pitching coach Carl Willis has helped five different arms to Cy Young seasons, including CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and Bieber while with Cleveland. He and the front office just speak the same pitching language. The Guardians may not look like a playoff team, but don’t be surprised if their pitchers keep them competitive all year.

Greatest Weakness: Power outage. The Guardians didn’t finish last in home runs by accident. They only had three players appear in over 150 games last year: Jose Ramirez, Andres Gimenez, and Steven Kwan. This trio combined for a grand total of…44 home runs, with Ramirez’s 24 leading the way. First baseman Josh Naylor hit 17 of his own, but only in 121 games.

Worse yet for Cleveland is that no top hitting prospects are close to ready. Outfielder Chase DeLauter and first baseman Kyle Manzardo are the closest, but they’re at least a year away. Barring a breakout year from one or both of Bo Naylor and Will Brennan, it’ll be another light-hitting season on Lake Erie.

Are the Cleveland Guardians hurdling toward a long rebuild? I’m afraid so, even with all of their pitching talent. Home runs are the name of the game and the Guardians have a mere two power hitters in their lineup. Unless their top two prospects DeLauter and Manzardo are as advertised, Cleveland should invest in plenty of draft lottery tickets.

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.