CLEVELAND — Eight hours before Francisco Lindor was to play shortstop for the Mets of their wild-card series opener, the second pitch of the sport in Cleveland on Friday afternoon was a rocket of a one-hopper that knocked Cleveland second baseman Andrés Giménez backward, smack onto his rear end.
As he has been doing with verve all season, he sprung up and made the play.
“What can I say?” Giménez said after the Guardians edged Tampa Bay, 2-1, behind starter Shane Bieber’s brilliance, closer Emmanuel Clase’s dominance, third baseman José Ramírez’s power and, in fact, the keystone combination of Giménez and shortstop Amed Rosario.
“It was a rocket,” Giménez said with a small chuckle that was more sigh of relief than laugh. “Obviously, I used to be ready for it. When you’ll be able to make a catch like that to assist your team in the primary inning, it’s vital.”
Lower than two years ago, at the present time surely seemed light-years away for Cleveland baseball fans. It was on Jan. 7, 2021, that the ball club, unable to succeed in a contract agreement with Lindor, shipped him to the Mets for 4 players. Two of them were Giménez and Rosario. A four-time All-Star and enormously popular each within the clubhouse and around town, Lindor left a gaping chasm in his departure.
It didn’t close much last 12 months as Giménez, Cleveland’s Opening Day shortstop, struggled offensively over the season’s first six weeks and was dispatched to Class AAA Columbus for nearly two months.
It also didn’t appear as if it were going to shut much by Opening Day this 12 months, when Rosario dropped a fly ball in left field to begin the underside of the fifth inning in a 3-1 Guardians loss.
However it wound up closing significantly this 12 months as a young, raw team grew up way more quickly than expected. And at the highest of the list was Giménez, 24, who has produced one in all the more remarkable seasons in club history.
Not only did his 7.2 wins above substitute rank third within the American League behind two men who produced historic seasons — the Yankees’ Aaron Judge (10.6) and the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani (9.6) — it was also the best by a second baseman in his age-23-or-younger season because the Philadelphia Athletics’ Eddie Collins in 1910 (10.5).
It is also the second-highest for a Cleveland player in his age-23-or-younger season after Shoeless Joe Jackson in 1911 (9.2). And that’s in a company that lists Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Lou Boudreau, Larry Doby and Kenny Lofton amongst its all-time roster.
“Something I like about him is that he never stopped working,” said one other Cleveland blast from the past, Carlos Baerga, the previous infielder who now hosts an area podcast. “When he went to the minor leagues, he worked hard.”
Since early June, Giménez has played almost exclusively at second base. When he began there for the American League in July, replacing an injured Jose Altuve, he became the youngest Cleveland player to begin an All-Star Game since Bob Feller, then 22, in 1941.
“You already know who he jogs my memory of? Roberto Alomar,” Baerga said of the Hall of Famer. “He’s that sort of special player, turning double plays and going side-to-side at second base.”
Giménez didn’t need much range to field that early-game, one-hop smash as Cleveland pushed the Rays to the brink of elimination of their best-of-three series. But he’s actually exhibited range far beyond second base in honing his game over these past 12 months. Other than sliding over from shortstop to second, he dropped the leg kick he used last 12 months while batting in favor of a toe tap, which aids him as a timing mechanism.
He uses the entire field and hits right-handers well (.286 batting average) and left-handers dangerously well (.336). His overall batting average this 12 months was .297 in 146 games, versus .218 in 68 games in 2021.
“Last 12 months was his first 12 months with us,” said Manager Terry Francona, who has proved himself as something of a rookie whisperer this 12 months along with his handling of a young roster. “So, not only was he young, English is his second language, and with a latest team, but he was attempting to get two hits daily so he could stay within the lineup. And I understand that. You are attempting to inform guys, you don’t need to go about it that way, but I understand it.”
This 12 months, Giménez doesn’t even resemble that player.
“He’s playing to assist us win daily and whether it’s bunting or hitting or playing second,” Francona said. “He’s just sort of growing up. When you have got those sort of tools, you begin to see them come out. Then, when guys get confident, they begin doing things possibly they didn’t do before, or they do it more, on a more consistent basis.”
Trading an icon like Lindor isn’t easy, on many levels. Probably the most immediate and obvious aspect is the emotional blow to the team’s fan base and to the team itself. But further down the road comes the true test, when club officials essentially get graded on their evaluation skills. Running an $82 million payroll, because the Guardians are this 12 months (twenty eighth in M.L.B.), there may be precious little room for error.
To win the American League Central just two seasons after dealing Lindor is a testament not only to Francona, but in addition to Chris Antonetti, Cleveland’s president of baseball operations, and Mike Chernoff, its general manager.
“It’s a superb reminder for young players on the market,” Chernoff said of Giménez’s turnaround. “If you get to the large leagues, you mostly face adversity. And it’s about the way you bounce back from that adversity. Just the way in which that he has taken a consistent mental approach to his at-bats this 12 months.”
Chernoff noted that Giménez didn’t allow last 12 months’s disappointment to break him.
“He let it play out this 12 months,” Chernoff said. “He just put his head down and continued to enhance. And now he’s among the finest defensive second basemen in all of baseball, and his bat has really come around.”
Looking back, Giménez said he was surprised when the Mets told him they were trading him, but a fair greater surprise got here this July when Francona informed him that he was an All-Star. The team was in Kansas City, and the manager gathered the players within the clubhouse and announced that José Ramírez and Clase were going to Dodger Stadium. Then, Francona began to walk away before turning and dramatically saying that, oh, by the way in which, Giménez made the team, too.
A roar went up within the clubhouse, and Giménez soon went to the dugout to interrupt the news to his wife and mother in an emotional FaceTime call. At the sport, he was especially touched when Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera, his countryman and a national hero in Venezuela, made it a special point to congratulate him.
“Pretty cool,” Giménez said.
Friday, after fielding Yandy Diaz’s first-inning smash, Giménez made a handy guide a rough turn to finish an inning-ending double play within the second as Bieber threw seven and two-thirds innings of one-run ball. Rosario collected two hits, the second of which got here just ahead of Ramírez’s home run that made all of the difference.
“You never understand how it’s going to play out,” Chernoff said of the trade. “But obviously, thankfully, we’ve been fortunate in the way it’s played out up to now.”