Oscar Gonzalez received star treatment at Guards Fest in January, flashing his infectious smile as he posed for pictures at the baseball team’s fan appreciation event.
Getting a private shot with the Cleveland Guardians right fielder or others required an extra ticket, part of this year’s format. Although Gonzalez has seen action in only 91 major league games and autographs were prohibited, the excitement surrounding him befit beloved favorites like Victor Martinez, Omar Vizquel and Grady Sizemore.
While not confident enough to converse in English, Dominican-born Gonzalez appeared to enjoy every minute. When a fan told him she’d named her cat Oscar after previous feline Grady (yes, that Grady) died, Gonzalez posed with her and a picture of the pet.
Such adulation might always surround Gonzalez, who captured Northeast Ohioans’ hearts with his SpongeBob SquarePants walkup song and his ability to deliver in the clutch.
But the major question surrounding Gonzalez will have a direct bearing on the fate of the 2023 Guardians.
Is he for real?
One of 17 Cleveland rookies who made big-league debuts in 2022, Gonzalez stole the show as the Guardians went 92-70 and took the New York Yankees to Game 5 of the American League Division Series.
With his postseason heroics, Gonzalez drew comparisons to Hall of Famer David “Big Papi” Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox. Gonzalez and Ortiz are the only two players in major league history to record three career go-ahead hits in the ninth inning or later in the same season. Only six players have accomplished the feat.
Gonzalez showed his flair for the dramatic against the Tampa Bay Rays and Yankees, including a walk-off home run in the 15th inning in the wild card-clinching Game 3 against the Rays.
In Game 3 against the Yankees in the American League Division Series, Gonzalez delivered a two-out, bases-loaded single up the middle in the bottom of the ninth for a euphoric 6-5 victory.
“He’s completely unfazed by the pressure,” Guardians General Manager Mike Chernoff said that night.
More such memories hinge on the progression of Gonzalez.
The Guardians appear to have built a strong core for the future to go along with an outstanding starting rotation, perennial MVP candidate Jose Ramirez and Emmanuel Clase, one of the best closers in the business.
But were the breakout seasons of Gonzalez, left fielder Steven Kwan and second baseman Andres Gimenez a hint of what’s to come? Can the youngsters — 25, 25 and 24, respectively — replicate their surprising statistics as the league books their weaknesses?
In the short term, Gonzalez got away with his aggressive style and tendency to chase pitches. He will need more patience at the plate as opponents try to bait him into strikeouts.
Kwan was the opposite of Gonzalez, bursting out of the gate with his ability to make contact, steal bases and post more walks than strikeouts. The leadoff hitter is the engine that drives the attack and must provide the same until the Guardians find more power.
Some of that should come from switch-hitting first baseman Josh Bell, their top offseason addition, signed to a two-year, $33 million contract. But the search for a big bat predates Ramirez. Even as he slugged 29 home runs, tied for third-most in his career, the Guardians’ total of 127 ranked 29th in the league, ahead of only Detroit (110).
With the opener March 30 at Seattle and the home opener April 7 against the Mariners, all eyes will be on Gonzalez and the outfield fence.
Starting his 11th season in Cleveland, Manager Terry Francona isn’t sure how much better Gonzalez can get.
“He’s ultra-aggressive. But unlike most young right-handed power hitters, he has the ability to shorten up with two strikes, drive the ball to right field,” Francona said in the season wrap-up news conference in October. “You don’t see that very often.
“Where does it go? How many times have you seen him swinging at a pitch that almost hits him, but then he’d come back and shorten up and line a ball to right field? As he grows and gets more at-bats, is he able to lay off this pitch, and if he does, does he become more dangerous?”
Living dangerously is the hope even as the Guardians succeeded in 2022 with small ball, making contact, running the basepaths with abandon and wreaking havoc. Major League Baseball’s rule changes will benefit them, especially the pitch clock, restrictions on shifts and bigger bases, promoting aggressive baserunning.
Part of the strategy was by design as Francona tried not to ask too much of his youngsters.
“We would all gladly accept more three-run home runs. Believe me,” Francona said in the season wrap-up. “But … our job was to try to find a way to win with who we have.
“If you ask Oscar Gonzalez to come to the Major Leagues for the first time and take walks, there’s a pretty good chance he might take a couple (of) walks and he’s not going to hit. So, you let him grow into who he is. … That’s the fun of watching them develop and see how good they could get.”
The glory days of October whet fans’ appetite for more. More homers, more walk-offs, more pandemonium at the plate, with Gonzalez leading the way.
“Man is this kid something special,” Matt Underwood, a Guardians broadcaster for Bally Sports Great Lakes, marveled in 2022.
No longer taking the league by surprise, Gonzalez can prove that this season.
The thrills, the chills, SpongeBob mania … Guardians fans — one with a cat named Oscar — are eagerly waiting, hearts and cell phone cameras in hand.Get ahead of the weekend by signing up for our free weekly “In the CLE” newsletter — your guide to fun throughout The Land. Arriving in your inbox every Wednesday, this weekend to-do list fills you in on everything from concerts to museum exhibits — and more. Click here to subscribe.