Guardians fielding a division championship team — for $130 million less than White Sox

The White Sox are watching the Cleveland Guardians beat them and everyone else in American League Central.

Watching the youngest team in the majors win a totally unexpected division title has been an eye-opening experience.

And one that makes them angry.

“Embarrassing” is how one player characterized seeing a team with a $66.4 million payroll — ranked 27th in the major leagues and last in the division – close in on the AL Central crown. The Guardians have a five-game lead over the Sox with 14 games to play, including Tuesday’s game at Guaranteed Rate Field.

The Sox’ total team payroll this season, per Spotrac, is $196.6 million, their highest ever. It ranks seventh in the majors and was appropriated for the purpose of winning one of “multiple championships,” as general manager Rick Hahn has said multiple times.

Perhaps that will still come to fruition. But after making the playoffs for the first time since 2008 as a wild card in the COVID-shortened 2020 season and wining the division last season and positioning themselves as World Series contenders in 2022, the Sox fell flat on their faces this season, leaving questions about the direction of the franchise and how much of the core group and coaching staff, including manager Tony La Russa, will stay intact going into 2023.

Cleveland went into the season not even trying to contend.

But it won by pitching well and applying relentless, energetic pressure on opponents that was palpable for a Sox team watching them on the other side of the field. The Guardians looked across and saw an injury-riddled team that was encouraged to go easy on the bases to protect their legs.

One Sox player said of the Guardians this week that “it [ticks] me off they’re winning and didn’t even intend to.”

By putting the ball in play, putting pressure on their opponents defense with aggressive speed and playing better defense than the Sox – and having lights-out closer in Emmanuel Clase, a top-three MVP candidate in Jose Ramirez and a manager of the year candidate in Terry Francona — the Guardians made the Sox look like foolish spenders in 2022.

“That’s a great team over there,” said Kendall Graveman, whose $8 million salary to pitch in relief would be the Guardians’ second highest salary after Ramirez. “That’s a team we’ve seen allyear. Terry Francona and their staff have done a good job with a young group of guys they’re teaching the game of baseball to and they play a good brand of baseball.

And it’s competitive for us every time we play them.”

Competitive to the tune of a 10-7 record against the Sox following a 10-7 win in 11 innings Tuesday that clinched the tiebreaker and essentially gave them a six-game lead over the Sox.

“I’d like to give some respect on that end, too, because they’ve played good all year,” Graveman said. “They’ve surprised a lot of people because a lot of people didn’t pick them and they have that chip on their shoulder.”

The Guardians figure to be vastly below the Sox in payroll again next season, and you wonder if the Sox will be able to compete with them. The Sox’ roster is heavily imbalanced with two of their three first baseman, Andrew Vaughn and Gavin Sheets, doing their best but struggling to cover ground playing the outfield, and needs will have to be filled at second base, the starting rotation, outfield and catcher with Yasmani Grandal trending in the wrong direction in the third year of his four-year, $73 million contract.

In any event, these salaries top the books for next season: Lance Lynn ($18.5 million), Grandal ($18.25M), Yoan Moncada ($17.8M), Liam Hendriks ($14.3M), Tim Anderson (club option for $12.5M), Eloy Jimenez ($10.3M), AJ Pollock ($10M, player option), Luis Robert ($9.5M), Joe Kelly ($9M), Graveman ($8M) and Leury Garcia ($5.5M).

The Guardians’ top salaries for 2023?

Ramirez ($14 million), Myles Straw ($2.9M), Bryan Shaw ($4M) and Clase ($1.9M).

Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, the man who writes the paychecks, has to be green with envy.

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