Opening Day has arrived in Major League Baseball, and with it are new rules meant to speed up the game. On top of those changes and coming off the heels of the World Baseball Classic, the Cleveland Guardians are one of 29 teams hoping to dethrone the Houston Astros as World Series champions. Although he is not ranked in the Top 30 in the Guardians’ system according to MLB.com, Austin Peterson will make noise in the minor leagues and could become the team’s ace in the near future.
Hailing from Chesterton, Indiana, Peterson started his collegiate career with the Purdue Boilermakers. In his first year in 2019, Peterson made 24 relief appearances and one start, going 1-5 with a 4.50 ERA and 49 punchouts. Despite showing significant starter potential, Peterson transferred to Wabash Valley Community College after the Boilermakers finished 12th in Big Ten play. Peterson started three games for the Wabash Valley Warriors in the COVID-19 shortened season, going 2-0 with a 3.05 ERA and 29 strikeouts.
Peterson then headed east to UConn after two years in the Midwest, joining the team from the transfer portal alongside Devin Kirby and TC Simmons, among several others. With the HookC, Peterson became a regular starter, working his way up from a relief appearance in the opening weekend to the No. 2 spot behind Ben Casparius in the rotation. In that role, Peterson went 7-1 with a 2.58 ERA and struck out 82 hitters in 80.1 innings while earning an All-Big East Second Team selection.
The Los Angeles Dodgers drafted Casparius in the fifth round in 2021, which bumped Peterson up to the top of the rotation. He blossomed as the Huskies’ ace throughout the 2022 campaign, going 11-3 with a 3.83 ERA and a single-season program record 147 strikeouts. Out of his 17 starts, Peterson went less than six innings three times and struck out 10 or more batters seven times, all against non-conference opponents. Peterson also earned All-Big East First Team honors with teammates Korey Morton, Erik Stock, Matt Donlan and Pat Gallagher.
Peterson’s accolades did not go unnoticed at the national level. On top of his All-Big East selection, D1Baseball named Peterson a Third Team All-American, while the NCBWA put the right-hander on their First Team. Those national accomplishments, as well as finishing with the sixth-most strikeouts and the fifth-highest K/9 in program history, led to Cleveland drafting him in the ninth round of the 2022 MLB Draft.
Since 2000, Cleveland has developed multiple pitchers into some of the best starters in the game, which has played a factor in six American League Central titles and a World Series appearance in 2016. Four different aces have taken home five Cy Young Awards for the Guardians, more than any other team in the league since the turn of the millennium. While some teams won their awards over a five-year period in that span, Cleveland is one of just two teams to have produced a winner in three different decades.
It all starts with CC Sabathia, one of only three southpaws ever with at least 3,000 career strikeouts. Sabathia showed potential right out of the gate three years after being selected 20th overall in 1998, going 17-5 with 171 strikeouts while finishing second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting behind Ichiro Suzuki. Despite two straight all-star selections in 2003 and 2004, Sabathia did not post his best numbers until 2007. Across 34 starts, Sabathia went 19-7 with a 3.21 ERA and 209 strikeouts, winning the Cy Young award as the team advanced to the ALCS. In 2008, Cleveland traded Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers to help with their postseason push. As one ace lefty went out, another within the organization took his place.
Cliff Lee, initially developed in the Montreal Expos’ system, arrived in Cleveland alongside Grady Sizemore in the infamous Bartolo Colon trade in 2002. Lee took over as the team’s ace in 2008, going 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA and 170 strikeouts, and on top of making his first All-Star Game, he won the Cy Young Award with more first-place votes than Sabathia had one year earlier. The Philadelphia Phillies acquired Lee the following season, and even though Justin Masterson temporarily held his own, Cleveland had another ace up their sleeves.
Originally part of a three-team trade in 2010, Corey Kluber turned into a different beast after going 11-5 in 2013. In 2014, Kluber went 18-9 with a 2.44 ERA and 269 strikeouts, winning the Cy Young Award and starting off a five-year stretch as one of baseball’s best pitchers. From 2014-2018, Kluber went 83-45 with 17 complete games, averaged 246 strikeouts per year and won two Cy Young awards. In 2018, Kluber anchored a rotation featuring four players who recorded over 200 strikeouts alongside Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco and Mike Clevinger.
Shane Bieber was the only starter to not strike out 200 or more batters that year, but it did not take him long to turn into an ace, unanimously winning the Cy Young award with an MVP-like campaign after the Texas Rangers acquired Kluber in 2020. While his absurd 1.63 ERA is the lowest in a single season since 2000, Bieber picked up at least eight strikeouts in every start and led the league with 122 punchouts.
The Guardians have also produced a handful of solid starters who have not won the Cy Young Award, which include the likes of Masterson and Triston McKenzie. Although I do not specifically know why Cleveland’s starting pitching has been so consistent and successful over the last three decades, Peterson has the potential to become a rotation regular within the next 3-4 seasons. Even if he does not win a Cy Young Award or start on Opening Day in his career, Peterson will then take that experience and turn into the team’s next big ace.