When the Cleveland Indians needed only a victory from CC Sabathia to advance to the 2007 World Series, the hope was that the team would begin a dominant run in the American League similar to the success of the 1990s.
But things haven't gone exactly as planned for general manager Mark Shapiro, who will now look to again rebuild a franchise that has not captured a championship since 1948 -- one of the longest droughts in all of sports.
Slow starts have hampered Cleveland's postseason hopes the last two seasons, and 2009 saw the Indians finish with a dismal 65-97 record due in large part to a pitching staff that simply could not stop the offensively-minded American League clubs.
That's not to say the Indians didn't have the assets to put together a top- flight rotation, but their payroll limits and inability to dish out Yankee- like free agent contracts forced the club to trade consecutive Cy Young winners in CC Sabathia in 2008 and Cliff Lee in 2009. In addition, catcher Victor Martinez, who had been with the organization since 1996, was dealt to Boston.
Shapiro also traded away role players such as Ryan Garko, Mark DeRosa, Ben Francisco and Rafael Betancourt, and the result is a 2010 roster that will feature many new faces.
The roster was not the only overhaul the team saw this offseason; the coaching staff also had a complete makeover, as Eric Wedge was fired after seven seasons. Shapiro chose former Nationals skipper Manny Acta to replace Wedge, and Acta brought in all new coaches for the 2010 campaign.
With the roster makeover, coaching changes and inactivity during the offseason in terms of impact free agent signings, the Indians should go through a host of growing pains in 2010. The one bright spot figures to be All-Star center fielder Grady Sizemore, who put up the worst numbers of his career in 2009 due to elbow problems that hampered him throughout the season.
If everything breaks right for the team, and some of the younger players are able to produce, there stands a chance that the Indians could compete in a weak AL Central; however, the team is more likely to duplicate their 2009 numbers than 2007 and miss the playoffs for a third consecutive season.
With the chance that Cavaliers star LeBron James could leave the city via free agency this summer, Cleveland sports fans could be in for a long and painful year in 2010.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2010 edition of the Cleveland Indians, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
(65-97) - Fourth Place (AL Central)
Key Offseason additions
1B Russell Branyan, C Mike Redmond, SP Mitch Talbot, OF Austin Kearns, 2B Mark Grudzielanek, OF Shelley Duncan, 3B Brian Buscher, RP Saul Rivera, RP Jamey Wright, RP Jason Grilli
Key Offseason subtractions
INF Jamey Carroll, C Kelly Shoppach, SP Jose Veras, RP Tomo Ohka, RP Zach Jackson
The Indians infield will feature a pair of position changes and some youth around the diamond.
Matt LaPorta, who is normally an outfielder but will likely shift to first base, with Russell Branyan starting the year on the disabled list.
Branyan, who started his big league career with the Indians in 1998, enjoyed the best power year of his career last season with the Seattle Mariners, as he hit 31 home runs with 76 RBI, while hitting .251 in 116 games.
LaPorta, meanwhile, was the key piece to the Sabathia deal with Milwaukee in 2008. Some have compared him to a young Jim Thome, but he has a long way to match the former fan favorite in Cleveland.
The 25-year-old LaPorta got his first taste of the majors in 2009 and batted just .254 with seven homers and 21 RBI, but it was revealed that he had hip and toe injuries down the stretch that may have limited his performance. While he will be a bit behind schedule in Spring Training, LaPorta has the most promise of any of the team's inexperienced players in 2010.
At second base will be Luis Valbuena, 24, who struggled when given the starting role down the stretch in 2009. He will likely only have one more season to prove himself, and if he doesn't improve on his dismal .298 on-base percentage, he is not likely to be in the team's plans going forward.
By the end of last season, Asdrubal Cabrera was Cleveland's full-time shortstop, and the 24-year-old figures to remain in that role for many years to come. While he was already seen as a defensive stalwart, nobody could have predicted his offensive prowess in 2009, as he batted .308 with 42 doubles and 68 RBI while providing a spark at the top of the lineup.
Cabrera, who was acquired from Seattle in 2006 for Eduardo Perez, will likely be viewed as one of Shapiro's best acquisitions in his time with Cleveland. If he can continue to improve upon his 2009 performance, he could start to resemble his fellow countryman and idol in Venezuelan Omar Vizquel.
Jhonny Peralta will shift from the shortstop to the full-time third baseman, where he played 104 games last season after the emergence of Cabrera. The move is a good one, as Peralta isn't exactly known for his sterling defensive talent. Peralta doesn't get on base as much as an offensive-minded third baseman should (.331 career OBP), but he has hit 20-plus homers in three out of the last five seasons and is still just 27 years old. He could be a prime trade candidate in July for potential contenders because the team has several prospects in its system that could take over the hot corner in future years.
Lou Marson is the leading contender to begin the season behind the plate, but most realize this is just temporary until Carlos Santana is ready to begin what should be a long and fruitful career with the Indians. Marson has played in just 22 major league games with the Phillies and Indians, and it would be unfair to expect an enormous contribution from the 23-year-old in 2010.
The outfield is most likely Cleveland's biggest strength, with two potential All-Stars.
In center field for the sixth straight season will be Grady Sizemore, whose struggles were detailed earlier. He batted just .248 with 18 homers and 64 RBI -- all career-lows as a full-time starter in the majors. He was shut down late in the season to rest and eventually have surgery, and he's expected to be back to full strength for 2010.
If his elbow is indeed back to 100 percent, Sizemore, 27, can be expected to challenge the rare 40-homer/40-stolen base mark that has been reached only four times in MLB history. His combination of offensive and defensive skills are matched by few in the league, and he is clearly Cleveland's best player heading into the season.
Shapiro made two separate deals with Seattle in the summer of 2006, and he came out a winner in both. First was Cabrera, whose emergence was described above, and second was Shin-Soo Choo, who was brought to Cleveland for Ben Broussard.
While Broussard quickly flamed out, Choo has become maybe the best Korean player in baseball today. In his first season as the full-time right fielder for the Indians in 2009, the 27-year-old batted .300 with a .394 OBP, 20 homers, 20 stolen bases and 86 RBI. In addition, he also has a cannon arm that rivals the best in the game, and he should only improve on those numbers in 2010.
The left field spot is the biggest question mark of any of the position players on the team. Rookie Michael Brantley, who played in 28 games down the stretch in 2009, open the year in there, but will likely head back to Triple-A once Branyan returns.
Brantley, 22, who came with LaPorta in the Sabathia trade, surprisingly hit .313 in 112 at-bats in his cup of coffee last season. He doesn't have much power but could serve as a future leadoff hitter that would allow Sizemore to move down to the three-hole, where he would be more effective for Cleveland.
Without Sabathia and Lee, the Indians will turn to another familiar face to serve as the staff ace in 2010.
Jake Westbrook, who has been with the team since 2001, is returning from Tommy John surgery after missing all of 2009 and the second half of 2008. The sinkerballer received the loss in the decisive Game 7 of the 2007 ALCS against Boston and will now be looked upon to have his best season ever if the Indians are to have any chance of competing.
If the 32-year-old reverts to his old form, he could be a very durable 15-game winner that can provide over 200 solid innings with a mid-4.00 ERA. He is in the last year of a three-year, $33 million contract and could be a trade candidate in July.
The de facto No. 2 starter will be Fausto Carmona, who is by far the biggest wild card on the team. When the Indians went to the ALCS in 2007, Carmona went 19-8 with a 3.06 ERA and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting. Since then, he is 13-19 with a dreadful 5.89 ERA and has 140 walks to 137 strikeouts in 246 innings.
Needless to say, Carmona has struggled with his command, and the team is hopeful that fellow Dominican native Acta will be able to communicate better than Wedge could and help the 26-year-old replicate his 2007 numbers.
The rest of the rotation could feature as many as eight different players to fill out the remaining three spots, but for now it's projected to be Justin Masterson, Aaron Laffey and Mitch Talbot.
Masterson came to Cleveland from Boston in the Martinez deal and was immediately inserted into the rotation, going 1-7 with a 4.55 ERA in 11 games -- 10 starts. With the Red Sox, he served primarily as a reliever, so it was expected that he would not be as effective as a starter right away. With his low arm slot delivery, it is possible that he could be sent back to the bullpen before all is said and done.
Laffey started 19 games last season and finished with a 7-9 record and a 4.44 ERA. At times he was the team's most consistent starter, winning four of five starts in late July-early August while allowing zero runs in three of them. Then, he lost each of his final six starts, yielding six or more runs in half of the outings.
Talbot was acquired this offseason from Tampa Bay in a deal that sent Kelly Shoppach to the Rays. The second-round pick of the 2002 draft doesn't have much major league experience but will try to get a spot in the back-end of the rotation out of camp. He sports a decent fastball/changeup combination and has a career 62-54 record with a 3.79 ERA in 166 minor league games -- 165 starts.
The Indians were one of three teams to have a staff ERA over 5.00 in 2009, and the bullpen was a major reason why.
Shapiro thought the signing of Kerry Wood last offseason would solidify a struggling bullpen, but the rest of the pitchers couldn't give him many save opportunities; when they did, Wood converted only 20-of-26 chances.
Wood, though, strained a muscle early in the spring and will miss at least the first six weeks of the season. So, righty Chris Perez will inherit the closer's role at the outset of the season.
Perez was 0-1 with one save and a 4.32 ERA in 32 games for Cleveland a season ago.
Rafael Perez was supposed to emerge into a premier left-handed matchup nightmare, but he posted a 7.31 ERA in 54 games and struggled to find the strike zone, eventually being sent back to the minors. Jensen Lewis, who saved 13 games in 2008, posted a 4.61 ERA in 2009 and was also sent back to the minor leagues.
Several of the rotation candidates that don't make it could also be added to the bullpen, and the team signed Saul Rivera, Jamey Wright and Jason Grilli to provide some veteran experience for the younger players. Even so, the bullpen figures to remain an enormous weakness, although it's awfully tough to predict a reliever's performance from year to year.
The Indians don't figure to have a strong bench in 2010, but that's only because some of the starters would normally be bench players for a contending team.
Shapiro added several veteran presences in the offseason, including Mark Grudzielanek, Mike Redmond and Austin Kearns. Cleveland is hopeful that each of these players can provide some guidance for its more younger, inexperienced players while also stepping into the starting lineup for a game or two each week.
Former prospect Andy Marte may also get a last shot at some playing time, while Trevor Crowe could serve as a backup outfielder.
As far as the team's designated hitter, Travis Hafner is locked into that spot with his enormous contract that will pay him over $11 million in each of the next three seasons. Hafner has not been fully healthy since 2007, appearing in just 151 games combined the last two seasons.
It is a stretch to say that Hafner will return to his 40-homer, 120-RBI form in 2010, but it's still reasonable to expect some modest production in the 20- homer, 70-RBI range.
The Indians did not do anything in the offseason to solve their weaknesses from 2009, and any playoff contention in 2010 would be viewed as a major surprise. When Shapiro inherited the team in 2001, he was forced into rebuilding mode almost immediately and took until 2005 to turn Cleveland into a contender again. Now he is likely on the same timetable, stockpiling young, cheap talent that could bring the team back to the top of the division in 2012 or 2013. In the meantime, it will be interesting to see which young players can emerge as major pieces to the puzzle and which prospects flame out. With the numerous amount of young players the Indians have, odds are that there are several All-Stars in the making on this inexperienced roster. In the meantime, they will play the waiting game and just try to be as competitive as possible. A win total from 70-75 would seem to be the most reasonable; expect the Indians' championship drought to extend to 62 seasons.