The S19 Cleveland Spiders did what had previously seemed impossible and brought a World Series title to the much beleaguered city of Cleveland. The "Mistake by the Lake" is now - if only temporarily - "The Town with a Crown". After three World Series losses and four straight, unconsummated 105+ win seasons, the Spiders won 107 games and topped the Louisville Redbirds in a six-game series.
The question now is: Can they repeat?
Most of the World Series roster returns intact, but the payroll has dropped from $107 million to $93 million. Unlike last season, where a slow start and some defensive issues were handled by acquiring Yorvit Guiterrez, there is no money in the budget for a pricey mid-season acquisition. Some help exists in the minors, but this is a talented team of veterans with little depth and they'll only go as far as their health allows.
The rotation continues to be anchored by Rick "Bridesmaid" Christensen. Despite the finest statistical year of his career (263.2 IP, 21 wins and a 2.63 ERA), he finished as the runner-up in the AL Cy Young balloting for the fourth time. This time, however, the ring certainly serves as a sufficient consolation. The rest of the rotation has question marks. Dan Darwin's fragile left arm has recovered from three different catastrophic injuries to make him an effective six-inning pitcher, but last year's 4.22 ERA was troubling. 36-year-old Luis Herrera stumbled after four straight "ace" quality seasons and went 10-13 with a 4.55 ERA. David Hernandez and Del Martin also regressed with ERAs in the mid-4s. This rotation is locked in for this year and next, so the Spiders will sink or swim with this group.
Jin-Che Chang is the linchpin of the of relief corps, topping 70 appearances and 140 innings for the fifth straight year. Swingmen Cliff Sheets and Sammy Johnson continue to do yeoman's work and a bevy of young, short relievers will rotate through AAA and the back of the ML bullpen as their durability permits. Newly acquired Harry Mendoza will do mop-up work. This 'pen is talented and cheap but there is no true shutdown closer.
This is a position in flux. 24-year-old Brandon Grabowski did the majority of catching last season and managed an OPS of 894 along with 26 bombs, but his lack of receiving skills has been blamed for the poor performance of much of the starting rotation. Rule 5 pick Ricardo Manto was acquired to serve as a defensive replacement and provide occasional rest for Grabowski against lefties. Joe Puffer waits in the wings in case anyone falters.
For the fifth consecutive season, the regular starters are expected to be Esteban Lee at first, Enrique Astacio at second, Omar Olivares at short and the captain, Michael Dransfeldt, at third. Olivares's contract is up at the end of the year and his contract demands combined with his declining range mean that it is probably his last season in Cleveland. Dransfeldt had an abysmal first half last year, with an OPS in the 600s, but he recovered to hit 6 homers and sport an OPS of 904 in last year's playoffs.
Things are much more in flux in the outfield. Kelvin Torres came up at mid-season to rescue a faltering outfield and will play his first opening day. Newly-signed Glenn Strauss and his 1 yr/$5.3M deal are the bridge to prospect Davey Pedroia. Veteran RF Rico Mendoza's career has mixed two seasons as an MVP finalist in with a few more pedestrian campaigns. He'll be making a contract push this year.
If the Spiders' training staff can keep the injuries at bay and the rotation rebounds to S18 levels, this team is primed to win 100+ games and make another deep run in the playoffs. Anything less will be considered a disappointment. The future is now for the Spiders, but there are a few impact prospects in the system and this is a team whose window isn't closing any time in the immediate future.