“You’ll be a hard act to follow, a bitter pill to swallow, you’ll be tough to replace”
What was once deemed in the industry to be the most team-friendly contract in the sport was cut a year short when the Indians opted not to exercise their $9 million option on Sizemore. That decision was met, predictably, with a shrug, soon washed over by the collective discourse over the Browns’ latest loss and the preparation for their next one.
Once the face of a franchise, Sizemore became an injured afterthought. A would-be weapon in the stash, perhaps, if he could ever stay on the field long enough to make a sustained impact, but few realistically planned on that plot.
Heck, even the online message board where the smitten women known as Grady’s Ladies once discussed his dimples and fawned over his physique had become overrun with spam ads — the Internet’s answer to urban blight.
It was a shame, too, because there was a time, not long ago, when Sizemore represented endless possibility for the Indians. He was the final and, it seemed, most meaningful piece of the Bartolo Colon prospect haul. A 30-30 guy and perennial Gold Glover, with marketable looks, to boot.
His coming-out party had come just three days after his first callup, in 2004. In the ninth inning of a Saturday nightcap of a doubleheader with the Royals, Grady came to the plate as a pinch-hitter in the ninth and lined the game-winning single into center.
“It was an exciting time for me,” he said after that big hit, and he said this with all the enthusiasm you might muster when you get tube socks for Christmas.
That was — is — Grady, though. The man was baseball’s most boring interview off the field, yet one of its brightest lights on it. And it was, for those of us who trekked the country to track the Tribe, a true pleasure to watch him play at his peak. An exciting time, indeed.
Sizemore’s still in what are considered to be his prime years, and there is the very real possibility that the team that signs him (don’t count on it being the Indians) will get a steal of a deal. But so clouded has that possibility become, in the wake of yet another knee surgery and the admirably reckless disregard for his personal health with which Sizemore plays, that a thin-walleted team such as the Tribe can’t afford to throw big bucks at that particular wheel of chance. Barring a shock in which the Indians are the highest bidder, Grady will be somebody else’s project, somebody else’s if-come.
But what of that great, gaping hole in the Indians’ outfield?
That’s where the mystery lies, and that’s the topic gaining traction on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.
The Indians’ primary outfield options, at present, are Shin-Soo Choo, a five-tool talent coming off a one-star season, and Michael Brantley, a bud who still has yet to bloom. In a season smeared by a DUI arrest, broken thumb and, finally, injured oblique, Choo regressed from a .300 average/.400 on-base percentage star-in-the-making to a .259-hitting question mark, just as his arbitration price tag is rising. Brantley, meanwhile, has not shown anywhere near the on-base ability in the big leagues that he did in the Minors, and he’s coming off surgery to repair a broken hamate bone in his hand. Both have big upside, if healthy, and the Indians are going to need every bit of that upside in this outfield.
Beyond that pair, the Indians have Shelley Duncan, a terrific teammate who was a valuable contributor down the stretch in 2011. But at present, they seem likely to relegate him to some sort of left field/first base/backup DH concoction, especially with Travis Hafner disabled list stints now in the realm of annual tradition. And lastly, they have Ezequiel Carrera, your typical light-hitting speed-and-defense type, with the important caveat that he made some puzzling defensive gaffes last season. He’s not an everyday player. Not yet, anyway.
This is what the Indians have in the wake of the Sizemore era, and it’s probably not nearly enough power and run-production for a team that had the fifth-lowest slugging percentage in the league — and the third-lowest among AL outfields — last season.
If only they had another Sizemore looming in the Columbus cupboard with a bold bat, fresh legs and stale quotes. If only.
What the Indians have, instead, is an almost barren Triple-A outfield. Trevor Crowe, a former No. 1 pick, was banished back there after missing almost the entire season following shoulder surgery. Nick Weglarz was once this organization’s great red-headed hope, ever since he hammered second-deck blasts at a pro workout at Progressive Field before the 2005 Draft. But he’s spent the better part of the past two seasons on the shelf. The only other appealing possibility in the upper levels of the farm is Thomas Neal, acquired when Orlando Cabrera was sent to the Giants this summer, but his numbers from Double-A upward leave quite a bit to be desired.
So the struggle to stock the system has caught up with the Indians, and they’ll have to search outside.
No easy task. It’s dark out there. And $5 million of the money saved on Sizemore has already been allocated to Derek Lowe.
Every indication is that the Indians don’t envision Brantley as a regular center fielder, perhaps not trusting his arm or instincts. Sizemore, of course, never had much of an arm, either, even in those dazzling days before his knees gave out. So perhaps the Indians could deem Brantley’s D to be livable, if it comes down to it. For now, though, their plan appears to be Brantley in left and a player to be named in center.
Trying to fill either position in free agency is a challenge. The last time the Indians went outside the system to fill an everyday outfield spot, it was a bum-backed Trot Nixon. Before that, it was a two-headed monster known, unaffectionately in these parts, as “Dellichaels” — David Dellucci and Jason Michaels.
Remember that the Dellichaels platoon was brought in to replace Coco Crisp when he was shipped to Boston. And now Crisp is viewed as the top center fielder on the open market (which says a lot about the market). This was the first year Crisp managed to stay healthy since ’07, but he had a .314 OBP. Endy Chavez and Cody Ross are also both available, but Chavez hasn’t played regularly since 2008 and Ross hasn’t played center a great deal.
The Tribe’s best option, clearly, is to look for a trade or wait for the non-tender situations to settle. If defense is the primary concern, the Rays’ B.J. Upton was a rumored target of the Tribe over the summer, but he’s going to make $7.6 million this year.
Two options that might make a lot of sense for the Indians are Andres Torres and Angel Pagan. Both regressed in 2011 after a strong 2010. With their arbitration costs rising, Torres and Pagan could be released by the Giants (who just acquired Melky Cabrera) and Mets, respectively. If so, the Indians ought to investigate.
Another option is trying to lure back Kosuke Fukudome, who was a nice piece post-Trade Deadline. But right field is his natural spot, and he’ll likely be looking for a multi-year deal.
If the Indians decide to stick Brantley in center, their options for left field aren’t much better. There is power available in Josh Willingham and Ryan Ludwick. The downside is that Willingham is in line for a multi-year deal as the top option on the market, and Ludwick, another Tribe target in July, had a drastic decline in slugging percentage the last three seasons, from .591 in ’08 all the way down to .363 in ‘11.
One possibility, however slight, could be Delmon Young, as the Tigers might seek to address their leadoff needs with a left fielder and cut him loose, despite his impressive output for them down the stretch. It’s doubtful they’d deal him in the division, though.
When you run through the gamut of possibilities, you see why the Sizemore decision was a tough and tricky one for this team. When you look at their system, you see why the Indians are taking a hard look at Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes, even if their chances of outbidding everybody for what has become a hot commodity seem slim.
The Sizemore era is over, and it ended with a whimper. But the hardest part is not saying goodbye to Grady.
The hardest part is replacing him.