Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sizemore Still Matters

While parsing through the “X is a candidate for the 5th starter spot” pieces before any game action has started, much of the talk under the Arizona sun has revolved around the knee of one Grady Sizemore and while the discussion of that body part is preferable to what was the um…focus of last Spring (pertaining to Grady’s pieces and parts), there certainly seems to be quite a bit of attention being paid to Sizemore’s knee, even if all of it seems to be muddying the waters of expectation.

For the most part, the rhetoric coming out of the Indians’ camp has been that Grady’s knee is fine and that he’s continuing his rehab from the microfracture surgery that took place last summer to repair the damage done last season on the basepaths. Certainly, we’ve heard enough “he’s fine” and “he’s coming along great” as well as “he’s right on schedule with where he needs to be”, and perhaps those assertions are all true and indicative of where Sizemore really is in his recovery.

However, this little nugget appeared in the AP story (among other places) about Sizemore’s Spring last week, which led to some hand-wringing on the North Coast:
Sizemore said he was still experiencing soreness and discomfort in his left knee.
“I can definitely tell I had surgery there,” he said. “Just walking or running, I’m not feeling zero pain or zero symptoms.”
There is no timetable for when Sizemore will resume full baseball activities. He concedes he’s taking baby steps and isn’t sure precisely what’s ahead for him.

Though I’m no doctor and cannot speak to the recovery from this surgery (or any surgery), this idea that he’s still experiencing pain in the knee is surprising, in that Opening Day for the Indians is about 6 weeks away. While it’s been intimated that Sizemore may be on the “Branyan Plan” for 2011 (Branyan didn’t play until mid-April and didn’t play in 3 consecutive games last year until May 9th), the bigger question shouldn’t be “when will Grady return”, but rather “how will Grady performs when he returns”.

To that end, both Will Carroll of Sports Illustrated and a couple of writers at Baseball Prospectus weighed in on that very topic, after clearing through the vagaries of the surgery and rehab. To start it off, here’s Carroll from SI on how the knee could affect Sizemore’s performance:
There’s reason to believe that Sizemore will see a significant portion of his speed gone, costing him steals and doubles. It could force him to shift out of centerfield, as well, prompting some lineup issues for manager Manny Acta. Both Michael Brantley and Shin-Soo Choo can play CF, but neither is a plus defender like Sizemore -- if Grady can be that again.

The Indians have already gone on record that Grady is likely to stay in CF because playing CF means fewer sharp cuts than playing LF would, minimizing stress on the knee, although Brantley looked more than capable in CF if it comes to that.

Going further than Carroll’s prognosis, B-Pro has a VERY technical look at Sizemore’s injury and recovery, coming to a similar conclusion as Carroll but even offering an even more sobering conclusion:
Sizemore will likely lack the same quick burst of speed that made him a special player in the past, even all this time after surgery. His pain may be gone but his range in the outfield could suffer, and his work on the basepaths could follow suit. The best way to evaluate his knee—short of looking at it—is to see how aggressive he is. If he’s aggressive in the outfield or on the bases, it means he trusts the knee. If not, the knee may not be 100 percent.

While those pieces certainly throw some cold water on any idea that the Grady that we came to take for granted (the one who donned his cape in CF) is ever going to return, it is worth mentioning how terrific Grady truly was prior to the last two seasons, both derailed by injury, in the context of the rest of the league. By that I mean that not many people realize how unbelievable Sizemore was over a 4-year stretch, from 2005 to 2008, as he was the 5th most valuable player in baseball (according to WAR) over those 4 years, which came when Grady was 22 years old to 25 years old. He’s unquestionably the most accomplished current Indian, though recent performance certainly has clouded that fact in most minds.

As a burgeoning superstar, entering what should have been his “prime” years, as a 26-year-old and as a 27-year-old however, Grady’s been as valuable as Jason Kendall, Melvin Mora, and Ben Francisco (no…seriously, and he’s been a worse hitter than The Frisco Kid) since the beginning of the 2008 season. Of course, his injuries are the main culprit in that steep decline and it could be argued forever whether his style of play begat his injuries, but there are track records of “healthy Grady” and “injured Grady”, with the performance of the two varying from that of a legitimate elite player in MLB to roster fodder.

So if those two incarnations exist, what is to be expected in 2011?
Truthfully, nobody knows what to expect and to simply assert that he’s going to be somewhere between those two incarnations of Sizemore is lazy as about 90% of the players in MLB fall somewhere between elite and roster fodder. Additionally, any conveyance from the Indians regarding Sizemore’s health or expectations is probably not worth much as the updates on Hafner’s shoulder from Springs past were consistently bright and sunny, while the usage and performance of Hafner foretold another story all together. Certainly, I’m not ready to put Grady’s knee into the same column as Hafner’s shoulder, but the only clues as to what are to be realistically expected from Sizemore (and when) are going to come from reports of how he’s hitting, how he’s patrolling the OF, and (most importantly) how frequently.

It seems pretty likely at this point that he’s going to start the season on the DL and even when he does return, the percentage of his former self that arrives to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario is what will bear watching. The reason for that is that Sizemore at even 75% of his “former self” is better than most any other option the Indians would have in 2011 and, even more pointedly, going forward.

Here arrives the second factor in Grady’s return and level of performance, as well as the effect on the team, once he does return as if Grady’s injury lingers and if their already tenuous depth in the OF is forced to absorb a blow like losing Sizemore for any stretch of time. As we saw in 2010 after Grady went down, the options once you get past Choo, Kearns, and Brantley (who still needs to greatly improve, even on his “hot streak” when he returned in August, after which he posted merely a .332 OBP) get pretty ugly and the news that Trevor Crowe still can’t throw at full strength (insert arm strength joke here) makes the Indians’ OF “depth” even more shallow.

Of course, it could be argued that Trevor Crowe shouldn’t even be considered as a “depth” option at this point, particularly based on his stunningly ridiculous excuse that his elbow trouble, which did prompt off-season surgery, last year somehow caused his poor 2010 season. In case you don’t know to what I’m referring, Crowe explained that he began “feeling it (the elbow trouble) at the All-Star break,” and that he’s “interested to see what I can do at this level when I’m healthy.”

Um…“at the All-Star break”?
Lest anyone think that the elbow had more to do with Crowe’s struggles more than a sheer lack of ability to play in MLB, here are Crowe’s numbers before and after the All-Star Break last year:
Pre-All-Star Break
.249 BA / .302 OBP / .330 SLG / .632 OPS with 10 2B and 1 HR in 227 PA in 53 games

Post-All-Star Break

.253 BA / .301 OBP / .335 SLG / .636 OPS with 14 2B and 1 HR in 252 PA in 69 games

If the belief that Crowe’s elbow somehow affected his performance, the numbers certainly don’t bear that out and those results, over nearly 500 PA, lead to no other conclusion that what was seen in 2010 simply is who Trevor Crowe is. He turned 27 last November and he’s shown himself to be a poor route-runner in the OF with little to no pop in his bat over 681 PA in two seasons…and it took Andy Marte four seasons as an Indian to compile 670 PA. Concluding my little aside, I don’t think that it’s illogical to hope for the Zeke Carrera Era to begin (as flawed as he may be) and for Trevor Crowe to go away, as well as anyone responsible for his being foisted upon us as a prospect disappear as well, Grady or no Grady.

But I digress…
Certainly an option past Crowe or Carrera would be for the Indians to see how Nick Weglarz progresses in LF in Columbus, but Wegz needs to stay healthy long enough for the Indians to get a full read on him in AAA and the ideal situation is still for Grady to enter again, stage left, and pick up at some level of performance that he attained in his past.

Ultimately, it all gets back to the Sizemore issue going forward and what could reasonably expected from Grady in 2011 but, perhaps more importantly, past that. With that in mind, can we finally forget this whole “will they trade Grady?” nonsense that categorically ignores the option ramifications of his deal?

Lest you forget, and this was touched on a while back, remember that proviso in Grady’s contract that if he’s traded during this season, his club option for 2012 (for $9M) becomes a player option, meaning that if a team acquired Sizemore during the 2011 season, the decision to exercise his 2012 would fall to Sizemore. Thus, if Grady shows some promise but is light-years away from being his former self and the Indians trade him, Sizemore could survey the FA landscape (for about a second) and exercise the $9M option that his new team would be on the hook for. Conversely, if Grady somehow turns back into the player that dominated from 2005 to 2008 (and in short order), he could decline the $9M option with the idea that he would earn more on the open market as a FA.

Thus, Grady’s “value” in July of this year could be lower than ever because of that contract language and while that will certainly not keep the “Trade Grady?” crowd at bay as I’m sure it will continue to come up throughout the season and perhaps into the off-season. However, all of that is dependent on Sizemore’s performance in 2011 and, with this assertion that he could be on the “Branyan Plan”, it could be as late as late May when Sizemore finds himself in the lineup on an everyday basis.

If he doesn’t enter the lineup until mid-to-late May, it will take a while to get his sea legs under him in MLB and we’ll finally get a look at (to borrow the suggestion from B-Pro) his “aggressiveness” on the basepaths and in the outfield, to say nothing of how the knee may affect his swing.

That all being said, something’s been sticking in my head about Sizemore returning and this admittedly optimistic idea that Sizemore will start to emerge as the season wears on to show that being an above-average player (if not an elite one) still is within his reach. If that happens, and Sizemore starts to hit his stride in July or August, what do the Indians do in terms of that player option?

This was the suggestion about a month ago, with the lack of depth listed above past Sizemore certainly playing even more of a role:
If Sizemore shows anything to start the season, the Indians could pick up that club option that represents a higher number (the club option is for $9M) than Grady would conceivably get on the open market, given his recent injury history. In exchange for that guarantee of $9M in 2011 (and remember, we’re talking about Grady showing something to justify this), the Indians could ask for Sizemore to add a couple of years to his deal just as they did with Sabathia, though they’d likely ask for a discounted rate due to Sizemore’s injury history of the past few years.

This “strategy” if you want to call it that makes even more sense to me after reading an interesting Q&A with Boston GM Theo Epstein regarding the Red Sox philosophy in dealing with arbitration-eligible players and specifically on getting years past arbitration eligibility for guaranteed money in a long-term deal:
Our philosophy, which is actually a policy in writing, is if we’re going to sign arbitration-eligible players long term, we have to get one free agent year and we have to get an option for the club. Because we’re giving the player certainty. We need to be able get some of those prime years back in exchange. That makes it a fair bargain.

Those lines were admittedly bolded by me (and this explanation of “policy” is wildly applicable to the Choo situation), but it certainly justifies the notion that if the Indians pick up that player option for Grady, that it would have to be predicated on the organization getting something from Sizemore in terms of additional years and cost control.

That’s probably a discussion for another day and an answer will likely reveal itself, just as Grady’s “aggressiveness” will generate a multitude of opinions and predicted outcomes for Sizemore in 2011 and beyond. Realizing the history for Sizemore, the focus for the Indians should be not on WHEN Sizemore eventually joins the team, but WHICH Sizemore eventually joins the team.


Anonymous said...

After 3 or 4 good seasons, our players seem to get injury prone.. just long enough to get healthy and leave town. Heck, Sizemore has been injured the last two seasons, Hafner has been hurt ever since he sign his big deal and Jake was hurt during his 3 year deal that he signed in (i think) 2007.

If Sizemore does show some signs of himself, who says he won't get injured again after the indians (going by your strategy) add a year or two to his contract? If I'm the Dolans, I would be very reluctant to sign him to anything guaranteed. (with his style of play)

SIandMore said...

Why not use him as a DH for part of the season to get his knees fully healthy for the out field. It's not like we could use more help at DH since Pronl has become a bottom tier hitter over the last few years. The last thing we need is further injury causing nore time away! The kids just need to step up in the outfield!