What a wonderful time it was for Cleveland in 2004. After drafting LeBron James in 2003, the Cleveland Cavaliers improved enormously while “King James” won the NBA Rookie of the Year award. Months later, a young center fielder of 21 years by the name of Grady Sizemore would find himself playing for the Indians: he’d play just 43 games but post a respectable .328 weighted on-base average (wOBA) and post 1.1 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) according to Fangraphs, all while playing brilliant defense.
In 2005, the Cavs would improve yet again but fall just out of the playoffs. Months later on the diamond, Sizemore would establish himself as a rising star in the MLB. At just 22, he would play 158 games, hit 22 home runs, steal 22 bases, and finish with a .359 wOBA and 5.4 WAR; he was again breathtaking with his glove. That performance would propel the Indians to a 93-69 record, but also—and unfortunately—just out of the playoffs. They appeared on their way to October but lost six of their final seven games, a significant blow to a city desperate for a championship.
In 2006, the Cavs would finally reach the playoffs behind LeBron, but lose in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Sizemore would play all 162 games that season and make his first All-Star team while hitting 28 home runs and stealing 22 bags. He’d finish with a .386 wOBA and an MVP-caliber 7.3 WAR. He was no longer a rising star; he was one of the best players in baseball.
2007 came and went and, in a lot of ways, it was the top of the mountain for Cleveland. The Cavs won another 50 games and made it all the way to the NBA Finals (though they lost). Heck, even the Browns went 10-6, but just missed the playoffs.
Early that summer, in May, Sizemore’s performance prompted a Sports Illustrated article (by Tom Verducci) which yielded such quotes as White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen calling him “Superman” and his own GM, Mark Shapiro, saying:
To watch him play day in and day out is a rare treat. All of us, from the front office to the players to the bat boys, are fortunate to see him every day. He is without a doubt one of the greatest players of our generation.
That charmed year, Sizemore would again play all of 162 games and make his stardom official by posting another 5+ WAR season (5.7 to be exact) and winning his first Gold Glove. He would hit 24 home runs, steal 33 bags and post a .376 wOBA. What’s more, the Indians won 96 games and made it all the way to the ALCS before losing to the World Series, title-bound Red Sox in seven games.
No one knew it, but a storm was brewing in Cleveland. Perhaps the first sign came when the Browns returned to form and won four games in 2008. Also, the Cavs were disappointing—not to mention a wholly crummy team sans LeBron—while winning just 45 games and getting knocked out in the Eastern Semifinals again. Meanwhile, the Indians got off to one of their trademark, horrible starts—think of the film Major League —which culminated in a 15-game drop in the standings from the previous season to a perfect, .500 (81-81) record. Mid-season, they succumbed to their reality as a mid-market team by trading away their prized lefthanded starter and free-agent-to-be: CC Sabathia.
But for the time being, Sizemore was unperturbed while playing another 157 games (what a loafer), hitting 33 home runs, stealing 38 bases, and finishing with a .384 wOBA and 7.1 WAR. He would also make his third straight All-Star game and win his second straight Gold Glove. Quite frankly, he was well on his way to Cooperstown. To Cleveland he was more; he was the face of the franchise. He certainly deserved more MVP consideration and would have garnered more had the Indians been a contender
By the time the end of the NBA regular season swung around in early 2009, the Cavs were the best team in the NBA behind 66 wins. The first sports title in Cleveland since 1964 seemed inevitable once the Cavs bounced both the Pistons and Hawks, each in sweeps, becoming the first team to win eight consecutive playoff games of double-digit margins. But they lost to the Magic in the Eastern Finals, ending their season in utter disappointment.
As the sports euphoria in Cleveland started to wobble, so too did Sizemore. In spring training, he labored through a groin injury. His string of wildly durable seasons would end when he’d only play 106 games. In September, he’d have not only elbow surgery but also an abdomen operation to repair a hernia that had been related to his spring groin woes. Unhealthy, he would be worth an uncharacteristic 1.9 WAR while hitting to a .343 wOBA.
Sizemore’s disappointing season contributed to a dreadful 65-97 record for the Indians. To add insult to injury, in order to quicken their pace towards contention, the Indians felt it necessary to capitalize on the soaring stock of their Ace Cliff Lee who had won the AL Cy Young award in 2008. This cemented the fact that the Indians were in a re-building stage and had officially traded away two of the very best left-handed starting pitchers in baseball in the span of one year.
In a painful reminder, those very two pitchers, Sabathia and Lee, matched up against one another in Game One of the 2009 World Series.
If 2009 was disappointing, 2010 was the apocalypse. The Cavs again won more than 60 games (going 61-21) but were again bounced rather quickly, losing in the Eastern Semifinals. James officially became a free agent in July and the rest was history, tastefully chronicled in The Decision.
Meanwhile, the injury plagued season that was 2009 was just a prologue for Sizemore’s 2010, as he would post a .254 wOBA and negative (-) 0.3 WAR in 33 games. Along with his city, he crumbled. His season mercifully ended when he had microfracture surgery on his left knee. The Indians lost another 69 games. But worse than that, one of the cities few remaining athletic star’s was just 27 years old and yet at a career crossroads.
The above graph shows Sizemore’s WAR by season. Also: the morale of Cleveland.
As we’ve now made our approach to the present, I hope the state of the Cavaliers isn’t an omen for the fate of the Indians, or more specifically for Sizemore. The Cavaliers recently lost their NBA-record 26th straight game, prompting a website called: Did the Cavs win last night? One almost has to wonder if the question is rhetorical; more than often, the answer (and the entirety of the website) is No. Their record stands at 9-46 and the ill-advised, emotionally-driven words from their owner, Dan Gilbert, to describe James such as “selfish”, “heartless,” and “cowardly betrayal” continue to fuel a dark cloud which hovers over the franchise.
Luckily, each spring brings hope to each franchise if even for only a few moments. Sizemore’s knee surgery was successful; he’s resumed baseball activity and is slated to be ready by or sometime shortly after Opening Day. There’s also reason for optimism given the surgery’s success with other notable professional athletes, such as Amar’e Stoudemire of the NBA.
For what it’s worth, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS has Sizemore projected to hit .249/.348/.445 with 15 home runs and 18 stolen bases in 93 games, good for a 115 adjusted-OPS (OPS+). Tom Tango’s Marcel projects him to play less and not as well: .330 wOBA and 10 home runs with 11 stolen bases. CAIRO has him at .253/.348/.439 with 16 home runs and 17 stolen bases. And the always optimistic Bill James projections have him at .265/.355/.454 with 23 home runs and 23 stolen bags over a full season.
If were being honest, though, I don’t think any of the projection systems know what to make of Sizemore, and Szymborski said as much about his ZiPS projection. Projection systems were meant to be broken, and I’ll submit here that it won’t just be people in Cleveland that are thrilled if Sizemore skyrockets back up to re-join the company of the games elite.
Santana is coming off of a season in which he feasted on Triple-A pitching before doing the same upon promotion to Cleveland to the tune of a .382 wOBA in 46 games. Unfortunately, he too was bitten by the injury bug in 2010 which resulted in knee surgery. But, like Sizemore, he’s expected to be healthy in early 2011. Just 10 at-bats separated Santana from rookie status and Keith Law’s Top 100 Prospects list (ESPN Insider), prompting Law to say he would otherwise be “…first or second on the Top 100 list.” Also from Law:
Santana is a well-rounded offensive player with great plate discipline and an explosive bat; if he stays behind the plate long-term, he’ll be one of the best players in the American League.
As for Choo, he’s done nothing but come very close to replacing Sizemore’s production in the outfield. He’s coming off of back-to-back seasons of 5+ WAR (5.0 in 2009 and 5.6 in 2010). In fact, it’s almost comical how his blend of speed, power, plate discipline and excellence with the glove have both mirrored the Sizemore of past and softened the blow of Sizemore’s injury-catalyzed erosion. Now that his requirement to serve in the military in South Korea has been wiped away, this the greatest reward of his win at the Asian Games baseball final, nothing stands in Choo’s way to continue to play brilliantly and get paid handsomely.
There are other questions including how well (or poorly) the haul of prospects that the Indians received in return for Lee and Sabathia play. Matt LaPorta was a first round pick in 2007 and a top 30 prospect according to Baseball America at the start of both 2008 and 2009, but he owns a .307 OBP and .308 wOBA since in roughly a season’s worth of plate appearances. He’s essentially played at replacement level. Carlos Carrasco (RHP), Jason Knapp (RHP), catcher Lou Marson and shortstop Jason Donald remain questions marks too.
So there are reasons for optimism and not just of the obligatory variety given the rapid approach of Cactus and Grapefruit League baseball. Whether or not Sizemore returns to that MVP-caliber level remains to be seen. Not to mention that should he regain form, the likelihood of Cleveland shipping him off for a handsome haul of prospects is far from remote. But Sizemore’s considerable upside and his reasonable contract remain reasons for Cleveland GM Chris Antonetti to refrain from doing so. The thought of Choo and Sizemore forming one of the most dynamic outfields in baseball has me giddy, eager to see the pain of a great American city alleviated, even if only for a season.
But please do take my optimism with a grain of salt (or two): when it rains it pours, and right now it’s a monsoon in Cleveland.