The Cleveland Indians face a major dilemma this offseason: Exercise Grady Sizemore’s $9 million option for the 2012 season, or cut ties with the face of the franchise the past seven seasons and buy out his option for $500K.
If Sizemore had been the player the Indians thought they signed back in 2006, exercising this option would be a no-brainer. In fact, had Sizemore maintained his 2005-08 form, the Indians would receive premium value at $9 million. He was once dubbed “Superman” by then-White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen and had an average WAR of 6.9 when healthy for an entire season.
However, Sizemore’s health has been a major issue over the past three seasons. After averaging 160 games played in his first four years, it seemed as if the All-Star center fielder was as durable as they come.
Since 2008, however, Sizemore has missed a significant number of games due to left elbow surgery, sports hernia surgery in his lower abdomen (first in 2009 and a second procedure in 2011), microfracture surgery in his left knee and a right knee contusion. In that span, Sizemore has missed more games (276) than he has actually played (2009: 106 G, 2010: 33 G, 2011: 71 G; total 210 G).
The case for Sizemore
When healthy, Sizemore is one of the premier center fielders in baseball and clearly worth $8.5 million. He just turned 29 years old and has plenty of good baseball left if he can keep his health in order.
Last season started off great for Sizemore, as he hit .378/.429/.822 with four homers and nine RBI. His season was sidetracked once again by health; he was sent to the disabled list to heal a knee contusion and repair a sports hernia for the second time in his career.
His final 2011 stat line was disappointing for a player of Sizemore’s caliber (71 G, .224/.285/.422, 10 HR, 32 RBI, 0 SB), but there is some optimism with his resurgence of power and glimpses of the player from 2005-08.
The Indians’ 2011 midseason trade for Ubaldo Jimenez has opened a two- to three-year window for the organization to be in major contention. The core of the team is under team control for at least the next two seasons:
Player 2012 Salary/Status 2013 Salary/Status Ubaldo Jimenez $4.2MM $5.75MM Travis Hafner $13MM $13MM Club Option Fausto Carmona $7MM Club Option $9MM Club Option Shin-Soo Choo Arbitration 2 Arbitration 3 Chris Perez Arbitration 2 Arbitration 3 Asdrubal Cabrera Arbitration 2 Arbitration 3 Justin Masterson Arbitration 1 Arbitration 2
With the core intact, if the Indians feel they have a chance to contend, it has to be in the next two seasons. That said, Sizemore is by far the best option the organization has in center field. The alternatives of Trevor Crowe and Ezequiel Carerra are not everyday type players on a playoff contending team. It is also inconceivable that the organization will splurge for an outfielder in free agency.
Lastly, the unexpected playoff run the Indians had for over three quarters of this past season inflated overall attendance by 500,000 more than expected.
Coming into the season, the Indians front office projected attendance to be 1.3 million, but the early hot streak, midseason contention, and the Jim Thome trade pushed attendance to over 1.8 million. This jump will allow the organization to significantly increase the 2012 payroll for arbitration raises and possible free agent targets, and it makes the team capable of picking up Sizemore’s option.
The case against Sizemore
Although Sizemore is only 29 years old, the past three injury-laden seasons have taken a great toll on his body. Not only have the injuries forced him to miss 276 games over the past three seasons, they have also taken away from Sizemore’s natural abilities that made him so valuable from 2005-08.
Much of Sizemore’s value was derived from his speed, both on the bases and roaming the outfield. In 2008, he was 38 out of 43 in stolen base attempts (156 G), but this past season he had zero stolen bases in only two attempts (71 G).
Sizemore also went from a Gold Glove center fielder with exceptional range in both 2007 and 2008 to merely an outfielder with average range who may be better off switching to left field. His UZR/150 displays this by showing Sizemore in the top quartile among all major league players before his health concerns and in the bottom half of this statistic since 2008. There is no guarantee that his speed will return, especially since there are now concerns about his right knee.
Sizemore’s hitting talents have allowed him to gain a reputation as an extra-base-hit machine, but it also makes him apt to strike out quite a bit.
His strikeout percentage has steadily increased since 2008 to a staggering 28.8 in 2011. That is a mark only exceeded by the likes of Adam Dunn, Mark Reynolds, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Drew Stubbs and Wilson Betemit (min 295 AB). Among those players, Sizemore also has the lowest walk percentage. This is a disturbing trend for a player who spends the majority of the time at the top of the Indians batting order with depreciating production.
Lastly, the Indians’ offense is largely unbalanced with left-handed hitters and is among the league leaders in strikeouts. If Sizemore is brought back, the offense will be essentially the same as this past season’s and will again be prone to inconsistency at the plate with large numbers of strikeouts. The major league leaders in lowest strikeout percentage are the Rangers and Cardinals, who made the World Series.
What will be done
Whatever the Indians’ decision is on Sizemore, it will have a domino effect on the rest of the offseason moves. The organization needs to examine all possibilities and look for creative ways to upgrade the roster with the limited finances available. Declining Sizemore’s option would be one way to free up roster money and make the Indians an interesting team this offseason.
The best option for the Indians would be to renegotiate a new short-term deal with Sizemore that includes a base salary of $3-5 million and is incentive-laden. It is not known what the terms of a deal like this would actually come out to, but if Sizemore hits free agency, it would not be surprising to see a team with payroll flexibility take a chance on him.
Teams rumored to be targeting Sizemore this offseason are the Giants, Mariners (he’s from the Seattle area and would play for former manager Eric Wedge), Phillies, and the usual free agent suspects, the Red Sox and Yankees.
One other option the Indians may explore is acquiring outfielder B.J. Upton of the Tampa Bay Rays. The Indians expressed strong interest in Upton this past season: They tried to work out a deal to acquire him before the July 31 trade deadline.
The addition of Upton would be a considerable upgrade in center field with his great athleticism and would provide a power bat from the right side of the plate. While this is a very intriguing option, this move would mean the end of Sizemore in Cleveland and probably the loss of some top prospects in the Indians organization.
With the confined payroll flexibility and numerous decisions that need to be addressed this offseason, the decision on Sizemore’s option will be heavily scrutinized. Sizemore’s option would likely absorb 15-20 percent of the Indians’ expected payroll. With such a large chunk going to one player, the organization must be certain he is capable of having a healthy season, or else the Indians’ progression may be strained in the process.
One thing is certain; if the Indians expect to contend next season they will need an upgrade over what they received from the position this past season. That may be in the form of a healthy Sizemore, but there isn’t another player on the roster ready to fill that void. This is a huge decision for the organization that will tug on the emotional strings of all involved. However, this must be a business decision that puts the organization in the best position to be successful.