This is our most desperate hour. Help me, Grady Sizemore. You are my only hope.
The Indians need to find a way to keep Sizemore around for two or three more years, even if it means biting the bullet and exercising his $9M option for next season. Writing that line pains me, but I think it is true. The basic argument, which I'll expand below, is simple. What the Indians need if they hope to contend sometime in the next two to three seasons is talent at the major league level. The area of the diamond they most lack talent right now is outfield and first base. Sizemore, with a positive health prognosis can play the former, and even with a negative one can man the latter. Sizemore is the Indians best option for adding (keeping?) real talent to the outfield/first base mix. The Indians have no viable options in the upper minors and the free agent outlook is bleak. But it is obviously a huge gamble. And maybe that is a good thing.
First, this argument is obviously contingent on the reports the organization gets from the doctors who performed Sizemore's most recent (of five) knee surgery. If he looks irreparably damaged, so be it. But if not, the Indians need to keep him. But they need to leverage their position to keep him for not just the 2012 season, but preferably through the 2014 season. This window covers the main parts of the current pitching staff and also provides a window for talent to (hopefully) percolate up through the Tribe's farm system to replace Grady (though there are no obvious outfield replacements at the moment). Paul Cousineau (at the DiaTribe ) and Terry Pluto (Plain Dealer) have argued for a highly incentive-based deal that keeps Grady in town through 2014 (Paul gives a complete breakdown here). If Grady were to accept such an offer, great, but I think it is unlikely he would. I think the starting point for signing Grady to a risk-minimizing extension begins with agreeing to exercise Sizemore's 2012 option in its entirety. Painful, but if it allows the team to sign him to such a risk-minimizing extension, it is worth it. Also, if we consider the team to have a 2012-2014 window, the team payroll is likely to climb each of those years as players move through contract extensions and/or progress into and through arbitration years. If you want to add one season of a bloated contract, 2012 is the year to do it.
Why do we need Grady? First, the Travis Buck and Austin Kearns dynamic duo is gone. The minor league options simply lack any real major league talent. Trevor Crowe, Jered Head and Chad Huffman represent the minor league veteran crop, and as a group, they represent at best an emergency injury filler. The younger guys include Tim Fedroff, Nick Weglarz and Thomas Neal. Weglarz is broken and there is no reason to evaluate him otherwise until he shows he can tie his shoes without pulling a hamstring. Tim Fedroff is in Arizona this Fall after a marginally successful season (.308/.385/.408), but his numbers collapsed in Columbus and there is really very little positive upside in a close examination of his numbers. Thomas Neal is arguably more interesting, but he is two years removed from a plus offensive season (2009 - .337/.431/.579, A+), and has shown nothing above the high-A level in the minors. The argument for a free agent upgrade is even harder to stomach. If the best market-price option available to the Tribe is someone like Coco Crisp, is that really a better option than paying near market-price for a devalued Grady Sizemore?
The guys who filled in for Sizemore this year had mixed results, but don't make up for a world without Grady. Shelley Duncan should be a part of the team in 2012, but he is not really a potential replacement for Sizemore on the roster. Ezequiel Carrera is a 4th or 5th outfielder (if he improves his defense). Michael Brantley is the only viable replacement for Sizemore at the major league level, but a shift from LF to CF of Brantley creates its own problems. Furthermore, Brantley has his own injury concerns following surgery on his hamate bone which ended his season. Brantley showed what appeared to be positive development across the first two months of the season in 2011 (.287/.354/.410 through the end of May), but completely collapsed afterwards. His inability to consistently get on base, take advantage of his contact abilities, and utilize his speed continue to frustrate. Brantley might still take a significant step forward, but he does not appear to be a viable starter on a team hoping to contend at this point.
So that leaves Grady. Grady's advantage is his potential to deliver a plus bat to the lineup. We all recall how Grady was hitting before his first DL stint in mid-May last season (.282/.333/.641), but that was just 18 games. But can we honestly hope for that kind of production over an 18-game stretch out of any of our other options? The 43 games Grady played after his sting on the DL featured an identical .302 BABIP but a far more wretched .214/.289/.377 batting line. And his September denouement was even worse. But talent wins out, and Grady is significantly more talented than any other viable options. It is worth reminding yourself tonight when you watch Chris Carpenter pitch game 5 for St. Louis that he was a complete injury wash-out. Labrum surgery for a pitcher is the death sentence, but after being waived by Toronto, missing a complete season in recovery, he eventually made it back and has been a key cog of the Cardinals pitching staff since (even with two additional lost seasons). Carpenter is the exception, not the norm, but he is an example of talent winning out.
Sizemore's unwavering support from fans seems to have reached a tipping point this season, and the ownership and front office run the risk in re-signing him of hearing chants about the Indians being "cheap" change into lamentations about how "stupid" the club is. But that is a risk the Indians should take. The Indians pitching staff is unlikely to transform into the Philadelphia Phillies anytime soon. It has the potential to be "good enough," but not on its own. The Indians will need to have above average offensive support and holding onto Grady Sizemore (and lighting a few devotional candles) should be part of the plan to try and accomplish that. Again, it pains me somewhat, but sign me on to the "keep Grady Sizemore" bandwagon.