With Coco Crisp
, Casey Blake
, Ryan Ludwick
and Grady Sizemore
available to start the season, and hopefully Jody Gerut
back from his knee injury by late May, the Indians seemed pretty well set not only on the corners, but in center field as well.
Then the Tribe got an unexpected opportunity. Former two-time American League MVP Juan Gonzalez
, who spent the 2001 season with Cleveland, became available for a ridiculously low $600,000 for the 2005
season with bonus clauses that could take his salary up to slightly more than $2 million.
Coming off yet another injury-plagued season, this time with the Royals, Gonzalez's stock plummeted after the '04 season in which he played in just 33 games and hit .276 with five homers and 17 RBI. In fact, chronic back problems, a thumb injury and a strained calf have limited him to an average of just 62 games a year since he left the
Indians. His home run total has dipped to an average of just 12 a season since '01.
The thrifty Indians will be glad to pay Gonzalez his extra $1.4 million because that most likely will mean he'll be playing a lot of games and driving in a lot of runs, as he did in 2001 when he hit .325 with 35 homers and 140 RBI. It will be a win-win situation and possibly even mean the difference in deciding the AL Central race.
The only potential loser in this situation is 22-year-old Sizemore, who very likely will get sent back to Buffalo, at least to start the season. Instead of having a legitimate shot at starting in center field for the Indians, he will probably be the Bisons' Opening Day starter in center. Meanwhile, the Tribe's Opening Day lineup, providing Gonzalez is healthy and motivated, will likely find `Gonzo in right, Crisp in center and Blake in left.
Without Gonzalez, the starters probably would have been Blake in right, Sizemore in center and Crisp in left.
Sizemore, one of the top prospects in all of minor-league baseball, understandably isn't thrilled with the idea of going back to Buffalo, especially after getting his first taste of the majors last summer.
"Obviously, you want to be a part of the (major league) team," Sizemore said. "And I'll be disappointed if I'm not, but it's one of those things you can't control."
Even though the signing adversely affects one of his most prized prospects, Indians general manager Mark Shapiro said he couldn't pass up the opportunity to acquire a player of Gonzalez's stature. "With our expectations for this team this season, the chance to have a veteran run-producer on the corner was too good an opportunity to walk away from," Shapiro said.
Sizemore says he totally understands why the Indians signed Gonzalez. "The Indians are trying to put together the best team that they can," he said. "They couldn't pass up an opportunity like that. I understand that. I just have to accept it, roll with it and keep on playing hard.
"I know I can't work any harder than I've worked in the past. I just plan to come into spring training and show them what I can do. I did all right last year, learned a lot from it and now I know I'll be a better player in the future because of that experience. I now know what to expect."
In two separate stints with the Tribe, Sizemore hit a combined .246 with four homers and 24 RBI in 43 games. After struggling his first time up from late July until Aug. 30, Sizemore was sent back to Buffalo to play in the post-season and helped the Bisons win the International League championship.
A new and improved Sizemore returned to the Indians in mid-September and went on a tear, hitting .306 with two homers and nine RBI in 13 games.
"I had my ups and downs (with the Indians) and I learned a lot from it," Sizemore said. "At the end of the season when I came back up, I felt pretty confident. I had improved from the first time I was up and I was happy with the way it ended."
The Indians will undoubtedly want Sizemore to play on an everyday basis, which is why he will be sent back to Buffalo rather than serve as Crisp's backup in center.
If it was up to Sizemore, he'd prefer to stay with the Indians, even if it meant limited playing time.
"I want to be a part of this team any way I can be," said Sizemore. "If it was up to me, I would play every day. That's what I want to do. But if that was not the situation for me, I would take (any playing time) I could get even if it meant being a bench player."
Sizemore realizes he still needs to work on his game and that a trip to Buffalo will likely benefit him. "There's not one thing in particular, but rather just a lot of little things I need to improve on," he said. "The more I play, the more I understand, the more I improve."
In 529 career minor-league games, Sizemore is a .289 hitter with 27 homers and 260 RBI. He also has 96 stolen bases, including 15 with the Bisons last year.
Offensively, he is more of a gap hitter than a power hitter. He has the potential to have a .300-plus average once he gets established in the majors. Defensively, he plays a very solid center field. His throwing arm is just average, although much better than that of Crisp, who has one of the weakest outfield arms in the majors.
In 2004, Sizemore was the No. 1 rated prospect in the organization by Indians Ink
. This year, he did not qualify to make the Top 50 list due to the fact he lost his rookie status last year.
Despite his huge upside, you'll never hear Sizemore boasting about his potential. "I don't like to talk about myself too much," he said. "I'd rather sit back in the corner and let everybody else do the talking."
Unfortunately for Sizemore, at least to start this season, he will likely be sitting in the corner in Buffalo instead of Cleveland.
But that probably won't be the case for long. It's hard to keep a player with Sizemore's talent down (in the minors).
The Indians went into the off-season with no intention whatsoever of signing a free-agent corner outfielder who could come in and challenge for a starting job.
In fact, one of their goals was to unload one they did have, starting left-fielder Matt Lawton and his $7 million contract.
Grady Sizemore ... future remains bright.