Commentary

Grady Sizemore seeks turnaround in '10

Indians desperately need veteran center fielder to stay healthy and spark offense

Originally Published: March 9, 2010
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Grady Sizemore and Mike Redmond have two elements in place that should make for a productive conversation. They're both Seattle natives, and they're represented by the same agent, Joe Urbon of Creative Artists Associates.

[+] EnlargeGrady Sizemore
AP Photo/Mark DuncanGrady Sizemore is entering his seventh season with the Indians.

But those snippets of common ground didn't lead to much verbal repartee when Redmond was catching for Minnesota and Sizemore stepped in the batter's box for Cleveland. Motorists and tollbooth attendants have been known to engage in lengthier dialogues.

"He'd come to the plate and it was, 'Hi,' and that's it,'' said Redmond, who signed with Cleveland as a free agent in January. "When you play against somebody for five or six years, 19 times a year, you should get a little bit more than, 'Hi.' But that's Grady, and that's fine. I think I got as much out of [Shin-Soo] Choo.''

This is a common observation among people who know Sizemore -- or are trying to get to know him. He's humble, earnest and team-oriented. But more often than not, he's on his way to the batting cage, the weight room, the video room or some other section of the workplace typically devoted to self-improvement.

And even when Sizemore does stop to chat, he's a walking "Seinfeld'' reference.

"He's very quiet -- and he's a low talker,'' said Indians manager Manny Acta.

If there's any year for Sizemore to speak softly and carry a big stick, it's this one. Spring training is a time for renewal, but the cleansing process usually entails reflecting on the previous season. And in Sizemore's case, the less said about 2009, the better.

From Opening Day 2005 through the final game of 2008, Sizemore established himself as one of the game's pre-eminent players. He made three All-Star teams in Cleveland, won two Gold Gloves and a Silver Slugger Award and earned a reputation as a wall-defying human projectile. No game was too out of reach, no warning track too hard for him to sacrifice his body for the cause.

It wasn't until Sizemore began leaving body parts on the field that his career hit a bump in the road.

If they made a movie about Sizemore's 2009 season, they could call it "The Hurt Locker.'' He hit .248 in 106 games before two injuries prompted him to shut it down in September. Sizemore underwent surgery for an inflamed left elbow, and the anesthesia had barely worn off when he went back for a second procedure to have a lower abdominal injury repaired.

Some big leaguers would have called it quits earlier while playing on a team that finished 21½ games out of first place, but concession speeches aren't in Sizemore's vocabulary.

"It wasn't at the point where I couldn't go out and play,'' Sizemore said. "You still want to go out there and give your team a chance. I'm going to fight and stay in there as long as I can.''

Sizemore returned this spring to a Cleveland clubhouse far removed from the heights of October 2007, when the Indians were one victory over Boston away from a trip to the World Series. Manager Eric Wedge, pitchers CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee and several other established teammates are gone. The Indians' win total has declined from 96 to 81 to 65, and Sizemore is now surrounded by a few old friends, some low-cost free-agent additions and a bunch of kids looking to make their mark.

When Michael Brantley, Matt LaPorta, Trevor Crowe and Cleveland's other position player prospects are looking for an example to follow, they could do a lot worse.

Acta, who managed three years in Washington, sees a lot of similarities between Sizemore and Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. "It's amazing to find guys that talented who can keep their heads on their shoulders and not have a big ego,'' Acta said. Others look at Sizemore's focus and businesslike attitude and see a trace of Phillies second baseman Chase Utley.

Travis Hafner, Sizemore's teammate since 2004, just sees the same old Grady.

"You see him out there running into walls and diving after balls, and there's never going to be a young kid here who isn't going to play the game hard -- just because of Grady's presence on the team,'' Hafner said.

Sizemore, 27, will approach the game from a slightly different vantage point this spring. After making 673 of his 771 career starts in the leadoff spot, he'll drop to No. 2 in the batting order behind shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera.

The change was a product of necessity. The Indians ranked eighth in the American League last season in runs scored (773) and OPS (.756), and they're going to have to squeeze every drop out of their offense to prop up a pitching staff with lots of questions.

The Indians expect Sizemore to hit 25 to 30 home runs this year provided he's healthy, and they're hesitant to lock him into a spot in which approximately 150 of his at-bats -- the first plate appearance each game -- are guaranteed to come with the bases empty. They also expect Sizemore to get more RBI opportunities hitting behind Cabrera than the No. 9 hitter in the order.

"Grady deserves all the respect in the world, so I didn't do it during the offseason,'' Acta said. " I talked to him face-to-face when we came down here, and gave him a few days to digest it and make sure he was OK with it. He's fine with it.''

Sizemore's biggest challenge in Goodyear is finding the right gear. The Indians plan to use him at designated hitter in some early Cactus League games and play him more in center field as the spring progresses. It's not in Sizemore's DNA to pace himself. But he has a kindred spirit and handy sounding board in Hafner, who has gone through a similar adjustment because of shoulder problems.

"We're both guys who like to come in and take 100 swings,'' Hafner said. "It's Grady's mentality to want to go 100 mph from the get-go. He kind of plays like a football player. But when you're coming back from surgery, you have to taper back and be smart about things. It's a huge adjustment.''

Someday relatively soon, when Brantley is ready to come up and hit leadoff, Cabrera could drop to second and Sizemore will bat third. Sizemore is a .235 career hitter against lefties and always a candidate to strike out 150 times over a full season, so he's still evolving as a hitter. But he'll make a combined $13.1 million over the next two seasons and $8.25 million on a club option in 2012, so he's reasonably priced even for the cost-conscious Indians.

Sizemore has always been a fan favorite in Cleveland, even if he's no longer G-rated. In early February, Sizemore inadvertently made headlines when some risqué photos of himself that he had sent to his girlfriend, Brittany Binger, were splashed all over the Internet.

Sizemore apologized at a news conference, even though the photos made the rounds after an unidentified computer hacker tapped into Binger's e-mail and distributed the pictures. If the incident provided any lessons on the hazards of fame in a TMZ and YouTube world, he doesn't care to share them.

"Sorry, but I'm going to have to pass on that question,'' he said.

Sizemore doesn't owe his teammates any apologies. They're glad to have him back, busting it down the line, breaking up double plays and fulfilling his responsibilities as the public face of the franchise, even though it's contrary to his nature.

"You're here to represent your team and your organization as best as possible, and dealing with the media is part of that,'' Sizemore said. "I try to be accountable, answer what I have to answer and be respectful. That's no less important than anything else I do here.

"I've just never been one to be a big talker. I hope guys don't take it personal.''

Redmond, Sizemore's new teammate and fellow Evergreen Stater, certainly doesn't. He's confident he can penetrate that Sizemore shell eventually.

"We're getting there," Redmond said. "I was here four or five days and I said, 'Hi,' and Grady said, 'Hey.' I said, 'Hey, good talk, man. I'll catch you tomorrow.'

"I guarantee you in the next month we'll sit down and have a good conversation. I'm hoping three or four minutes."

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License To Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer