GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- There's a guy in the Indians clubhouse who made three straight All-Star teams, a guy who won gold gloves, a guy who showed up on a few Most Valuable Player ballots.
There's a guy whose general manager once said was "one of the greatest players of our generation." And even if that always seemed like a bit of an overstatement, it was an understandable one.
After all, back when the Indians were good -- and remember, we're only talking three or four years ago -- Grady Sizemore was something special.
"I mean, he was one of the best players in the game," said Travis Hafner, one of the few 2007 Indians who remains with the team. "To have a talent like him at the top of the order, it changed the game from the first batter of the game."
And that's why even now, in a spring where the Indians are trying to interest their fans in the next generation, the most encouraging sight has been the ball flying off Grady Sizemore's bat.
And it's why the most interesting question isn't when kids like Lonnie Chisenhall, Jason Kipnis and Alex White will arrive. It's whether the Grady Sizemore of 2007-08 will return.
He's still just 28 years old, but he wasn't himself in 2009 because of a sports hernia and an elbow injury, and he basically didn't play last year because of a knee injury that required microfracture surgery. And after months of rehabilitation that at one point required him to spend eight hours a day strapped to a continuous passive motion machine ("torture," Sizemore called it), there's still no guarantee that he'll be ready for opening day.
Or that he'll ever be able to run the way he once did.
"I definitely can get back to playing the way I always played," Sizemore said this week.
He figures he's running now at maybe 50-75 percent. He knows that even if opening day is some kind of a goal, when he plays is nowhere near as important as how he'll play when he's fully healthy.
"A healthy Grady Sizemore is probably one of the best center fielders in the game," said new teammate Orlando Cabrera, who has been around the American League long enough to remember.
Breakout ... Carlos Santana: Rarely do 150 at-bats carry so much weight for a player, but Santana was so productive at such a position of need that his brief debut last year should give you all the confidence you need to draft him as a high-end option. His unprecedented strike-zone judgment (seriously, who walks more than he strikes out as a rookie, especially among catchers?) should make him a stud even if he doesn't quite hit .300. The fact he's not considered a real risk in Fantasy even coming off knee surgery shows just how much upside he has.
Bust ... Grady Sizemore: Sizemore might be the hardest player to assess in Fantasy this year. Players have had success with microfracture surgery in the NBA, but it's relatively untested in baseball. And for a player whose game depends so much on speed, the knee procedure could be the thread that unravels everything. Even if Sizemore is able to come back strong, even if he plays every day and provides his usual power, he's unlikely to regain his prior form. You can't expect him to steal 30 bases again, and without a significant contribution in that area, his shortcomings, such as his high strikeout rate and suspect batting average, become more pronounced. True, he'll only cost you a middle-round pick, but middle-round production might be the best-case scenario for him.
Sleeper ... Chris Perez: OK, so Perez isn't exactly a nobody in Fantasy. He'll get drafted in every league, in fact. But most Fantasy owners don't seem to grasp just how impressive his breakthrough 2010 season was. From June 28 on, he posted a 0.53 ERA, striking out 37 batters in 34 innings. He allowed less than a hit every two innings during that stretch. A pitcher can't get any more effective than that. True, he pitches for a bad team, but that hasn't stopped Joakim Soria from earning elite status in Fantasy. At a time when so many big-name closers have so many concerns, Perez is more valuable than anyone gives him credit for. He's a late-rounder who's almost sure to perform like a middle-rounder, if not better.-- Scott White
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A healthy Grady Sizemore wouldn't make the Indians a contender, but you have to believe that a healthy Grady Sizemore might attract a contender to try to interest the Indians in making yet another big midseason trade. It's what we've come to expect from this team that dealt Cy Young winners CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee in back-to-back years, and also sent players like Casey Blake and Jake Westbrook elsewhere.
The Indians will tell you the moves had to be made, because the players were nearing the end of contracts, and because the team wasn't in contention. They'll remind you that their midseason deals focused on additions back when they were winning -- not that long ago -- and also that the deals they made netted them players like Carlos Santana, Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley, all of whom will fit in the 2011 everyday lineup.
Santana, in fact, is the other great recovery story of the spring. The catcher's career seemed in jeopardy after a home-plate collision with Boston's Ryan Kalish, but he's come back so well that he's having a normal spring training and said the knee is now not an issue.
Sizemore's knee is an issue, even though Indians people rave about the way he's hitting in batting practice, and even though he says that "the hard part and the frustrating part [of the rehab] is behind me."
The Indians would love to think that the frustrating part of their rebuilding is behind them. They lost 97 and 93 games the last two seasons, and they watched attendance at Progressive Field progressively shrink.
It's hard to think it will be any better this year, after a winter where Cabrera (at $1 million) was their biggest-name acquisition.
General manager Chris Antonetti says, "We expect to win this year," but you have to believe the Indians will consider this season a success if they simply win with a little more regularity than they did the last two seasons, and if the young core develops to the point that it will be possible to envision another team like Cleveland had in 2007.
"We're committed to what we're doing," Antonetti said. "We believe we're going to be successful."
Antonetti wasn't the general manager who called Sizemore "without a doubt one of the greatest players of our generation," or who said "If he were in New York, he'd be [Derek] Jeter."
That was Mark Shapiro, now the Indians club president.
But if Sizemore really can get back to being what he once was, maybe a whole lot of other people will be thinking the same thing. Remember, this guy was a pretty good player before he got hurt.
"Oh my God," Cabrera said. "Every day you'd show up and see something special."
The Indians will be a whole lot more interesting to watch this year if we see it again.