Grady returns, but at what level?
CLEVELAND -- Grady Sizemore has watched it all play out before him, without him.Once the face of the Cleveland Indians franchise, he has been merely an interested observer in these opening weeks of the 2011 season, in which the Tribe has put together one of the most surprisingly strong starts in all of baseball. "It's been fun to watch," Sizemore said. "But it's also been hard to watch." Sizemore is not accustomed to watching. Never has been. He once played in 382 consecutive games for the Indians, but that was, it seems, ages ago. The Sizemore sitting in front of his locker at Progressive Field on Saturday morning is only 28, but injuries the past two years -- most notably the ailing left knee that required microfracture surgery and 10 months of rehab -- have barraged his body and made him all the more appreciative of the amazing run of health and durability he once enjoyed. And the Indians' early record? Well, that's only further fueled his fire to get back on the field. "These guys have been hot since the start," he said. "I'll try to get right into that mix and get going. We have a good lineup that can be pretty dangerous. We just gotta keep doing what we're doing. Stay with what we're doing and hopefully I'll slide right in there." He slid in there Sunday, when the Indians officially activated him off the disabled list. And this is, potentially, a big boost to a lineup that is already averaging more than five runs per game. But therein lies the sensitivity over the Sizemore situation. Manager Manny Acta showed no hesitation in allowing Sizemore to return to his former leadoff spot. And given the early poise displayed by current leadoff man Michael Brantley, that will inevitably lead to concerns about whether Sizemore is suited for that old role or whether it might be best to first ease him into a less prominent spot. The concerns are valid, not just because of the way the lineup has performed sans Sizemore in the early going, but because we know very little about what the Indians can reasonably expect to receive from Sizemore at this stage in his career. Sizemore's bio lists him as a three-time All-Star, two-time Gold Glove winner and one-time Silver Slugger. But again, that was a while back -- before 2009, when elbow and abdominal issues limited him to 106 games and led to a pair of September surgical procedures, and before 2010, when he tweaked the knee in Spring Training, never fully recovered and was shut down by May. That's two years basically lost to injury. Two years in which it is inherently unfair to judge Sizemore's sagging statistics, because the few days he was playing, he was playing through considerable pain. But two years, all the same. And now Sizemore is coming back from a procedure that doesn't contain quite enough precedent to paint a reliable picture of what's to come. Sizemore will have to learn to trust his knee, and the Indians will have to trust that he can be the Sizemore of 2008. "The last month and a half or so, my knee has been pretty consistent," Sizemore said. "The changes that I feel have been very minimal. Early on, early in the spring and before that, you never knew how you were going to feel out there doing your work. But I've gotten past that now. It's been pretty steady." Steady enough to allow Sizemore to return to All-Star status? Well, maybe, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. He's not yet even ready for everyday status, as his playing time, initially, will have to be manipulated to ensure he gets proper rest every few days. "I've been doing this for 10 months, and it seems the plan has changed every two weeks," Sizemore said. "So I just focus on what I can do today and go from there. That's what's kept me sane, for the most part." The Indians have received little help from the left-field tandem of Austin Kearns and Travis Buck thus far, so Brantley's shift to left and Sizemore's insertion into center has to be considered an upgrade. But is Sizemore really ready to bump Brantley from the No. 1 slot? Debate away. Clearly, Sizemore at his 2008 peak had graduated from that slot, as his power and run-production capability -- not to mention his strikeout totals -- made him more suited for a lower spot in the order. The Indians, though, stuck with him in leadoff out of necessity. They had nobody else for the role. These days, they do. But the next four spots are awfully crowded, too. Early results aside, Shin-Soo Choo is one of the game's best bats, and Acta has expressed all the confidence in the world in Carlos Santana. For good reason, he isn't going to bump them from the heart of the order. The resurgence of Asdrubal Cabrera and Travis Hafner solidified the Nos. 2 and 5 slots. And let's face it, there's a respect factor that must be considered before slotting an established talent like Sizemore sixth or lower. Having Brantley at No. 9, followed by Sizemore and Cabrera when the lineup flips, could create an intriguing dynamic for Acta's club beyond the first inning. All this might provide an added layer of fodder for discussion, but, in the grand analysis, it's best to look at the big picture. If Sizemore can reclaim his old form, then he's a huge internal upgrade to a team that's already rolling, no matter where he slots in. "When you add Grady Sizemore to any lineup on any team in America," Acta said, "you are adding to it." What, exactly, are the Indians adding in the 2011 version of Sizemore? Mercifully for the man who has long been tired of waiting and watching, it's time to find out.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.