© 2012 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.

02/24/12 9:00 PM EST

Sizemore was always a gamble for Indians

For 18 games of the 2011 season -- you know, after he missed a couple of weeks while finishing off the rehab on his left knee, and before he hurt his other knee sliding into second base -- the Indians got the real Grady Sizemore.

It was an 18-game burst of brilliance. A .974 OPS and 16 extra-base hits. The Sizemore of old, the Sizemore who had been welcomed into the good graces of the 30-30 club and an annual American League All-Star locker assignment, had returned, but briefly.

And that 18-game stretch, combined with the cache of goodwill and sound reputation he had accrued over a decade of hard work in front of and behind the curtain, was enough for the Indians to take a $5 million gamble that they'd be getting that Grady again for a more sustained stretch in 2012.

Maybe that gamble looks foolish now in the wake of yet another Sizemore injury -- this time, a strained back while fielding groundballs in the outfield, a fate that would be comic if it weren't so tragic -- and the news that glass-bodied Grady will miss yet another Opening Day.

But even though my last optometrist appointment confirmed 20/20 hindsight, I still can't fault the Tribe front office for this one, given their obvious budget constraints.

To me, the Sizemore deal remains a chance that was very much worth taking.

Remember, this was -- is -- a $5 million guarantee, with added incentives that the Indians would be pleased to pay, because that would mean Sizemore is a regular member of their lineup.

What does $5 million buy you in the free-agent outfield market? I think you know the answer to that question, but let's explore it anyway.

The only true comparable from a year ago was when the Rays paid a 37-year-old Johnny Damon $5.25 million to be their left fielder (he eventually became their DH, after Manny Ramirez flaked out) and got 1.5 wins above replacement (WAR), as calculated by FanGraphs.com. But just to further assist the discussion, Coco Crisp was in the second year of a two-year, $10.75 million contract with the A's (making $5.75 million) and delivered a 2.2 WAR.

WAR is not a perfect estimation of a player's contributions, by any means, but it gives us a decent estimation of what $5 million can buy you in this particular department. A player of marginal impact.

Now, obviously, Sizemore at his healthiest was a player of substantial impact. He had a 5.8 WAR in 2005, 8.0 in '06, 6.2 in '07, and 7.4 in '08. And even when he played virtually the entire '09 season with elbow and abdominal issues and was shut down in early September, he contributed a 2.0 WAR. This is comparable to what the Rays and A's got from Damon and Crisp, respectively, last year.

I know, I know. That version of Sizemore is gone, and likely for good. But as that '09 season demonstrated, if you could just get the guy on the field, the potential for $5 million worth of assistance was there.

And if he's actually in a position where he's feeling healthy, well, who knows? That taunting, teasing 18-game stretch from last season had the Indians holding out hope for much more. And rightfully so.

The decision to re-sign Sizemore makes even more sense when you look at the other, decidedly unappealing options that existed on the free-agent and trade markets. For one, none other than Crisp himself was considered the top center fielder on the market (he got two years, $14 million). The Tribe's best trade options, as far as I could tell, were Andres Torres and Angel Pagan, and they ended up getting swapped for each other. No telling if the Indians had the right piece to land either guy, and there's certainly no telling what either will contribute after decidedly down years with the Giants and Mets and with no discernible track record beforehand.

The best outfield options, regardless of particular position within the outfield, were Michael Cuddyer, who got three years and $31.5 million from the Rockies, and Josh Willingham, who got three years and $21 million from the Twins.

Cuddyer was never a realistic possibility, at that price, whether the Indians signed Sizemore or not. But the Sizemore signing actually didn't preclude them from being finalists for Willingham. They were in on him until the bitter end. Perhaps if they didn't sign Grady, they could have upped their Willingham offer, but now you're talking about a three-year contract in excess of $21 million for a player who, in a career year last year, contributed two wins above replacement. Not what I'd consider a sound investment.

Maybe the Indians could have gotten lucky with some other investment, a la the Royals last year with their $2.5 million deal with Jeff Francouer or the Cardinals with their $8 million deal with Lance Berkman. But that's the kind of luck the Indians (an organization that, quite famously, does not major in luck) were/are counting on with Sizemore.

Maybe the Tribe could have used the Sizemore savings in other areas, such as increasing their offer to first baseman Carlos Pena. They reportedly offered Pena $8 million to come to Cleveland, and he opted instead to sign with the Rays for $7.25 million. Maybe if they threw a couple more million on the pile, they could have reeled him in. But then you have to ask yourself if Carlos Pena is worth eight figures.

The long-winded point here is that there are any number of opportunities the Indians could have explored beyond Sizemore, but none of them strike me as particularly appealing. And none of them featured the kind of upside the Grady deal presented (and perhaps, depending on the severity of this back situation, still presents).

No, if you want to criticize the Indians at this point, criticize the system, not the signing.

This club simply did not infuse enough quality outfield talent into its system through the Draft and trades to come to the forefront in times like these. Remember, this is the club that took Trevor Crowe when Jacoby Ellsbury was still on the board, and Beau Mills one pick ahead of Jason Heyward. This is the club that, to date, has not reaped any meaningful returns from Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley -- the two top acquisitions in the CC Sabathia trade. (And yes, that 20/20 hindsight is kicking in again.)

And so what the Indians are left with now is the hope, however faint, that Sizemore's back troubles subside quickly enough for him to still provide meaningful at-bats in the 2012 season. And in the meantime, they have to hope that the Shelley Duncans and Aaron Cunnighams and Felix Pies and Ryan Spilborghs of the world -- all guys who were cast aside by other organizations and given new life with the Tribe -- can hold serve until he returns.

This Sizemore injury is damaging, no doubt, though not in the way further malfunctioning of the Ubaldo Jimenez project would be. Sizemore's contract was, from the beginning, a $5 million gamble in which the risk-reward factor was clear and present. Hey, at least this time, it didn't involve a knee.

Maybe Grady gets healthy before long. Maybe he extrapolates that 18-game stretch from 2011 into a more meaningful timeframe.

For this team, in this market, on this budget, with this farm system, that hope is all the Indians have.

And that's all they've had all along.

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.