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Is Cleveland Making the Right Choices?

According to Jordan Bastian of MLB.com, the Indians are expected to decline the $9 million 2012 option on Grady Sizemore. The Tribe is also expected to exercise the $7 million 2012 option on Fausto Carmona. Bringing back Carmona is considerably less risky than exercising Sizemore’s option, however, taken together, the transactions tandem speaks to the Indians evaluation of risk and reward.

Is the team making the right choices with these two longtime employees?

The kneejerk reaction with Sizemore is to pan the organization. How could they decline a relatively low-valued option for a player who averaged close to 7 WAR from 2005-08? At $9 million, even an injury-prone Sizemore would seem worth the risk because the reward is substantial. By declining his option, the team is effectively saying one of two things: that it would rather pay him $500,000 for the right to bring him back on an even lesser deal, or that it thinks so little of his long-term health and performance prospects that it’s unlikely he hovers around the league average moving forward.

A branch of the latter thought is merely being unsure of Sizemore’s status. Without truly knowing how to evaluate his future health and performance, the Indians may adopt a risk-averse approach and use what isn’t known as the brunt of its decision. And it’s hard to fault a team in that spot, even as it pertains to a stud like Sizemore, because he hasn’t been close to the player he was over the last three seasons.

Sizemore has now gone under the knife five times in three seasons, playing in just 210 of the 486 possible games. The left side of his body seems very fragile: his surgeries have consisted of work performed on his left elbow, left groin (x2) and left knee. He had surgery on his right knee after the season to heal a bone bruise. He also hasn’t fully recovered from left knee microfracture surgery performed in June 2010.

Sizemore isn’t healthy even if he was capable of playing 71 games this past season, and the results bear that assessment out.

From 2005-08, he produced 5.8, 8.0, 6.2 and 7.4 WAR, playing 158, 162, 162 and 157 games, respectively. From 2009-11, he has played 106, 33 and 71 games, respectively, with 2.0, -0.3 and 0.2 WAR tallies. His usually solid fielding marks have predictably worsened, as has his baserunning efficiency. At just 28 years old, Sizemore has a very old and weathered body, and that loomed large in the Indians decision.

Paul Hoynes, of The Cleveland Plain Dealer offered several pieces of background information regarding the decision. Hoynes noted that the Indians weren’t able to get an accurate snapshot of Sizemore’s ability since his health was still an issue after returning from the disabled list. Further, there is little performance expectation and no defined recovery time for players undergoing microfracture surgery. Sizemore could be completely healthy next season, or those words might never be uttered again. Additionally, the Indians don’t have the payroll capability of carrying a $9 million Sizemore, plus an insurance policy outfielder should his extended trips to the DL recur.

The argument that the Indians don’t have another centerfielder doesn’t hold up, as Sizemore’s knees and injury history will likely push him to a corner spot. He is younger in age than Carlos Beltran, but don’t be surprised if Sizemore’s career plays out similarly moving forward, with decent production in fewer games per season, and in a position where his benefits aren’t as great.

The Indians have direct access to his medical records and have monitored the situation very closely. It’s more likely that the Indians are acting on a greater understand of his medical situation, and with tight payroll restrictions, simply cannot afford to carry a $9 million player that might not produce anywhere near that amount.

There are loads of uncertainty surrounding Sizemore. There is considerably less uncertainty with Carmona. Though the veteran righty isn’t very good, he is certainly serviceable. Given the thin starting pitching market, paying $7 million for 185-200 innings with a 4-4.20 xFIP/SIERA seems prudent. He has always kept the ball on the ground — a 58.6% career rate — and his strikeout rate has stabilized in the mid-5s per nine innings. Since 2009, his walk rate has improved as well. From 2007-11, he has also posted BABIPs of .280, .294, .319, .283 and .291. The .319 certainly looks like an outlier, and FIP tends to underrate those exhibiting more control over those rates.

Plus, Carmona made $6.2875 million in 2011, and would still be arbitration-eligible if his option was declined. Assuming the Indians were set on bringing him back, exercising the option was a no-brainer. Declining it and offering arbitration would result in paying more for the 2012 season. The alternative would involve foregoing the option and negotiating a long-term deal, but the Indians might not see Carmona as a key cog in the long-term organizational plan. If this is his final season with the Indians, the team at least wants to ensure its getting the best possible deal.

The payroll inflexibility is a tricky issue to crack, because not much is known about what the Indians can spend. That being said, there aren’t many centerfielders available capable of producing at the level of even a 75 percent Sizemore. The cost of acquiring someone like that is expensive, and teams aren’t exactly looking to deal top-tier centerfielders.

In other words, if the entire Indians season hinges on center field production, they likely aren’t going anywhere, anyway. At that point, the team could afford to carry a greater level of risk given that the potential reward from Sizemore could outweigh it. This leads to the conclusion that money was the key factor, here, which is disappointing when it means a team has to say goodbye to one of its best players, but that’s the cold reality of major league baseball. Bringing Carmona back makes sense, but something tells me the team will kick itself for not seeing what Sizemore has left in the tank for at least one more relatively inexpensive season.