CLEVELAND -- Grady Sizemore holds the key to the alignment of the Indians' Opening Day outfield. The club is currently preparing for two scenarios -- one with Sizemore in center field and another without him.
How Sizemore progresses this spring from left knee surgery will provide more clarity to the Tribe's fluid outfield situation. One thing is for certain -- besides Shin-Soo Choo occupying right field -- the Indians will not unnecessarily rush Sizemore back into the fold.
"Our medical staff put together a plan," said Indians manager Manny Acta. "We're going to stand behind it. We're going to take our time."
The Indians believe they have the makings of a solid outfield threesome in left fielder Michael Brantley, Sizemore and Choo. Cleveland also signed veteran Austin Kearns this winter to provide an experienced right-handed bat to help offset the fact that the trio of regulars all bat from the left side.
Signing Kearns also helps enact a kind of contingency plan for the Tribe. Should Sizemore need more time in his recovery from microfracture surgery, Kearns could easily slide into left field and Brantley would shift to center. That flexibility brings a certain level of comfort for Acta as he considers possible lineups.
"Having Kearns really eases my mind," Acta said.
Having Sizemore back for the start of the season would help, too.
"That's the goal right now," Acta said, "to have Grady for Opening Day. I think, realistically, he's not going to be playing in the first week or two of Spring Training. But if we get him enough at-bats and he's ready to go, we'll have him for Opening Day."
As the offseason has progressed, Sizemore has passed every medical checkup with flying colors, according to the Indians. When he was not training at the club's Spring Training base in Goodyear, Ariz., he was making regular trips to Vail, Colo., for meetings with Dr. Richard Steadman.
Steadman performed the surgery on Sizemore's left knee in June, ending his season after just 33 games. Sizemore's offseason was limited until January, when he resumed some baseball activities. By mid-March, the Tribe should be able to run him out for Cactus League contests.
Acta wants to see the aggressive player Indians fans grew so accustomed to watching before clearing Sizemore for regular-season duty.
"We just want to see the fearless guy that he is," Acta said. "When he gets to a point where he can just accelerate and go try to steal a bag and slide and move without any fear, side to side, maybe even dive for a ball or something -- those are the kinds of things."
Indians general manager Chris Antonetti recently noted that when Sizemore is cleared to rejoin the starting lineup, the outfielder will have a home in center. There has been no talk of shifting Sizemore to left field.
"Right now," Antonetti said, "the thought is center field is actually less demanding on his knees. He may have to cover more ground out there, but he doesn't have to decelerate as quickly as he goes into the wall. Left field and right field, you have to stop more quickly than you do in center."
A healthy and productive Sizemore would act like a major acquisition for the Indians, who missed his bat in 2010. The hope is that Sizemore can play like the three-time All-Star he was from 2006-08, when he averaged 28 homers, 42 doubles, 81 RBIs and 31 stolen bases.
Cleveland is willing to be conservative, though, so there is a realistic chance that Sizemore will open 2011 on the disabled list. That would create an opening for an extra reserve role among a list of candidates that include Trevor Crowe, Shelley Duncan, Travis Buck, Chad Huffman and Jordan Brown, among others.
The 30-year-old Kearns hit .263 with 10 homers and 49 RBIs over 120 games last season, spanning stints with the Indians and Yankees. Brantley, 23, who was acquired as part of the July 2008 deal that sent ace CC Sabathia to the Brewers, split last season between Triple-A Columbus and Cleveland with varying success.
While left and center field come with plenty of question marks, one source of stability has been Choo in right. The 28-year-old hit .300 with 22 home runs, 31 doubles and 90 RBIs, adding 22 stolen bases last season. He became the first player in Indians history to hit .300 with at least than 20 homers and 20 stolen bases in consecutive seasons.
Earlier this winter, the Indians avoided arbitration with Choo by signing him to a $3.975 million contract for 2011. Cleveland is hoping to explore a multiyear extension with Choo and his agent, Scott Boras, but the club will likely need to settle on a long-term pact before Opening Day if it is going to come to fruition this offseason.
"Choo's a great player who we're certainly excited to have part of our organization," Antonetti said. "We're in a very fortunate position that he's under team control for at least three more years.
"We have natural junctures in time to explore extending that relationship further. This is one of those junctures in time to explore it."