Grady Sizemore probably will be ready to make his 2012 debut in about three weeks, and the Indians will have another set of decisions confronting them.
Where will manager Manny Acta slip Sizemore into the lineup, what position will he play, and what will happen to the composition of the roster, which will be overstuffed with outfielders when he is ready to be activated from the disabled list?
The key to answering one of the questions lies in the performance of Johnny Damon, who has yet to catch fire at the plate after being added to the roster early this month. Damon still has time to show the Tribe’s deep thinkers that he deserves that roster spot, but if doesn’t start hitting in the next three weeks, why would he be retained?
It might be different if Damon excelled on defense. But at times his routes to balls in the air have been tentative, and his famously weak arm has been an engraved invitation for clubs to run on him.
Whether Damon can still hit is a tough question, because he didn’t go through six weeks of spring training. He spent two weeks in the Indians’ extended spring camp hitting against 19-year-olds who struggle to command the strike zone and try to throw fastballs through the catcher’s chest protector to prove their worth.
It is not the ideal way to prepare for a season in the major leagues. Damon didn’t have to go to Triple-A and hit against more seasoned pitchers because he had an out-clause in his deal that kicked in May 1, and the Tribe preferred to add him to the big-league roster rather than take a chance on having him walk away.
Damon delivered satisfactory numbers at the plate in 2011, and it’s unlikely that his ability could have plunged so far in one offseason, even if he is 38. But that shouldn’t matter if he fails to find his groove in three more weeks. The Indians will be justified in jettisoning him if he spends five or six weeks getting regular at-bats and doesn’t produce.
But will they? Not all decisions made by this team seem to have a solid basis in logic. Maybe General Manager Chris Antonetti and Acta will elect to keep Damon, even if he remains in a slump. Why would they do that? Because he’s Johnny Damon.
My guess is that if Damon isn’t hitting when Sizemore is ready to play, he will be gone. Someone has to go, because including Sizemore, the Tribe will have a crowded outfield of six players: Shin-Soo Choo, Michael Brantley, Shelley Duncan, Aaron Cunningham, Sizemore and Damon.
On some teams, five outfielders might be one over the limit, but the Tribe probably will keep five. So if Damon begins to find his eye at the plate, the most vulnerable outfielder will be whom? There are two choices: Duncan and Cunningham.
Duncan is the offensive side of the equation. He swings from the right side (no small asset) and hits with power. For years, Duncan was viewed as an all-or-nothing player: Swing hard in case you hit it seemed to be his approach. There were lots of strikeouts and some home runs.
But when he began to get regular playing time in August, Duncan quickly evolved into a more thoughtful hitter. His batting average rose to .260, and he continued to deliver power as he became more selective at the plate.
We haven’t seen much of that this year. Duncan has gone back to being a bench player. Acta tries to get him at-bats, but Duncan is not in the lineup often enough to maintain his consistency. And whether it was coincidental or not, when the club signed Damon, Duncan began swinging from his heels and lost any kind of rhythm and discipline.
Cunningham is not on the club to be productive at the plate, though he has had a few choice moments swinging the bat. His value mostly has been as a late-inning defensive replacement in left for either Damon or Duncan.
But with a prospective outfield of Brantley, Sizemore and Choo, there won’t be much need for a defensive specialist unless someone gets hurt, and when is the last time an Indians outfielder missed time because of an injury? OK, never mind.
So If Damon stays, which side of the coin comes up a winner? Is it the offense, represented by Duncan, or the defense of Cunningham? Way back in spring training, when Acta was trying to decide which outfielder would win the left-field derby, he said the needs of the team dictated that he forgo defense for offense. I don’t think that has changed.
What position will Sizemore play? I know the fans think that Acta should keep Brantley in center field and move Sizemore to left, but that probably won’t happen for one reason: Sizemore is not accustomed to playing left, and on-the-job training isn’t a good idea on a team that is contending for the division championship. Brantley knows the drill in left. He has played the position often. That’s where he likely will play for the rest of the season.
Where will Sizemore fit in the lineup? I don’t know, but I doubt that he’ll go back to his old spot at the top of the order. Both Brantley and Choo have been there, done that in Sizemore’s absence.
Brantley struggled in April as the leadoff batter (but probably not because he was the leadoff batter) and lost his spot to Damon, who has spent most of his career at the top of the order. Acta dropped Brantley to seventh, and he responded in a good way, even though he didn’t like the move initially. Choo recently took over for Damon as the leadoff batter, and because his skills translate well anywhere in the lineup, Acta might keep him there.
After being sidelined for so long with back and knee issues, Sizemore doesn’t need the pressure of leading off, nor is he likely to help the team at that spot, at least until he scrapes the rust off his swing and tests his repaired body parts in game situations.
All of these changes will be coming to a ballpark near you in a few weeks; good seats are still available.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.