Sheldon Ocker

GOODYEAR, Ariz.: The Indians will engage in their first full-squad workout this morning, and Grady Sizemore will be among the missing. Nor will he take part in the second day of drills, the third or the fifth.


“While rehabbing his right knee approximately two weeks ago, Grady sustained a lower back strain and is presently rehabbing that condition,” head trainer Lonnie Soloff said Friday. “At the present time, he has ceased baseball activities. His return to baseball activity is strictly dependent on his response to treatment.”


Manager Manny Acta suddenly has a new task to perform: deciding who starts the season in center field, because it probably won’t be Sizemore.


“A reasonable assessment — and it’s early — is that it’s unlikely Grady will be ready for Opening Day,” Soloff said.


Even if Sizemore’s back pain were to disappear in a few days, the fact that he has been shut down for the past two weeks means he already is behind in his conditioning and preparation for the season.


Once Sizemore is cleared to get back on the field, how long might it take for him to go through the spring training process, and will he be permitted to take any shortcuts?


Soloff did not wish to venture a guess.


“We need to allow him to get to full strength,” General Manager Chris Antonetti said. “We don’t want to short-circuit the rehab process.”


Soloff isn’t even certain Sizemore would have begun the season on time had he not hurt his back fielding ground balls in the outfield.


“That’s tough to say,” he said. “Clearly, he was farther along in his hitting and running program than last year at this time.”


In any event, this isn’t the first time that Acta has been forced to begin the season without Sizemore. In fact, going into his third season as Tribe manager, he hasn’t seen Sizemore play for more than a few weeks at a stretch.


“Wedgie was a lucky man, a blessed man to be able to see this very talented guy get in there,” said Acta, referring to his predecessor, Eric Wedge. “That is a luxury I haven’t had.


“But you know what? It’s a long season. Just because Grady is not here on Opening Day doesn’t mean he won’t come back and be a strong contributor for us.”


In the meantime, the leading candidate to start the season in center is Michael Brantley, who was expected to be the team’s everyday left fielder. But the past two years, Brantley has been a center fielder waiting to play left because of injuries to Sizemore.


“We have Michael, who has spent the majority of his time there the past two seasons and done a very good job,” Acta said. “But we also have people in camp who can be options, like [Felix] Pie, [Ezequiel] Carerra and [Ryan] Spilborghs [who mostly has played left and right].


“So we’ll have to see how these other guys play. That’s what spring training is all about. Certainly, I am very comfortable with Michael in center; he is a center fielder. But we’ll see how the others line up.”


If Brantley plays center, there is no obvious front-?runner to play left, but Aaron Cunningham, Pie and Spilborghs all have played left field in the majors.


Also in camp are Chad Huffman, Fred Lewis and Trevor Crowe, whose name is seldom if ever uttered by a Tribe operative.


“Every one of these guys has had major-league time,” Acta said. “And they know they’re here to compete.”


Anticipating that Sizemore will not be on the sidelines long term, Antonetti does not expect to seek a trade for an outfielder or pore over the shrinking list of free agents.


“I don’t expect that to be the case,” he said. “But if we receive additional information, we’ll have to reassess.”


Sizemore’s injury problems seem to be on a continuum that began three years ago and intensified last year. He came to training camp in 2011 after undergoing microfracture surgery on his left knee the previous summer.


He began last season two weeks late, and just when he seemed to be hitting his stride, he jammed his right knee sliding into second base in May. That resulted in a deep bone bruise that required surgery in November. At the same time doctors repaired Sizemore’s knee, they performed an operation to repair a sports hernia.


Ever since, the concern has been the right knee. However, until he strained his back, the rehab process had been on or ahead of schedule. At the time he suffered his latest setback, Sizemore was taking unrestricted batting practice, throwing and jogging.


“I feel awful for the guy,” Antonetti said. “Grady has?really worked hard to get back. One thing, he’s tough-minded, so he’ll come back and contribute.”


Sheldon Ocker can be reached at socker@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the Indians blog at www.ohio.com/tribematters.