Power rankings: No. 20 Indians

Indians need Sizemore and Jimenez to come back strong

No. 20 Indians: No. 11 in a series counting down to spring training. Next: Rockies.

If the Cubs could, they would run, not walk, away from the last three years of Alfonso Soriano's contract. The Orioles would do the same with the two left on Brian Roberts' and even the Twins probably would swallow hard, take a deep breath and tell Justin Morneau thanks for the memories.

Joe Mauer? Don't even ask. Some relationships still are sacred, no matter the shaky economics involved.

Grady Sizemore's bad knees have made him little more than dead money for the Indians the last three seasons. He averaged 70 games and made an unusually high percentage of outs when he played. But still, Indians general manager Chris Antonetti believes his team is better with Sizemore than without him.

Rather than cutting ties with Sizemore when he declined to exercise a $9-million option on his contract for 2012, Antonetti signed him to a one-year deal for $5 million. That's not a ton by baseball standards but it represents the Indians' third biggest commitment to a player this season, behind only chronically unavailable designated hitter Travis Hafner and Roberto Hernandez Heredia (formerly known as Fausto Carmona), whose status isn't known as his false identity case awaits resolution.

This is a huge season for the Indians, whose fast start in 2011 resulted in a gain of 11 victories and 449,191 fans from 2010. It speaks to Sizemore's leadership skills — and a promising .422 slugging percentage in the 71 games he played last season — that he still is seen as a foundation piece.

It won't take long, maybe the end of April, maybe Memorial Day, to know if this was a wise move based on loyalty or a desperate one based on ownership providing only a modest bump in the payroll, which at $49.2 million last season ranked 26th in the majors.

Antonetti has made only three off-season moves that seem significant — trading for Derek Lowe (with the Braves agreeing to pay $10 million of his $15 million salary), trading for Kevin Slowey after Carmona became a question mark for reasons beyond his 4.59 career ERA and signing Ryan Spilborghs as a possible platoon partner for left fielder Michael Brantley.

For the Indians to experience another significant increase in victories, jumping from 80 to 85-plus, they must get solid first full seasons from second baseman Jason Kipnis and third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall and a lot more from their internal options. In addition to Sizemore, the ones that seem the most critical:

Ubaldo Jimenez: Considered an untouchable when the season began, the powerful right-hander from the Dominican Republic was acquired from the Rockies midway through a season in which his ERA climbed to 4.68, after being only 2.88 the year before. He cost Antonetti his two best pitching prospects, Drew Pomeranz and Alex White, and generally took a beating against AL hitters. He still looks like an ace but needs to pitch like one again.

Matt LaPorta: The biggest piece acquired from the Brewers for CC Sabathia, the first baseman has hit only 30 home runs in 21/2 seasons with the Indians. He showed incremental improvement in 2011 and Bill James projects another step forward this season. But he seems to have hit a low ceiling that no one expected when he was tearing up the minors (.956 OPS in 244 games) after the Brewers took him seventh overall in the 2007 draft.

Manny Acta: Highly respected as a coach and minor league manager, as well as when he started his big league managerial career with the Nationals, Acta is under the gun to deliver as the Indians hold an option on his contract for 2013. His teams have gone 53-47 in one-run games the last few seasons, suggesting he's the right guy for the job despite too many blowout losses.

And furthermore

•The Indians are one of five teams that improved more than 10 victories last year (joining the Tigers, Brewers, Pirates and Nationals) and history suggests three or four of those teams will take backward steps this season. Since 1996, 70 big-league teams have had increases of 10-plus in a season, and only 19 of them increased their total the following season. As a group, those 70 teams saw their victory totals drop 5.7 games the following season. That trend alone places the over-under on the 2012 Indians at 74 victories.

•Carmona — now recognized as Heredia — has been revealed to have taken three years off his age through a false identity. His contract with the Indians has club options for 2013 and '14, so this could be his last season with them, if he ever gets legal clearance to come back.

•If Bryan LaHair and Anthony Rizzo both get off to strong starts for the Cubs, LaHair becomes a candidate to be traded to the Indians.

•The Indians' strength lies in its two-Perez bullpen. Chris, acquired from the Cardinals for Mark DeRosa, is a solid closer and Rafael joins Vinnie Pestana, Joe Smith and Tony Sipp in doing a good job in holding leads until the ninth inning.

•For the Indians to contend, they need Justin Masterson and Jimenez to become one of the AL's top combinations of starters. The potential is there.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers
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