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"I'm pumped," says Manny Acta, manager of the Cleveland Indians, contemplating his team's chances in 2011. "We're heading in the right direction."

And so ends the optimistic portion of our Tribe discussion. From this point on, you're not going to encounter anyone else who's pumped about the short-term outlook for the Indians. Cleveland was a 69-win team in 2010, they'll have one of baseball's lowest payrolls in 2011, and their biggest off-season addition has been Austin Kearns(notes). If they're now headed in the right direction, it's only because they finally hit a wall traveling the wrong way, so they turned around.

This franchise still offers the fantasy community a few useful pieces, however: Shin-Soo Choo(notes) is coming off back-to-back 20-20-.300 campaigns, Chris Perez(notes) beat all reasonable expectations last year (23 saves, 1.71 ERA), and Carlos Santana(notes) is a fine generic alternative to Buster Posey(notes) (similar forecast, much friendlier ADP). There are questions worth asking about this squad, so let's get to it…

The last time we saw Santana on a baseball diamond, his left knee had just been badly mistreated by Ryan Kalish(notes). Disgusting injury. (With video!) Is Carlos really going to be ready for spring training?

Santana is nearly six months removed from surgery to repair his left LCL, and he's reportedly resumed baseball activities. So yeah, it sounds like the 24-year-old will have an active spring, and he's on track to start on opening day. Before the knee injury ended Santana's rookie season in early August, he'd already established himself as exactly the sort of fantasy commodity that Matt Wieters(notes) was supposed to be: a switch-hitting catcher with power and on-base skills (.401 OBP). Lefties were trouble for Santana last year — .237/.370/.441 at Triple-A, .146/.311/271 in MLB — but he absolutely destroyed right-handed pitching. He's expected to see time at first base this spring, a strong indication that the Tribe would like to get him more plate appearances than the average backstop.

Santana was a heart-of-the-order hitter from the moment he arrived in Cleveland, so there's little doubt the team will maximize his RBI opportunities. (He actually hit third in his major league debut, undercutting any arguments that he was stashed in Columbus for so long due to readiness issues). This is a player who could easily deliver an 80-20-85-.290 line this season, forcing his way into the top-tier at his position in 2012. Still, in early mocks over at MDC, he's going 72 spots later than Posey. That's insane.

OK, that's one knee down, one to go. What's the update on Grady Sizemore(notes)?

Sizemore's situation is a bit murkier than Santana's. Last year was supposed to be a bounce-back season for Grady following an injury-plagued 2009, but he went on the shelf in mid-May due to a deep bone bruise in his left knee. At the time, he was hitting .211 with no homers and a .560 OPS. Sizemore eventually underwent microfracture surgery. While he's reportedly met all the early individual milestones in his recovery, he's just now "getting to the point of running," according to GM Chris Antonetti. Given the nature of the injury, running would seem to be the tricky part. We've been down this microfractured road before with Carlos Beltran(notes), and the initial results weren't particularly useful for fantasy purposes.

Here's the official position of the Tribe on Sizemore's rehab, pre-spring training:

"If he continues on the path that he's on," Antonetti said, "he'll be in spring training games by the middle of March and then he should be ready for the start of the season or maybe shortly thereafter."

Acta added that Cleveland will not rush things with Sizemore.

"We have a plan and we're not going to try to push Grady," Acta said. "Our medical staff put together a plan and we're going to stand behind it. We're going to take our time. We just want to see the fearless guy that he is. 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 [we'll be looking for this spring]."

So there's a plan, and it involves not pushing Grady. He's clearly not a lock to be ready by opening day. At his best, Sizemore is a 30/30 threat who lives on base and piles up runs … but we obviously haven't seen him at his best since 2008. In early industry drafts (like this one and this one), he seems to be going late in Round 7 or early in Round 8, at a time when there are other power/speed outfielders on the board. I'll pass at that price. Base-stealing has been an essential component of this player's fantasy value, and there are no guarantees in 2011.

Other than shortstop, are any of the infield spots set?

Yeah, the Cleveland infield depth chart should be written in pencil, not pen. At first base, 26-year-old Matt LaPorta(notes) is a clear favorite for an opening day role, though the Tribe is apparently kicking the tires on some terrible vets, just to provide token pressure. Over the past two seasons, LaPorta has demonstrated total mastery over Triple-A pitching, but he's been a mess against major leaguers (.232/.307/.388). He'll need to make a value leap in his third season just to enter the fantasy discussion as a viable CI or Util. It's possible that he'll do it — this guy was considered an elite power prospect just two years ago — but he'll open as a bottom-tier player at a loaded position.

This spring, Acta will have the unenviable task of selecting both a starting second baseman and third baseman from the following list of players: Jayson Nix(notes), Luis Valbuena(notes), Jason Donald(notes) and Adam Everett(notes). The Ja(y)sons are probably the favorites heading into the exhibition season, but nothing is settled. Both players have the potential to be small sample heroes — Nix homered 14 times in 331 at-bats last season, in fact — but neither will rank as a reasonable option for public league fantasy owners. And if things go according to script, prospects Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall will finish the season at second and third for Cleveland. Neither of those two have seen action at Triple-A just yet, so it seems unlikely they'll open the year in the bigs.


Photo via Getty Images

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