CLEVELAND -- Once the Indians' leadoff hitter, their constantly hustling All-Star outfielder and the undisputed face of their franchise, Grady Sizemore meant everything to Cleveland.
It couldn't last forever.
The Indians declined Sizemore's $9 million contract option for 2012 on Monday, cutting ties with the popular injury-plagued center fielder and making him eligible for free agency.
"This was an exceptionally difficult decision," general manager Chris Antonetti said. "We have a profound respect for Grady, his work ethic, his intensity and all the attributes he brings to the game. Baseball is a better game when Grady Sizemore is on the field playing."
The move with Sizemore was expected as was the team's decision to pick up starting pitcher Fausto Carmona's $7 million option for next season. The Indians also have options on Carmona for 2013 and 2014.
The Indians have until 12:01 a.m. Thursday to exclusively negotiate with Sizemore, who can then begin talks with other major league teams.
Antonetti hasn't ruled out re-signing Sizemore, but the price has to be right.
"We will stay in touch in the offseason and still hope to have him in the organization," he said. "We have had dialogue with Grady and his agent over the past few weeks. We remain open-minded and Grady remains open-minded. I am confident he will consider us. We will consider him, but at this point, not at his option value."
Agent Joe Urbon said Sizemore hasn't ruled out any team, including the Indians.
"We certainly will consider the Indians within the context of free agency," he said. "Grady's looking forward to playing for a club that provides the best overall fit and allows for him to prove he's healthy and an elite outfielder."
Injuries have sabotaged Sizemore's career, limiting him to just 210 games the past three seasons. Sizemore, who at one stage of his career played in 382 consecutive games, has undergone five surgeries -- two on his knees -- in the past three years and is no longer a base-stealing threat.
The Indians, who were in contention before collapsing in September when injuries up and down the roster took their toll, have been patient with the popular 29-year-old. However, they have decided it may be time to move on without Sizemore and use some of the money that could have gone to him to use in free agency.
Antonetti flew to Arizona last Thursday to personally inform Sizemore of the team's decision. It was hard for the team to part company with Sizemore, who batted .269 with 139 homers, 458 RBIs and 96 stolen bases in his career with Cleveland and played with an unmatched passion, perhaps one of the reasons his body has betrayed him in the past few years.
"The nature of his injuries are more traumatic, from sliding, diving," Antonetti said. "We can't expect him to play any different. He knows one way to play, with full effort and intensity."
Sizemore played in only 71 games last season, batting .224 with 10 homers and 32 RBIs. It was his seventh full season with the Indians, who acquired him as a minor leaguer from Montreal in the 2002 blockbuster trade for ace Bartolo Colon.
Sizemore's career has been in freefall since 2008, when he made his third straight AL All-Star squad. That year he hit 33 homers and stole 38 bases, joining Joe Carter as the only players in Cleveland history in the 30-30 club.
The following season, Sizemore went on the disabled list for the first time in his career. He played in just 33 games in 2010 before undergoing microfracture surgery on his left knee, a procedure that delayed the start of his 2011 season.
He made his debut on April 17 and batted .378 with four homers and nine RBIs in 11 games to end the month, showing flashes of being back to his former form. But Sizemore injured his right knee sliding into second base on May 10, went on the DL and was never the same. He finished the season on the DL and underwent another operation on his right knee.
With little to choose from at Triple-A Columbus, the Indians may offer Sizemore a one-year, incentive-laden deal. The club needs another starting outfielder to play with Michael Brantley and Shin-Soo Choo, who are also coming off injury-shortened seasons.
Carmona was the Indians' opening-day starter last season. He went just 7-15 with a 5.25 ERA in 32 starts, but stayed healthy and got little run support.
The enigmatic right-hander was considered the team's No. 1 starter when the season opened, but he was jumped in the rotation by Justin Masterson, Josh Tomlin and Ubaldo Jimenez, acquired in a deadline trade with Colorado. The Indians also added 38-year-old right-hander Derek Lowe to the rotation Monday, acquiring him in a trade with the Braves that sends minor league pitcher Chris Jones to Atlanta.
"We look at Fausto as a pitcher who has been very durable, pitching over 200 innings and reliable," Antonetti said. "He still has upside and we have some control on his contract. Despite some difficulties in 2011, we expect him to be a better pitcher in 2012. He had a better second half and we think he can build upon that.
"He has rebounded from adversity in the past. He has come back from more difficulties than what he experienced in 2011. We expect him to be a very valuable part of the pitching staff."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.