One of the most pleasantly surprising stories out of spring training has been the return of Grady Sizemore to an upright position after he missed all of the past two seasons and much of the previous three due to injuries. Signed by the Red Sox to a deal that guarantees him just $750,000, he has played his way into the team's Opening Day lineup in centerfield, bumping prospect Jackie Bradley Jr. back to Triple-A finishing school.
Sizemore once ranked among the game's most electrifying players. From 2005-08 — his age 22-25 seasons — he hit a combined .281/.372/.496 for the Indians and averaged 27 homers, 29 steals and 6.2 Wins Above Replacement per year. He snagged three All-Star berths and two Gold Gloves (neither supported by advanced metrics, alas), and helped the Indians come within one win of a trip to the World Series in 2007. Among position players, only Albert Pujols, Chase Utley and Alex Rodriguez were more valuable in that span, and Sizemore was at least 2 1/2 years younger than the rest of them. His future appeared limitless.
Then came the injuries. An elbow problem cost him seven weeks in 2009 and required season-ending surgery in September; he played in just 106 games. Microfracture surgery on his left knee limited him to 33 games in 2010 and cut into his time in 2011, when he also made DL trips for a right knee contusion and a sports hernia; those limited him to 71 games. Over that span, he hit a combined .234/.314/.413 and produced a total of 1.9 WAR, most of it in 2009. He didn't even play a minor league game in 2012 or 2013, as a microdiscectomy cost him the first of those years, and microfracture surgery on his right knee the second, during which he wasn't even under a professional contract.
Sizemore signed with the Red Sox in mid-January, agreeing to a deal with a $750,000 base plus incentives that could push him to $5 million if he reaches 500 plate appearances and 150 days on the roster, and above that if he starts accumulating hardware (including Comeback Player of the Year). Given his past five years and the presence of Jonny Gomes, Daniel Nava, Mike Carp, Shane Victorino and the highly-touted Bradley, his chance of making the roster appeared slim at the outset of camp, but he's shined brightly enough to create a logjam for which the only solution aside from the disabled list or a trade was to send out the one player with options.
Having given up spring training stats for Lent (even though I'm not Catholic), I won't cite them here, but I will note that when I spoke to a rival scout for SI's baseball preview issue last week, he saw the centerfield competition as tilting in the veteran's favor:
Centerfield might be their biggest question mark. Grady Sizemore has had health problems, doesn't have the life he had in his bat three years ago, but he's smarter. Not the ballhawk he once was, but getting decent jumps. They want to give Jackie Bradley every opportunity to win the job, but he's not having the type of spring he had last year. Pitchers are pounding him in with velocity and making him pull the ball. He's straightaway to opposite gap with the fastball, and once they have that part of him figured out, they throw the breaking ball and he's got to adjust.
As impressive as it is that Sizemore played his way into Boston's lineup, it's worth remembering that Opening Day is just the first day of a long season, and that rosters evolve significantly over its course. As the Boston Globe's Pete Abraham reminded via Twitter:
Bradley, who turns 24 on April 19, was one of those seven; recall that he was Boston's Opening Day leftfielder last year. A 2011 supplemental first-round pick out of the University of South Carolina, he had just 10 minor league games under his belt before a strong 2012 split between High-A and Double-A vaulted him to 27th on Baseball Prospectus' Top 101 Prospects list. His hot hitting made him the talk of Boston's camp, and with David Ortiz starting the year on the disabled list as his heels healed, the Sox gave Bradley a look in leftfield, but he went just 3-for-31 before being sent down. Recalled from Triple-A three more times, the last of them in September, he wound up hitting just .189/.280/.337 with three homers in 107 PA, though he did hit a healthy .275/.374/.469 with 12 homers in 374 plate appearances at Pawtucket. That pushed him to 23rd on the BP prospects list, but the combination of his spring struggles and Sizemore's surprising play drove the decision in the veteran's favor, at least for the moment.
Realistically, Sizemore isn't up to the grind of the everyday job, and manager John Farrell may wind up sitting him against lefties, against whom he's hit .227/.315/.378 in his career, in order to avoid overtaxing him. That's less than ideal in that the switch-hitting Nava, the most likely backup in center, is weak against lefties as well (.223/.307/.328 career); Bradley, also a lefty, has hit them in the minors but not the majors. Still, the likelihood is that the disabled list or a trade — with Carp the most likely candidate — will eventually open up a spot for Bradley, assuming he remains on track at Triple-A, and that the prospect will eventually take over centerfield. In the meantime, it's worth remembering that Bradley still has just 218 games of minor league experience, 141 of them at Double-A and Triple-A combined. A patient hitter capable of Gold Glove-caliber defense, he has big shoes to fill following Ellsbury's departure, and the reality is that all of this may work in his favor if Sizemore's spring proves to be a mirage, as so many do. For now, Sizemore's presence buys the Sox time for Bradley to finish developing, and since his health only comes around slightly more often than Halley's Comet, it's understandable that the Sox have taken advantage that.