When the Major League Baseball season opens in late March, eight center fielders will be due base salaries in excess of $10 million for the 2014 campaign.
In Boston, as it’s currently projected, neither man competing to earn the Opening Day job is in line to even reach seven figures.
Pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers on Saturday but the Red Sox’ two center field hopefuls, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Grady Sizemore, are already in attendance. Long gone is the electric-when-healthy Jacoby Ellsbury, courtesy of a seven-year, $153 million contract from the Evil Empire.
There’s no question, on paper, the position is the Sox’ most glaring concern in their hopes to repeat as World Champions, but it also may line up as the most entertaining if the team gets a little of that “everything breaks right” magic to roll over from 2013.
In the eyes of most, the job is Bradley’s to lose. He’s the soon-to-be 24-year old rookie holdover, ranked as the second-highest prospect in the organization according to SoxProspects.com. The Virginia native forced Boston to keep him on its Opening Day roster a year ago after a scintillating spring in which he hit .419 with an otherworldly 1.140 OPS in 28 games. His .097 average and .392 OPS after three weeks quickly proved he needed more seasoning.
By season’s end, Bradley batted just .189 with a .617 OPS in 107 plate appearances over 37 contests in the bigs, carved around multiple trips up and down I-95 and a .275/.374/.469 slash line for Triple-A Pawtucket. Still, he showed enough promise – even against that pesky inside fastball – to leave general manager Ben Cherington and skipper John Farrell confident in the youth movement to the point of declining to add an impact middle outfielder. It was Bradley or bust, it seemed.
The 31-year-old Sizemore is a veteran of eight major league seasons with the Indians, his last coming in 2011. He hasn’t been a regular contributor since 2009, thanks to microfracture surgeries on each knee, a back operation, and multiple sports hernias. The three-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glover was once one of the most promising young talents in the game, with the durability that saw him take the field in all but nine games between 2005-08 on the way to earning MVP votes in each of those four campaigns. Now, he's an uncertain reclamation project with hopes of finding his pre-injury form.
Sizemore had multiple major league contract offers over the last year before Boston called, but he turned them down because he wasn’t ready. It’s also fair to at least theorize he was waiting for the right destination.
“I felt like it was the best fit,” Sizemore told reporters on Sunday of his decision to join the Red Sox. “For me, this was a great opportunity to come back and be part of a good organization and have success, and also physically, having the medical staff that they have. I just felt confident being here.”
What about the fact the starting job in center could be up for grabs?
He said Ellsbury’s departure did not influence his decision.
“I look at every team and you try to find what’s the best fit, and I just felt like this was the best fit for me coming into this season and moving on.”
Maybe it’s just a coincidence, or he simply leaned toward familiarity after having worked with Farrell in Cleveland a dozen years ago, but that’s a little hard to believe. That’s no knock, by the way; he should covet the team that gives him the best chance to secure a regular role. Either way, it’s the ultimate low-risk, high-reward situation for the Sox. Sizemore will be paid $750,000 to try. Ultimate success, or a seismic surprise, could earn him up to $6 million.
Bradley, however, is still on his rookie contract. He’ll earn about a half-million dollars, even if he’s the American League MVP, not that he’s thinking about such lofty goals. Like Sizemore, he's just focused on landing a job.
“Is anything given to anybody?” he posed last week when asked if Ellsbury’s old role would be handed to him. “Everything’s earned. I’m just trying to go out there and compete for a spot and enjoy myself. Every day you come out there, it’s a challenge. You just have to take it in stride. There’s lots of opportunity out there. It’s going to be exciting.”
The youngster has put on noticeable muscle and some size, based on reports coming from down south. Chief among his offensive goals is consistency at the plate. Defensively, he already has the speed and the glove to patrol the field with relative ease.
In workouts, Sizemore has reportedly displayed flashes of his old speed, hopefully the same legs that saw him steal an average of 29 bases over his four full seasons and easily track down the deepest of fly balls in center. Naturally, he expects rust come the start of spring action because there’s obviously a fine line between feeling good physically and being in “baseball shape.”
Both men are described as competitors, and each is poised to open the season with something to show his legion of doubters. For a prospect like Bradley, the story surrounds optimism and what could be. For Sizemore, a veteran injured in the thick of his prime, there’s the notion of what could have been.
There are many ways to view this competition. If Bradley earns the Opening Day job, will Sizemore be a good enough alternative off the bench, or will more security be needed in the event either falters? If Sizemore – once a tremendous leadoff hitter – claims the spot, is that an indictment of Bradley’s potential, or does it merely suggest the desire to give the up-and-comer more time to get comfortable in the minors?
Perhaps the best way to look at this is there’s nothing but upside. Currently, the two are looked at to provide little more than reliable defense and something out of the ninth spot in the batting order. They know it and they’ll both undoubtedly use that as motivation. The expectations were similar for Jose Iglesias at short in 2013, and look how he responded before he was traded.
At worst, both will fail and a trade may be necessary. At best, the Red Sox could either have their next great center fielder this summer, or one who just might be great again. At the very least, it will be fascinating to watch unfold.
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Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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