Needless to say, the Red Sox weren’t expecting this when they signed veteran Grady Sizemore to an incentive-laden $750,000 contract this winter that could reach $6 million. He was a surgically rebuilt reclamation project after missing more than two years in baseball at any level. The ultimate kick-the-tires, low-risk, high-reward guy.
Now, he could be Boston’s Opening Day center fielder and leadoff hitter when the club takes the field in Baltimore on Mar. 31.
And, you know what? If Sizemore keeps playing the way he has been this spring, he should be.
Don’t get me wrong. With less than two weeks left in exhibition play, that’s still a big if. Sizemore’s healthy, hitting at a .381 clip in just 21 at-bats while striking out only once, and he’s making acrobatic catches (has anyone checked to see if that wall’s okay?), but he’s still yet to play more than two consecutive days. He’s running out of time to prove he can play in five straight games, let alone 10 or 15 in a row and the team would be foolish to push him. Boston opens the season with 32 games in 35 days and whoever’s lined up in center will be tasked with playing most of those contests. It’s an everyday grind Sizemore hasn’t experienced with reliable results since 2008, his third and final All-Star campaign to date.
The decision to embrace the youth movement and turn to Bradley would be easier if the production was closer. Everyone knows the soon-to-be 24-year-old can field, but his bat still needs seasoning. He crushed spring pitching to the tune of a .419 average and 1.140 OPS a year ago before splitting 2013 between Boston and Triple-A Pawtucket, but he’s delivered at just a .182 clip with a .573 OPS in 33 at-bats this spring. Bradley’s also struck out nine times. If the numbers were what they were last time around, this wouldn’t even be a topic.
Clearly the sample sizes are small for both candidates, but it’s become increasingly apparent manager John Farrell is excited for the prospect of using Sizemore, gushing Monday over his timing at the plate and fearlessness in the field. Maybe that’s because of their history dating back a dozen years, perhaps it’s the skipper’s love of that veteran presence in his lineup (remember Stephen Drew?), or it could be that he’s leery of having so much youth in his lineup to start the season if in fact Sizemore appears ready to contribute. After all, Xander Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks remain somewhat unpredictable production-wise on the left side of the infield.
There are few questions surrounding Boston’s expected 25-man roster, but this is a big one. Three men are essentially competing for two available spots among a five-man outfield, bench players included. Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava, and Jonny Gomes obviously aren’t going anywhere, and Sizemore, Bradley, and Mike Carp can’t all make the team.
The Red Sox could opt to deal Carp – a versatile fielder with a solid bat, coming off a career-year – but they’d be foolish to simply give him away (like the Mariners did last spring) to make room for both Sizemore and Bradley. Carp proved too valuable in 2013 as a spot-starter and a pinch-hitter with a flair for the dramatic. Plus, he can play multiple positions.
Therefore, nice as it would be to give Bradley the job in center while simultaneously easing in Sizemore on the major league roster, it’s unlikely. If Sizemore lands in center, Bradley will take off for the minors. If Bradley is given the gig, Sizemore may very well be gone. If the veteran shows in spring training over the next nearly two weeks that he can hit, field, and stay in the lineup, why would he accept a demotion to the minor leagues or extended spring training when another club may be willing to give him an opportunity?
It would seem a difficult decision is coming on a fascinating positional debate.
In what was thought to be the twilight of his career, I’m on Team Grady. It could be I’m just a sucker for a feel-good story, but I’d like to see Sizemore get the chance if he’s up for it. His present-day ceiling is higher than Bradley’s, he would give the Red Sox a bona fide major league leadoff hitter – a spot where neither Victorino or Nava is a terribly experienced or appealing option – and it would give Bradley more time to develop.
Even if Sizemore begins the year in center that does not suddenly mean Bradley isn’t the team’s middle-outfielder of the future. He’d still be used at points this year and most definitely for years to come. Sizemore’s 31 and his best days are likely behind him. He won’t play 140 games this year. He may not wind up in 100. Bradley will get his chances. And, while the Boston brass loves Victorino in right for his gold glove defense, he’s fully capable of sliding over to center once a week to give Sizemore the occasional rest if that’s how the roster shapes up.
For now, Sizemore isn’t getting caught up in the will-he, won’t-he circus.
“I think it’s definitely a possibility [I could be an everyday player],” he told reporters after his latest 3-for-4, 3-run performance in a 10-5 win over the Cardinals. “I don’t know if they’re going to roll me out there 25 out of 25. But let’s just get through tomorrow before we start talking about the season. I just want to keep focusing on spring training and getting better and better.”
“The best thing I can say is that he’s responding favorably to everything we’ve put him through.”
Sizemore’s next back-to-back is slated for Wednesday and Thursday. So far, he says he’s felt good enough to go out and play every day. Soon enough, he just might.
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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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