Red Sox must ride Sizemore wave while they can
Taking advantage of former superstar's comeback attempt a necessary risk
Those were Indians team president Mark Shapiro's words splashed below Grady Sizemore's photo on the front of Sports Illustrated some seven years ago:
"He's without a doubt one of the greatest players of our generation."
The tone regarding Sizemore has obviously changed considerably in the time since. And Shapiro probably summed up best what everybody in the baseball industry who once celebrated Sizemore's dynamic feats now feels as we keep tabs on his comeback with the Red Sox.
"You're just holding your breath," Shapiro said, "and pulling for the guy."
You have to hold your breath, because there's simply no way of knowing how long or how well Sizemore -- in the wake of microfracture surgery on both knees and more than two full seasons outside the sport -- will hold up.
That's why the Red Sox have to ride this incredible comeback wave for however long it lasts. A week? A month? A full season? Take absolutely anything and everything you can get from a guy whose innate ability is unquestioned and whose expiration date is a mystery, and apply it to the Major League squad.
Not to downplay the difficulty of this situation, of course. Because it is, indeed, complicated.
As of this writing, Boston has not yet announced its plans for center field, though one would imagine the decision that is expected to be revealed Friday morning has likely already been made internally (John Farrell already told reporters Thursday that Sizemore will bat fifth or sixth if he makes the team). It will be either Sizemore or Jackie Bradley Jr. on the Opening Day roster, not both, because the Red Sox don't want to give up a valuable bench piece like Mike Carp, nor do they want to put Bradley in a spot where he's not playing every day.
Bradley has tremendous long-term importance to an organization that doesn't let its payroll power overwhelm its understanding of the value of homegrown talent. In fact, the Red Sox love the way Bradley handled his struggles last April, when reality put an abrupt end to his Spring Training showcase that was, in many ways, comparable to what Sizemore is doing now. Bradley didn't mope or bemoan the move to Pawtucket. He just went back to work and had a really solid season, batting .275 with a .374 on-base percentage in 80 games in Triple-A while providing steady defense in center.
"A lot of players go back and struggle for a while, because it's kind of a jolt to the system," general manager Ben Cherington said. "He went down, made those adjustments and still performed, knowing he was not a finished player."
We should be careful not to read too much into spring results, good or bad, but Bradley's alarming strikeout totals on the Grapefruit League stage this time around would seem to be a sign that he's still not a finished player. And truth be told, that's perfectly understandable for a 23-year-old kid who has less than 500 plate appearances above the Double-A level.
That said, you don't have to slight Bradley to make a case for Sizemore. You simply have to point out the obvious: Sizemore is, at present, the most accomplished option the defending champs have for their center-field slot.
And inconceivably, given that Sizemore has appeared in just 210 games since the start of '09, he might be the most polished option, too.
Certainly, carrying Sizemore on the initial roster has its unique set of risks.
No matter what we've seen this spring, any belief that he can handle the everyday grind without more than the usual amount of rest is overly optimistic, from a medical perspective. It's not just the medically repaired knees that present a problem for Sizemore; it's the impact those knee problems had on the rest of his body. The initial left knee issue caused a chain reaction of physical quirks and discomforts -- his groin, his hips, his shoulder, his back, his elbow -- of varying degrees of seriousness. When the body begins to break down, it can often be unrelenting. And Sizemore's relative rust, even after these spring exhibitions, puts him at potential risk of getting thrust back to square one at a moment's notice.
One can understand, then, the various questions that must have been running through the minds of Boston's decision-makers this month:
Are the complications that come with keeping Sizemore -- namely, having to shift either Daniel Nava or possibly Shane Victorino to center on the days he doesn't start -- worth the impact his bat and body can provide if he remains healthy?
What if Sizemore suffers a nagging injury not quite worthy of a disabled list stint, but significant enough that Nava must make multiple starts in succession in center?
Is there any value to preserving Sizemore's body from the big league grind now -- by putting him in extended spring camp or carefully calculating his playing time in the Minors -- in order to increase the odds of him being physically capable of impacting the big league club at season's end, when the American League East is likely on the line?
All are good, worthwhile questions.
What Spring Training has taught us, though, is that Sizemore is at a physical point where he can suit up and take a Major League field at something resembling a regular rate. Right now.
And all indications from Grapefruit League play are that Sizemore can, on some level, replicate the raw skills -- the athletic feats in the field and the dynamic approach at the plate -- that once compelled his former GM to call him one of the greatest players of his generation. Right now.
There's no telling whether Sizemore can help the Red Sox later, but he can help them now.
You've got to ride that notion for all it's worth.