Grady Sizemore last played in a Major League Baseball game on September 22, 2011. Two-and-a-half years later he's poised to be the Boston Red Sox starting center fielder when they open the 2014 season in Baltimore next week.
Boston signed Sizemore in January on the off chance that the 31-year-old might have something left in the tank. After undergoing microfracture surgery on his left knee in 2010 and his right knee in 2012, expectations for Sizemore were non-existent heading into spring training.
Rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. was originally slotted to replace Jacoby Ellsbury in center field, and as recently as March 15, that was still the plan. Via Rick Weber of ESPN Boston, Red Sox manager John Farrell said: "We came into camp with Jackie as the guy. We projected him as the starting center fielder, and I don't think anything has radically changed that thought."
On March 17, however, the tide started to turn. In a nationally televised St. Patrick's Day contest against the St. Louis Cardinals, Sizemore went 3-for-4 with a pair of great catches in the outfield. One of which was a first-inning grab that sent him crashing into the wall, putting to rest any concerns about his immediate durability.
Following Sizemore's impressive performance that day, CBS Sports baseball insider Jon Heyman wrote:
John Farrell was the Indians' farm director when Sizemore came up and flashed his greatness. “A top five player,” Farrell recalled the other day about Sizemore's start to his career.
It might be a bit easier to recall that today, as Sizemore looks at times like the guy he was before. The Red Sox got him in 4.2 going down the line the other day, only slightly slower than the 4.14 Farrell recalled from the heyday. The swing looks the same, so does the gait. The hope is rising.
Sizemore has played a total of nine games this spring, with nine hits in 29 at-bats for a .310 average. While those numbers are certainly encouraging, they still represent an extremely small sample size. The disappointing exhibition season that Bradley Jr. has put together is equally responsible for Sizemore's ascension to probable starter.
The Red Sox have allowed Bradley Jr. plenty of opportunity to keep the job, giving him a team-leading 48 at-bats so far. But his batting average has consistently hovered below the Mendoza Line, currently standing at .188. Bradley Jr. also hit just .189 in 95 major league at-bats a year ago and could well use more time at the Triple-A level.
Despite passing the eye test to this point, there are still lingering questions about Sizemore's ability to play on a regular basis. Boston hopes to answer those this week by starting him in three consecutive games on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, writes The Providence Journal's Brian MacPherson.
When recently asked about Sizemore's health, Farrell's response implied that he's changed his tune as to who his center fielder will be, per Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe:
We have a good reason to believe at this point that he is a likely candidate to become an everyday player with durability on his side at some point. The most encouraging thing is that he has not hit the proverbial wall. The medical information is guiding us. Every piece of feedback from the medical staff is positive with the end thought that he’ll become an everyday player.
Should Sizemore require an inordinate number of days off, the Red Sox have sufficient outfield depth to get by. Right fielder Shane Victorino has spent plenty of time in center throughout his career, and Gordon Edes of ESPN reported Boston will try out Daniel Nava at the position as well.
In 2013 Nava appeared in 63 games in left and 69 in right. With Jonny Gomes also available to play left, the combination of the three can adequately cover the outfield in Sizemore's absence.
Opening Day is just a week away, and at this point all Sizemore must do is remain injury-free in order to claim his job as Boston's starting center fielder.
Statistics courtesy of RedSox.com.