Grady Sizemore's long road arrives to a rare new beginning as Red Sox Opening Day center fielder

by: Alex Speier on Fri, 03/28/2014 - 1:37pm

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- For Grady Sizemore, good baseball news had been a rarity over the last five years. His days as the most dynamic player in the game from 2005-08 had been derailed by injuries, his ability to stay on the field from 2009-11 dwindling until finally he could not play in games for two full years, in 2012 and 2013.

Baseball news had come to carry a tinge of gloom over that period of time. He didn't necessarily believe that his days as a player were over, but Sizemore likewise didn't know if he'd ever again be a healthy player.

Those uncertainties, that lengthy period of wondering, made the significance of Friday morning all the greater. Sizemore was brought into manager John Farrell's office and informed that he will be the team's Opening Day center fielder in Camden Yards on Monday. So, 921 days removed from his last big league contest -- a 1-for-4 performance in Cleveland against the White Sox on Sept. 22, 2011 -- Sizemore will play in a major league game.

The news represented a landmark, prompting a flurry of phone calls and texts by Sizemore, beginning with a call to his father. Making this Opening Day roster, Sizemore said, meant more to him than making his first Opening Day roster with the Indians in 2005 given all that he's gone through to get back on the field.

"It's been a long road for me. I'm just happy to keep moving forward and be in this position and be with this team," said Sizemore. "It's nice to have some positive news. The last couple of years, everything's been so negative and nothing's really gone my way. It's almost hard to realize what's going on and hard for it to sink in. I was hoping that was going to be the case and I liked the way things were going, and I liked being a part of this team, and I just wanted to continue with that, and when he told me I just smiled and was ready to move forward.

"I'd definitely say [news of this Opening Day assignment] is a lot more satisfying [than the first one]. Going through what I've gone through, all the negative things that have happened, it's been a long time since I've had positive news. It's been a long time since I've been able to play and just feel this good and be in this kind of setting and just kind of look forward to coming to the ballpark, not wondering what's going to happen next, or what's going to hurt today. Everything's been great. This is just topping it all off."

The news is a byproduct of Sizemore's revelatory level of play this spring. A player about whom it was impossible to have any expectations looked, for the first time in years, like a healthy player who did not have any limits on the field -- much to the delight of both Sizemore and his new team.

Even though the Red Sox received positive reports from a visit by coordinator of sports medicine service Dan Dyrek in Arizona in January, the team had no idea what to expect after signing the former MVP candidate to a one-year, $750,000 deal. The Sox recognized three potential outcomes for him this spring: He wouldn't be healthy enough to be a realistic roster consideration; he would show flashes of his ability but look like a player who needed time in the minor leagues to catch up to game speed; or he would dazzle everyone, remain healthy and challenge Jackie Bradley Jr. for the Opening Day job.

In the end, of course, the third scenario unfolded. Bradley struggled through an awful spring in which he hit .158 with a .213 OBP and .263 slugging mark with three walks and 17 strikeouts. ("We all didn't, I guess, see Jackie Bradley Jr. this spring training," quoth Bradley.) He swung through numerous pitches, seemingly off in his timing and approach.

The opposite characterized Sizemore, who rarely swung and missed and, as the spring progressed, showed an ability not just to put the barrel on the ball but to drive it. He hit .333 with a .381 OBP,  a .462 slugging mark, a homer, three walks and four strikeouts. And in what was viewed as his final test of the spring -- a span of three games in three days from Tuesday through Thursday -- Sizemore went 4-for-10 with a homer, a double and two walks, showing the ability to recognize and attack pitches he could drive, playing aggressively both on the bases and on defense and showing no signs of physical wear.

The Sox saw a player who did not look lost, who bore at least passable resemblance to the dynamo who once impacted the game in every way imaginable. And as he continued to show no signs of physical setbacks, they felt that he'd done enough to prove that he can be durable -- albeit on a regimented progression in his playing time -- to the point where he could be their primary center fielder.

"You could see the action with which he was swinging the bat and running the bases that he was physically feeling good about himself," said Sox manager John Farrell. "When we first started to see him swing the bat in live BP, even before the game schedule began, there was some clear evidence that his timing -- I keep going back to timing at the plate, but even in those controlled settings, it wasn't reminiscent of a guy who missed two years, and as the games started, that continued to progress -- as did the workload, as did the instincts and the way he plays the game. It was consistent with what he was prior to injury."

The Sox will give Sizemore days off at the start of the season. He'll play on Saturday, his fifth contest of the final week of spring training, and repeat that workload next week. For now, the team won't have him play games in more than three straight days. 

But while there will be some restrictions or efforts to protect him -- including a spot in the middle of the lineup rather than the top of the order -- the most notable thing about the Sox' schedule is that it reflects a belief that he can continue to build. That is not just true of his workload but also of what he does in the batter's box and on the field. As one Sox evaluator noted, Sizemore has continued to push the red line further and further this spring to explore where he'll first encounter some kind of physical limitation. He has yet to reach one.

"I feel great now, as good as I could've hoped, and I think there's still room for improvement. I'm not going to put any ceilings or expectations on it," said Sizemore. "[Dyrek has] been amazing. I can't say enough about how much him and the whole staff has helped me since I've been here in the short six weeks. I still think there's room for improvement and get stronger and be more durable and all those things. I look forward to the challenge of working with them and pushing myself."

Said Farrell: "That's the thing that probably has us most excited, because the repetition and the volume in spring training, he has not hit a physical threshold where there's been pushback and you say, 'Uh-oh, his body's responding in a way we've got to stop.' There's been none of that. So the gradual increase of games played, there's a cautious level of optimism that he'll become an everyday player again."

It remains important, in some ways, to measure expectations for Sizemore. As incredible as his progress has been this spring, his return from such a long hiatus is so unusual that there are plenty of looming unknowns and, despite the absence of them to date, potential setbacks.

It's also necessary to acknowledge that he's not the player he was when an elite force. Then, he had incredible plate discipline; this spring, he's been a more aggressive hitter while regaining his comfort in the box. He was considered a plus-plus runner with the Indians, capable of getting down the line in 4.1 or 4.14 seconds; now, he's shown some slightly above-average times down the line this spring (4.2 seconds) but at other times has been roughly average. Team officials believe that his center field range remains above average but short of the standard set by Jacoby Ellsbury or, for that matter, Sizemore in his heyday.

But the comprehensive portrait is one of someone who has a chance to be a very good player. And the fact that Sizemore is in such a position after his more than two-year absence from the game is little short of remarkable.

Farrell can appreciate the magnitude of Sizemore's accomplishments. As a player, the Sox manager missed two full seasons with arm woes. When he returned, a once-promising member of the Indians rotation was never the same.

"I wasn't Grady Sizemore, believe me," noted the manager. "I did miss two years, but I wasn't coming off the level in which he is. So there's a greater appreciation that I think any player goes through when they're able to attend that level again.

"This is a rarity," Farrell said. "There's no question about it. I think it speaks to his work ethic and his athleticism. Those two main ingredients are the reason he's going north with us."

For Sizemore, who had been on the cusp of signing with the Reds before his meeting with Dyrek convinced him that he'd found someone who could help him move beyond his years of health woes, the trajectory of the spring has been validation for his decision. He is with the right team, and now, after years of waiting, he has forged a path back into the big leagues, faster than anyone might have expected.

"I really can't see how I would be in a better situation anywhere else, as far as the team, the coaching staff, the medical staff, everything. It was the best scenario for me," said Sizemore. "I wasn't looking for a place where I could earn a spot. I was looking for a place where I could get healthy and return to being an everyday player. Having that opportunity was what I wanted. But I wasn't trying to find rosters where I thought I fit in best. It's, 'Who's going to help me get back to the player I once was.' "

He is not yet that. But he can at least imagine the possibility that he might be able to reach that lofty plateau, to resemble the player who served as what assistant GM Mike Hazen described as being something of a precursor to Mike Trout.

And so, in one sense, winning a job on Opening Day represents a culmination. In another sense, it represents a new beginning, short on certainties but long on possibility.