A year ago at this time, Jackie Bradley, Jr. was putting on a show in Fort Myers. In one particular game against the Miami Marlins, Bradley came a triple away from the cycle, hit a home run, and raised his spring average to an astronomical .519. His performance was so phenomenal last spring that the team made the bold move of putting the rookie in their starting lineup on Opening Day. However, Bradley hit just .097 in April and was sent back to the minors before even the calendar turned to May.
In hindsight, the Red Sox fell for a player who was hot during Spring Training and made the mistake of thinking that it would translate to regular season success. A year later, the Red Sox are on the verge of making the same mistake if they give Grady Sizemore the starting spot in center field on Opening Day.
Sizemore came to Fort Myers with limited expectations. He hasn’t played since 2011 and his career has been riddled with injuries since 2009. After being an All-Star and winning a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger back in 2008, Sizemore has been an afterthought. For the Red Sox, signing Sizemore was a low-risk, high-reward proposition.
Fortunately for the Sox, in the early stages it looks like the investment may pay off. Sizemore has been a pleasant surprise in March. He’s hitting .306 and is outplaying Bradley, who is having a frustrating spring batting below the Mendoza line. Bradley’s struggles throughout last season and during spring training this year coupled with Sizemore’s solid play has given Grady a case to be the starting center fielder on Opening Day. However, Sizemore is nowhere near ready to take on those duties.
Sizemore only has 36 at-bats this spring and from his 11 hits, nine of them are singles. He also only has two walks. He hasn’t shown that he can sustain this little hot streak he is having over a long period of time and after hitting in the high .300s, his average has come back down to earth. Bradley hasn’t exactly been lighting it up, but it’s way too early to award Sizemore with anything at this point when he hasn’t proven he can be consistent over a large sample size.
It’s important for the Red Sox to have Sizemore earn the starting center fielder spot, rather than just handing it to him because his competition is struggling in spring training. Sizemore will get plenty of opportunities to prove to John Farrell that he has made a healthy recovery and returned to form. It’s encouraging for everyone that his comeback has started without a hitch and he’s heading in the right direction. But until he shows consistency in terms of both staying healthy and production, the starting spot is still Bradley’s.
Even though Bradley’s spring numbers aren’t anything close to stellar, Farrell has made it clear that batting averages aren’t going to be the make or break. Bradley is starting to show solid plate presence. In a recent at-bat against the New York Yankees’ Michael Pineda, Bradley fouled off several pitches before striking out on a questionable called third strike that could have been a bit high. It went down as an out, but his approach to the plate is a positive attribute that is not measurable.
Bradley also has an advantage defensively, which is another characteristic that isn’t as easy to measure as offense. His youth and speed gives him an edge over Sizemore, who is now 31 and hasn’t played in a full season since 2008. Bradley showed signs of athleticism earlier this week when he made an impressive catch at the wall with the sun in his face off an Alfonso Soriano blast.
Things can obviously change if Bradley’s offensive struggles pour into the regular season and Sizemore’s production remains consistent. It’s critical that the team doesn’t weigh spring statistics too heavily.
It’s also important to note, that Bradley’s performance was significantly better than what Sizemore is doing this year. From players who received at least 20 at bats last spring, Bradley led the team in batting average, runs, RBIs, and walks. Sizemore isn’t doing any of that. Everybody fell in love with Bradley. Boston was coming off one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history and Bradley offered a beacon of hope. So yes, they overreacted, but it’s fair to say that with that kind of performance, a lot of teams would have caved in, too.
All of that said, Sizemore playing well is tremendous news for a team that is trying to replace Jacoby Ellsbury. Competition is never a bad thing. Neither is depth. With Sizemore producing, it becomes important for Bradley to play well, too, and this bodes well for the team as a whole. Also, when was the last time a team stayed healthy from April thru September? Having both on the team gives the Red Sox one of the deepest outfields in the league along with Daniel Nava, Shane Victorino, and Jonny Gomes.