In the wake of Jacoby Ellsbury leaving for a massively over-sized contract with the Yankees, the general consensus was that Jackie Bradley, Jr. would be stepping into the starting role. Even with a weaker bat, his sterling defense would mitigate his hitting. And it would be in step with Boston's organizational philosophy of building from within.
But then Cherington made an interesting move, signing Grady Sizemore to a one-year, $750,000 deal that could climb as high as $6M with incentives. Out of the game for two years, in his heyday Sizemore was a perennial All-Star with a great glove and strong bat. But surely, this was just to provide Bradley with competition, right? There is no way Sizemore could actually challenge to start in center.
Guess again, kids. Sizemore is playing like it's 2007. In seven games he has struck out only once and has an .838 OPS, which shows he is being patient at the plate and getting on base with regularity. He is also running into outfield walls making catches and diving for balls. His two years away from baseball to get healthy seems to have done wonders.
Bradley, conversely, is struggling. After his electric pre-season in 2013, he has an OPS of just .573 so far, and nine strikeouts against three walks. His glove is fine. But whether it is the pressure of being the incumbent starter or just the usual sophomore adjustment, his bat is not where it was last year.
And that creates a problem. There are expected to be five outfield slots on the roster. Three are locked down by Victorino, Gomes and Nava. Which leaves Bradley, Sizemore and Mike Carp for the last two.
Now, some people may say "Trade Carp". But can you really do that? In the prime of his career, he came off the bench in 2013 with a .885 OPS and a 1.3 WAR. That WAR is solid for someone who played in just 86 games. He is also versatile, playing across the outfield and first base. He is a key part of the depth that helped Boston to its third title in 10 years. At the end of the day, trading Carp really isn't an option.
And that leaves us with two choices, neither of which is great. Either Bradley goes back down to Pawtucket to start 2013, or Sizemore gets traded out.
The one big question mark surrounding Sizemore is his durability. He has played back-to-back days just once so far in Spring Training. Can he hold up in the regular season as a starter? The Sox play 29 games in 31 days to start the season. Can he sustain this level of production over that period of time?
We know Bradley can handle that physical grind. But if he gets sent down, after being talked up as the future center fielder, what will that do to him mentally? Will that inspire him to work even harder or will he start to doubt himself. Will another stint in AAA cause him to regress?
The most logical choice (and as a Bradley fan, I can't believe I am saying this) is to start Sizemore. Provided that his production continues over the rest of Spring Training and he can handle the physical demands. The simple truth is that Bradley has two options remaining and the Sox can send him down to start 2014 with no risk. If Sizemore gets hurt or wears down (which is likely) Bradley can come right back up. If someone else falters, Bradley will be called right back up.
And to be utterly fair to Bradley, if anyone could handle the mental issue with being sent down it's him. Bradley is a consummate professional and no one works harder than he does. He is the future starter in center field and whether it happens 3/31 this year or later, it will happen at some point.
Releasing Sizemore or trading him away when he is playing this well wouldn't make any sense from an organizational standpoint. If he gets hurt or tired, that is when Bradley can come back and slot into center. It's all about depth in Boston, and starting Sizemore preserves that depth in the outfield. And at a very reasonable price.