Breaking down Red Sox' still-unresolved decision on Jackie Bradley Jr. vs. Grady Sizemore

March 25, 2014 - 9:06 am

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Cue Europe and their ridiculous synthesizer. It's the Final Countdown. The Red Sox are sorting through the last days of their roster decisions. Most of the determinations are fairly straightforward. But one key alignment, as the Sox anticipate a resolution to all of their roster decisions as soon as Thursday, has yet to be determined. Tuesday marks the first of three consecutive games in which Grady Sizemore is scheduled to play. It's the first and only time this spring that the center fielder -- attempting to return to the big leagues after a two-season hiatus -- will be tested in this capacity. And until the Sox see how he responds to the physical demands of his schedule, it will be impossible for the team to say whether Sizemore or Jackie Bradley Jr. will be the Opening Day center fielder. "There's still a lot of internal conversation on who our starting center fielder is going to be," acknowledged manager John Farrell. "We're looking at these next three days as a physical test. I can't say we're looking at quality of at-bats to on-base in those three games. We're just, one thing that we can get some feedback on is does he come out of three consecutive games in good shape physically?" The questions about Sizemore currently appear to revolve solely around his durability and physical health rather than his abilities and in-game performance. In terms of how he's looked both swinging the bat and defensively, Farrell said that Sizemore has answered those questions "and initially probably exceeded our expectations on the way he was swinging the bat and particularly the timing at the plate. That's what stood out. "We came in with kind of an open canvass. And yet we've seen very good timing at the plate. We've seen a repeatable swing, much like he was pre-injury," added Farrell. "I don't think we had any set markers or goals to say that, 'Hey, if he could do this from an offensive standpoint, he's exceeded expectations.' I think he's going to gain further consistency the more at-bats that he gets." But therein lies the rub with Sizemore. Right now, the Sox see a player with ability, but they haven't yet been able to gauge whether he can translate that ability to performance on a consistent basis, or whether he can play with the frequency they'd need if they appoint him their everyday center fielder by next Monday in Baltimore. The team created a well-defined medical plan when they signed him that has seen a gradual increase in the number of games he can play every week. Farrell said that he's stayed on the outlined course -- neither exceeding nor falling behind the schedule -- to a tee, with this week and next week (the first week of the regular season) marking an increase in his playing time to five games in a week, and two weeks from now representing an anticipated boost to six games in a week. "He's responded favorably to all," said Farrell. "That progression continues to build. We haven't maxed that out yet." The Red Sox saw three scenarios when they signed Sizemore, with no real feeling for which of the three was most likely: 1. He could blow the team away and win the Opening Day job in center field; 2. Between injuries and rust, he could have proven an impossibility for the roster, nowhere near major league-ready; and 3. He could show considerable promise, but with questions about his build-up -- both in terms of the restoration of his skill set and his durability -- resulting in the need for a season-opening rehab assignment. The second possibility has been eliminated. Now, the Sox continue to wrestle with whether the first or third scenario is more likely. "There were probably three different scenarios when we walked into camp and you know what, he'€™s moving down the path to possibly the most favorable one without a final decision being made," said Farrell. There is a question of whether Sizemore, as he continues to round out some of the rust from his time on the sidelines, can benefit from a minor league rehab assignment both to further build his durability and to hone further his timing. "Would Grady be better served with an additional 40 to 50 at-bats before coming to us? That'€™s one scenario you consider," said Farrell. But it's not a decision being made in a vacuum. In particular, the fact that the Sox have spent all spring managing Shane Victorino's availability has raised the threshold for the theoretical durability that a center fielder would have to demonstrate to win the Sox' job. Victorino's start of the spring was delayed by his recovery from thumb surgery. Then, his entrance was delayed by a commitment to strengthen his core. However, though Victorino was scheduled initially to play on Tuesday against the Rays in Port Charlotte, the Sox had to revise that plan when the outfielder was held back due to what Farrell characterized as "general, left-side soreness" that he experienced in Sunday's game. "Everything was in good shape [with his core]," said Farrell. "He'd really settled into some protective wear of the right thumb that was really starting to agree with him. He continues to move in the right direction. This is just a precautionary thing, holding him out." Yet the precautions are noteworthy. For instance, the Sox have Bradley starting in right field on Tuesday, as a just-in-case if Victorino is unavailable to play. Moreover, Victorino may be limited to minor league games for the rest of the spring so that, if he does need to be placed on the disabled list to start the year, his stint could be backdated to make it as short as possible. For now, the Sox still anticipate Victorino being ready for Opening Day. "Everything points to him being ready, even with the current stiffness that he's dealing with," said Farrell. "We don't think this is going to keep him out Opening Day, by any means." Indeed, Farrell said that he thinks Victorino should be able to exceed the 117 starts he made in 2014. But clearly, the Sox are hedging their bets. The fact that he has encountered recurrent stiffness/soreness/discomfort suggests that the Sox need to prepare for a number of contingencies. After all, if Victorino were to feel a twinge while playing in the outfield -- on a day when Sizemore was unavailable, and Bradley was in the minors -- then the Sox suddenly could find themselves with an alignment of Mike Carp in left, Daniel Nava in center and Jonny Gomes in right, a trio whose collective range would alter completely the fabric of the game. Even if Victorino is healthy, he hasn't been able to take any games in center field this spring to prepare for those days when Sizemore might be unavailable. Nava, meanwhile, has had limited exposure to center this spring, having only played there a bit in minor league games. And so, the decision about the Opening Day center fielder is not one that will be made simply based on how Sizemore looks (in a spring where he's hitting .310 with a .333 OBP and .345 slugging mark). He needs to show that he can not only surpass a minimum expectation in terms of availability but a higher threshold that minimizes the likelihood that the Sox outfield will be exposed. "Part of what is factored in is what you know that I have to manage in terms of games played and availability. What is the back-up plan for those other games? Is there variability with other guys in their day to day availability?" said Farrell. "I wish I could say there was just one thing you could make the decision on. There are a number of factors in play." And so, the decision remains unresolved. Farrell did say that a couple of determinations had been made: 1. The Sox don't plan on having an Opening Day roster that would include both Sizemore and Bradley (who is hitting .188/.250/.333 this spring). One of them will open the year in the minors, since carrying both in the big leagues -- barring a DL stint for Victorino -- would require the Sox to part with either Carp or Gomes, a scenario that the team doesn't want to explore. "That'€™s probably an either/or (between Bradley and Sizemore) at this point because that requires space, who else is on the roster and that'€™s why were focusing on one or the other," said Farrell. 2. If Sizemore does open the year on a minor league rehab assignment, it seems virtually certain to be in Triple-A rather than in extended spring training. The Sox want Sizemore to have the best opportunity to regain his feel for the timing of the game; that's better accomplished in Pawtucket than against players without professional experience in Fort Myers. "We would want to get him against the best competition available, whether that'€™s major league or at the highest level to continue to build out his day to day activity," said Farrell. Ultimately, where Sizemore and Bradley open the season remains to be determined. But beyond the question of which one will end up getting the opportunity to play in Baltimore in six days, perhaps more significant for the Red Sox is the fact that, as well as the Sizemore experiment has gone, they now have legitimate big league-caliber center field depth. The team views the opportunity to pick between Bradley and Sizemore as a luxury, not a problem. In this case, the team believes quantity will yield quality and protection for a team that spent a 2013 championship run celebrating the value of depth.