FORT MYERS, Fla. — The Red Sox have made their decision: Grady Sizemore is their starting center fielder and Jackie Bradley Jr. will open the season in Triple A Pawtucket.
Sox manager John Farrell made the announcement just after 11 a.m. Friday as the Sox prepared to board a crosstown bus for their penultimate exhibition game, at the Twins’ Hammond Stadium.
“Grady Sizemore is our center fielder and Jackie will be optioned to Pawtucket,” Farrell said.
“It’s very exciting,’’ said the ever-calm Sizemore. “It’s been a long road for me and I’m happy to keep moving forward and to be in this position for this team.
“Since I’ve been here, everything has been better than expected from the first week to the last week.’’
Sizemore, a three-time All-Star, has not played a big league game since September of 2011. Seven surgeries over four years appeared to have ended his baseball career, but he signed an incentive-laden $750,000 contract with the Sox in January, then hit .333 in spring training while Bradley struggled at .158 with a team-high 17 strikeouts in 57 at-bats.
Sizemore was able to play three games over three days in the final week and said he felt good enough to play Friday, although he did not. He is slated to start Saturday in the spring training finale at JetBlue against the Twins.
“As far as the durability question, we answered it as best we could given the number of spring training games,’’ Farrell said. “He will still be on a progression in the month of April where there’s a prescribed number of games played and there’s a progression to that.
“It’s premature to give you an exact number of games per week. But we’re working toward an everyday status.’’
Farrell indicated that on days Sizemore doesn’t play, the Sox will move either Shane Victorino from right to center or Daniel Nava from left to center. The Sox will face lefthander Bruce Chen in Baltimore in the third game of the season, which would probably be the first time Sizemore sits.
“It’s nice to have some positive news,’’ said Sizemore. “In the last couple of years, everything’s been so negative. It’s almost hard to realize what’s going on. Hard to sink in.’’
Farrell said, “This is one of those situations where the game was taken away from a player and now that it’s back in his reach, that appreciation is only going to grow.
“There’s a greater appreciation that I think any player goes through when they’re able to attain that level again.’’
In 2006 with Cleveland, when Farrell was the Indians’ farm director, Sizemore hit .290 with 28 homers, 53 doubles, 11 triples, and 22 stolen bases. In 2008, he hit 33 homers with 38 stolen bases. At the age of 24, he was on a career path comparable to that of Hall of Famer Duke Snider. In his eight years with Cleveland, Sizemore had 134 homers and 139 steals. No other American League player reached those levels during those years.
He was also an Iron Man of sorts. Sizemore played all 162 games in 2006 and 2007.
He had a streak of 382 consecutive games end when he sprained an ankle and had to sit during the 2008 season. The sprained ankle was the beginning of a long trail of physical woes for the young star from Seattle.
After the ankle, there was a groin injury. In 2009, Sizemore underwent surgery on his left elbow. Then came surgery for a sports hernia, three knee surgeries, and another sports hernia. He had surgery on his lower back in 2012 — his seventh surgery in four years.
Did he ever think his career was over?
“I didn’t think it was over, I just didn’t know if I’d ever get back to feeling healthy,’’ he said. “It wasn’t really a matter of playing baseball, it was the little things like being able to run. It was one of those things where you’re just trying to find answers.’’
Does he think he can go back to being the player he once was?
“I think I’m getting there,’’ he said. “I feel as good as I could have hoped coming in before camp and I think there’s still room for improvement. I’m not going to put any ceilings or expectations on it, but just try and go out there and improve on what I’ve done so far.’’
Sizemore was highly complimentary of the Sox medical staff, particularly director of sports medicine service Dan Dyrek.
“Within five minutes of meeting with Dan, I knew he had a better understanding of what I’d gone through than anybody I ever talked to,’’ said Sizemore.
While Sizemore, 31 spoke from in front of his locker, Bradley, 23, stood near his own locker, just a few feet across the room. Bradley was in the original lineup for Friday’s game against the Twins, but was scratched after he was told of his demotion to Pawtucket.
One year ago, Bradley was the rage of spring camp, hitting .419 and earning a starting outfield job for the Sox’ opening series in Yankee Stadium.
Did he expect the Sox to drop the hammer Friday?
“I was prepared either way,’’ said Bradley. “I’m not one to ever get caught off-guard about anything. You take it in stride and move on.
“I knew it was going to be a competing thing. He played well. I didn’t perform in spring training, but I feel like I’m ready for the season and I’m ready to prove it.
“We all didn’t see Jackie Bradley Jr. this spring.
“It’s humbling. I’ve always known that. I don’t get too caught up on the highs or too caught up on the lows. I just try to stay happy medium and it will all even out.’’