FORT MYERS, Fla. — How good was Grady Sizemore?
“He’s without a doubt one of the greatest players of our generation,’’ Cleveland general manager Mark Shapiro told Sports Illustrated in 2007.
“The best player in our league,’’ added White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen.
Sizemore was going to be the Next Big Thing. He was a center fielder with speed and power. He was a three-time All Star.
In 2006, he 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 with that of Hall of Famer Duke Snider.
Playing for the Indians, Sizemore received MVP votes in four straight seasons. In 2007, he hit .375 to help the Tribe conquer the Yankees in the American League Division Series. He hit a homer off Curt Schilling in Game 2 of Cleveland’s seven-game loss to the Red Sox in the ALCS.
He was also an iron man of sorts. Sizemore played all 162 games of the 2006 and 2007 seasons. He had a streak of 382 consecutive games when he sprained an ankle and had to sit early in the 2008 season.
The seemingly harmless sprained ankle was the beginning of a biblical tale of physical woes for the wonder kid from the suburbs of Seattle. After the ankle there was a groin injury. In 2009, the surgeries started. First a left elbow surgery. Then a hernia. Then a left knee surgery. Then another hernia and a right knee surgery. Then another right knee surgery.
Sizemore staggered through all that through the 2011 season, then had surgery on his lower back in 2012 — his seventh surgery in four years. He has not played a game of big league baseball since the fall of 2011, during the chicken and beer final days of Tito and Theo in Boston.
He is only 31 years old. He looks great in batting practice. He’s a baseball-perfect 6 feet 2 inches, 200 pounds, bats left and throws left, and kills the ball in the cage. From the cozy confines of JetBlue’s Felix Maldonado Field 3 Sunday morning, Sizemore easily peppered the aluminum rooftop of the Sox clubhouse beyond the right-field wall.
Manager John Farrell gushed Saturday about what he has seen from Sizemore thus far.
“Given what we’re seeing right now, we’re looking forward to it,’’ Farrell said. “He feels great and two days ago he had a phenomenal day out there. He was running the bases full speed, his defensive work was at full speed, handling the live pitching well. Everything has been very good. But we’re either going to have to temper our enthusiasm or really how much we push him as he gets into game shape.’’
Armed with those words and a long look at Sizemore’s impressive big league résumé, I approached him at his locker after Sunday’s workout. He was professional, polite, and extremely careful about expectations.
“As far as my body goes, it’s better than I anticipated,’’ said Sizemore. “I’m just looking to build off what I’ve done so far and get back in shape and get stronger. I feel right. I wanted to up the workload and the volume. We’re watching the amount of time on my feet and the amount I’m working each day. Slowly building off that and just making sure we don’t do too much, too soon, and create problems.’’
The Sox signed Sizemore to an incentive-laden $750,000, one-year contract in January. They know him. Farrell was the Indians’ minor league director when Sizemore was a star with the Tribe. Sox assistant GM Mike Hazen, coach Torey Lovullo, and trainer Rick Jameyson were also with Cleveland during Sizemore’s golden days.
Everybody understands the Sox’ center field situation. Jacoby Ellsbury is now a member of the Yankees’ millionaires club and Boston is willing to go with rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. But Bradley hit only .189 in 37 big league games last year. He is not a sure thing.
If Sizemore can get back to anything approximating his former self, he’d be a terrific fallback for JBJ.
It’s a very big question and Sizemore’s not saying anything that would make one think he’s ready to contribute at the big league level. The exhibition season starts Thursday. What’s a reasonable workload for Sizemore?
“I have no idea,’’ he said. “We haven’t got that far yet. I don’t really know how we’re going to approach that. When to start. I’ll probably sit down with the medical staff and see how they want to approach it. Right now I’m just focused on the day-to-day stuff. Getting my legs underneath me and getting used to being on my feet every day.’’
Will you be ready to play in spring training games at the end of this week?
“I feel like I would be, but maybe it’s not the smartest thing right away,’’ he said.
“I don’t want to go out there and play games in February just so I can then break down in March. I think the best thing to do is get to a point where we don’t go backwards.’’