Two months ago, and there was no doubt in anyone's mind that Jackie Bradley Jr. would be the starting center fielder for the 2014 Red Sox. Then the team signed Grady Sizemore, the positive reports on his health began pouring out of Fort Myers, and a once-clear issue became as cloudy as can be.
The argument for Bradley Jr. actually has about as much to do with the rest of the outfielders as it does with Bradley, but it's not the case against Sizemore. We've been over that (see the sidebar below), and while Sizemore is very far from a sure thing, even if we give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he'll produce, it's still not hard to make the case that the Red Sox are better off giving Bradley the reins at the start of the season.
The main issue here is health. For some, the strategy with Sizemore seems to be "play him until he breaks." But what sense does that make? If Grady Sizemore is productive in 2014, why should the Sox be looking to run him into the ground? Assuming that Sizemore will break at some point in the season seems like defeatism, but it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy if the assumption is used to justify making him an everyday player.
And, unfortunately, that's what he'll have to be if Jackie Bradley Jr. is not. There's almost no chance the Red Sox are content to let Bradley sit on the bench even 50% of the time, meaning he's either starting, or headed to Pawtucket to start the season. And if Bradley isn't in Boston, then the Red Sox have zero depth in the more difficult outfield positions. Shane Victorino needs a day off? Enjoy Daniel Nava in right field. Sizemore needs one (and oh, he absolutely will)? Better not give up any fly balls, because it's going to be a damn circus out there. By not starting the season with Jackie Bradley Jr. as the primary center fielder, the Red Sox would pretty much be committing themselves to working both Victorino and Sizemore to death, or accepting that their defense will be severely diminished in many early-season games.
They're a fun bunch, but Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes should probably never be on the field at the same time. Photo Credit - Jim Rogash
On the other hand, if Jackie Bradley Jr. is allowed to start the season in center, it will be a lot easier for Farrell to keep everyone rested and healthy. Just one day off in five for Bradley or Victorino would mean plenty of playing time for Sizemore, particularly if you account for an inevitable DL-trip from one player or another and pinch hitting opportunities. He could keep Victorino away from some unfavorable right-handed matchups to boot.
The biggest argument in favor of starting Sizemore seems to be the flexibility it allows Boston with their roster. Which is to say that it allows the team to put off making the call we all know has been coming with Mike Carp. But that's not something that can be dodged forever. The Red Sox will not make it another full season with two defensively limited backups in Carp and Gomes on their roster, and in fact having Sizemore starting makes it even harder to justify that use of a 25-man spot given how much more Sizemore needs a reliable day-to-day backup than Jacoby Ellsbury did in 2013.
Honestly, the only reason that's even being seen as a viable option is because it's so much easier to ignore defensive deficiencies than offensive ones. God knows most of baseball's history has been spent doing just that. But relying on a backup outfield configuration of Gomes - Victorino - Nava will cost the Red Sox runs. And for what? To hold on to a backup first baseman/pinch hitter? One whose value might be as high as it will ever be? I like Mike Carp just fine, but there's just no place for him. He's not even a natural replacement for Jonny Gomes once he leaves given Daniel Nava's platoon splits, and we're not likely to be comfortable giving him the starting job at first if he somehow manages to stick around until 2016.
Starting Jackie Bradley Jr. just gives the Red Sox so much more. It gives them the best chance to have Sizemore be productive throughout the year and into a potential postseason run. It gives them their best defensive team and the greatest flexibility when it comes to resting starters. It even gives them the most information, letting Ben Cherington know well in advance of July whether or not he needs to be looking for some help in the outfield rather than relying on an unseen Bradley to be the savior in the event that Sizemore winds up hurt in the middle of the Summer.
Beyond that, though, it's just time to give Jackie Bradley Jr. the keys. Transitioning from a star like Ellsbury to a rookie like Bradley is rarely a comfortable experience, but it's one that needs to happen. He doesn't really have anything left to prove in Triple-A. Better to make the switch now while the team has an interesting backup in Sizemore than to wait until there's no Plan-B.