Sizemore’s struggles not without precedents, hope
Four years ago, Grady Sizemore was one of the hottest young players in baseball.
At 25, the centerfielder was already the proud owner of three All Star berths, two Gold Gloves, a Silver Slugger, and MVP votes in each of the past four seasons. He had amassed 111 homers and 349 RBIs since his call-up to replace the injured Juan Gonzalez, and his .279 average and .861 OPS put him in elite standing well before his prime.
But baseball is as fickle as it is rewarding, and Thursday’s announcement that Sizemore will miss 8-12 weeks for lower back surgery is, sadly, only another disappointing setback in a career that peaked far too soon. The center fielder’s stock has fallen sharply, and his past looks far rosier than his future.
Sizemore, who was drafted by the Expos in 2000, landed in Cleveland with Cliff Lee and Brandon Phillips as part of one of the most lucrative trades in recent memory. Though he made his debut in 2004, it wasn’t until his second full season that baseball began to sit up and take notice.
And take notice, they did. In 2006, Sizemore’s 28 homers, .290 average, and .907 OPS ranked him first in the American League in Wins Above Replacement. Additionally, he led the league with 134 runs scored and 53 doubles, adding to his 22 steals and 11 triples to earn his first All Star berth and garner 11th place MVP votes. Heading into 2007, the center fielder was emerging as the leader of a young contending Indians team.
In 2007, Sizemore won his first Gold Glove, adding defensive prowess to his growing repertoire of elite skill. Though the Indians were eliminated in the championship series, the righty was commanding respect all over baseball–a reality that was solidified when he earned a big raise heading into 2008. For the Indians’ loyalty, Sizemore won a Silver Slugger award after hitting 33 home runs and slugging .502, as well as taking home his second consecutive Gold Glove. By then, the three-time all star was drawing comparisons to baseball superstars like Alex Rodriguez, Josh Hamilton, and Miguel Cabrera–whom he beat in MVP voting that year.
But since his steady rise to stardom hit a snag in March of 2009 with a groin pull, Sizemore has played in only 210 games. First, the elbow needed surgery. Then a hernia was repaired. Then a knee. Then the other knee. Then the hernia again. Sizemore’s injury history reads more like an elderly shuffleboard player than the elite center fielder he’d become. In a blink, the steady rise to greatness has turned into the kind of career that prompts pity instead of accolade.
In Sizemore’s corner is a strong precedent for recovery after chronic injury. Baseball is a forgiving game; history has no bearing on a game-winning homer or a gutty play. A quick look at Comeback Player of the Year winners should give Sizemore hope that not all is lost.
In 2007, following several years’ worth of injuries and time missed, Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter underwent Tommy John surgery after a previous elbow surgery had resulted in complications. After just a handful of starts in 2008, the righty again landed on the DL–this time for a shoulder issue that had nagged him throughout his career. But with a new season came new results, and, following a torn oblique muscle and eight weeks out, Carpenter stormed back to make 2009 a whole new ballgame (so to speak). His 17-4 record, 2.24 ERA, and 144 strikeouts in 192 innings won Carpenter Comeback Player honors and a very near MVP miss. Though much of his prime was lost to piggybacking injuries and setbacks, Carpenter is now widely considered to be one of the best pitchers in baseball. His story should serve as inspiration to Sizemore that obstacles can be overcome with the right combination of conditioning, luck, and a unwavering desire to keep playing the game.
Sizemore will turn 30 in August, with plenty of theoretical time to turn his fortune around. If recovery goes smoothly, the Indians will have a healthy center fielder by the end of May, which could give Sizemore close to 400 at-bats to prove his comeback mettle. But if 2012 becomes just another chapter in a foundering attempt at saving a once-brilliant future, the all star with the golden glove could become nothing more than a footnote in the annals of disappointing baseball history.