Grady Sizemore hasn't taken the field in a professional baseball game, major league or minor league, since 2011. Over these three long seasons, Sizemore's career legacy has devolved into a mixture of "What could have been?" laments and chortles over lewd photos leaked in late 2009.
The upcoming season looks like Sizemore's best chance to return to the field in recent memory. Now nearly 18 months removed from microfracture surgery on his right knee -- two years after he needed the same procedure on the other side -- Sizemore, 31, has a major league deal in hand from the Boston Red Sox and could make as much as $6 million if he is healthy and productive. Sizemore is likely to start the season on the bench, if he can make the team out of spring training, but he could give the Red Sox a center field option if Jackie Bradley Jr. falters, as well as a left-handed option to spell Shane Victorino on occasion.
Sizemore will likely play a minor role for Boston, but if he can even suit up and play in one game this year, it should be considered a massive success. Microfracture surgery is among the most difficult procedures for an athlete to recover from, and Sizemore would not only be returning from one on each of his knees, but also lower back surgery (2012) and a pair of sports hernias (2009, 2011). Sizemore's return would be a monument to both his talent and his perseverance, both mentally and physically.
Still, it will be hard to watch Sizemore without wondering about the career that injuries robbed from him. By the end of his age 25 season in 2008, Sizemore already had 111 home runs, 117 stolen bases, three All-Star Games, two Gold Gloves, a Silver Slugger award and three top-12 MVP finishes. He missed just nine games from 2005 through 2008, and he played the full 162 in both 2006 and 2007.
He hit booming home runs:
He hit the ball with authority to all fields:
And he made plays with incredible range, athleticism and grace in center field:
After 2008, Sizemore owned a career .279/.370/.491 over 3,109 plate appearances. His 127 OPS+ made him just the ninth center fielder since integration to post a 120 OPS+ or better in at least 2,500 plate appearances by age 25, an illustrious list to say the least:
Mantle, Mays and Snider are Hall of Famers, and if there is any sanity whatsoever in the Hall of Fame voting process, Griffey will join them shortly. Cedeno, Pinson, Lemon and Smith all enjoyed careers spanning at least 16 years. Of this group, only Pinson didn't either receive MVP votes or go to an All-Star game after age 25. All eight accrued at least 50 career Wins Above Replacement according to Baseball-Reference -- if not Hall of Fame level, at least Hall of Nearly Great level.
Consider, also, Sizemore's most similar hitters by age from Baseball-Reference. At age 22 and 23, it was the great Snider; by 24, it was Giants stalwart and four-time All-Star Jack Clark; at ages 25 and 26, it was none other than Barry Lamar Bonds. Sizemore looked primed for another decade of dominant play, if not more. Of course, Sizemore was not the first to lose a blindingly bright future to injuries, nor will he be the last. But that doesn't make it any less painful to see his body break down repeatedly in what should have been the prime of his career.
Perhaps all hope isn't lost. The 2013 season was a banner year for bright stars that saw large chunks of their careers wiped out by injuries. Scott Kazmir revived his career in Sizemore's old home of Cleveland, and Francisco Liriano competed for a Cy Young award for the first time in years in Pittsburgh.
Even if Sizemore makes it back to the major leagues with Boston this year, it won't ever be the same Sizemore, the one who was primed to become a franchise player in Cleveland and possibly a Hall of Famer. It will be impossible to see Grady Sizemore without questioning what could have been. But that shouldn't cloud the great things he did accomplish before his body gave out on him. Sizemore was one of the best young players of a generation, and his accomplishments in the late 2000s are well worthy of celebration.