Stop me when this sounds familiar: a quiet offseason in Cincinnati, a vacancy in the outfield, nary a whisper or rumor that could overpower the cries of the small-market ball club. Big moves take big money. Temper your expectations.
But small moves could still make waves.
This time, it was 2012. Left field had been a sieve in Cincinnati, and the departure of the jittery, fan-favorite Jonny Gomes turned offseason need into necessity. But with big names on the market, the Reds brass made a move that didn’t exactly trend on the Twitter timeline.
Enter Ryan Ludwick.
The perennial disappointment signed for a cheap one-year deal, at $2 million, and few expected his impact on the field to be much greater than his dent against the club payroll. He proceeded to shatter those expectations, slugging 26 HR with a line of .275/.346/.531, helping the Reds reach 97 wins and an NL Central title. Suddenly, GM Walt Jocketty’s patient bargain hunt looked like the perfect storm: right player, right place, right time.
Another dark horse lingers in 2014. And the question becomes: could lightning strike twice?
In August, Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal tweeted that the ghost of Grady Sizemore was planning a resurrection, hoping to sign with a new team this offseason after not suiting up since his 2011 campaign with the Cleveland Indians. The comeback story resurfaced again recently when Brian McTaggart reported that the Astros and other teams had considered Sizemore’s potential.
The news has been met with a collective yawn. Probably because we’ve already forgotten how great he once was.
Before a slew of injuries sidelined Sizemore and threatened to cut his career short, the Cleveland Indian wasn’t just a rising star. He’d arrived. From 2005 to 2008, he hit .281/.372/.496, posting an OPS+ of 128 and regular season averages of 27 HR, 29 SB, and 116 runs scored. Better yet, he earned the reputation of a defensive stalwart in center field.
In that four-season span, he accumulated two Gold Gloves, three All-Star nods, a Silver Slugger Award, finished in the Top-15 of MVP voting on three occasions, and in each year, graded out as one of the top-10 players according to WAR (Wins above Replacement).
Sizemore was considered one of the best stories in baseball, a small-market star (think Andrew McCutchen) with stardom in his present and superstardom in his future. Then the wheels gave out, and his name became the latest evidence to suggest that, in Cleveland, hope is short-lived. Disappointment springs eternal.
In 2009, groin and hernia troubles slowed Sizemore and forced him to miss more games than he’d missed in the previous four years combined. But despite some struggles, he still compiled an OBP of .343. After that, he’d never be the same. Surgeries mounted to repair his knees, his back, and his hernia injuries, and the saving grace of Cleveland became their fallen angel. From 2008 to 2011, his walk rate would drop from 13.2% to 6.1%, his strikeout rate rising from 17.5% to 28.8%. And this was when he played.
Usually, Sizemore simply stood as the highest-paid spectator at Progressive Field –a symbol for the cruel impermanence of youth.
Now he’s back. And no one cares. There are no surgeries to reclaim unbridled potential.
But what if the Reds decided to take a chance on the fallen star? The move would barely move the meter. It wouldn’t quell the doubts of fans. It wouldn’t raise morale or earn them the dubious distinction of Offseason Champion. But they’ve played this game before.
Remember Ryan Ludwick.
Ludwick was two years older (at 33) than Sizemore when the Reds signed him to a one-year audition. As mentioned, he hadn’t produced a good season since 2008, jumping to three different teams in three different seasons, hitting a lackluster .251, and failing to play 140 games in any season due to injuries and advancing age. The book had been written on Ryan Ludwick. He was done. He was finished.
Until he wasn’t.
Ludwick is hardly a superstar. His 2012 season won’t be chronicled in the annals of baseball. But, at $2 million, he was a steal for a small-market team with big-market dreams of playoff contention. And he helped guide the Reds to an October birth in the postseason. Couldn’t Sizemore do the same? He’s younger, likely cheaper, and undoubtedly, his ceiling is higher.
So the Reds might be smart to pick him up while he’s on the floor.
Before another fallen star decides to rise to one more occasion.