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Rookie, veteran battle for Boston's center field job

The SportsXchange

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Center field will take center stage for the Red Sox in March.

In what stands, barring injury, as the only substantial battle for a spot on the 25-man roster, touted rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. will be seeking to stave off veteran Grady Sizemore, once the league's most dynamic center fielder who is trying to resurrect a career sidetracked since 2009 by an avalanche of health issues, including microfracture surgery on both knees.

Sizemore remains the underdog, but he is ahead of even his own schedule. After two productive weeks in the care of the Red Sox's training staff, specifically sports medicine coordinator Dan Dyrek, he was feeling good enough to play against Northeastern on Feb. 27. It was to be his first game since Sept. 22, 2011, with the Cleveland Indians.

"I can say that I came in here feeling really good, but the fact is, being here for probably 2 1/2, almost three weeks now, the amount I've spent out there and to not have any setbacks and to not come in sore and to feel I can keep pushing it every day is definitely a little bit of a surprise," Sizemore said.

"I know I'm going to have some bumps, and I'm going to have some days when I'm not feeling as good and need to slow down. But to come out here and have pushed as far as I have and gotten the response that I have, I'm more than happy. It's more than I could've asked for."

Last month, when the Red Sox signed Sizemore to an incentive-filled contract, multiple team sources told the Boston Herald that they believed he could challenge Bradley in spring training. It was a relatively inexpensive wager -- $750,000 guaranteed, with as much as $6 million in incentives based on how many days the 31-year-old spends on the major league roster and the number of plate appearances he accrues.

For his part, Bradley is hoping for a repeat of last spring. A year ago, he was a touted prospect ticketed for Triple-A. Then he got hotter than the Florida sun, and with help from an injury that put designated hitter David Ortiz on the disabled list on Opening Day, he made the team and started in the season opener in Yankee Stadium.

The rest of the season didn't go quite as Bradley hoped. He wound up batting only .189 over four call-ups to the majors, leaving just enough doubt regarding his readiness for full-time major league duty.

Bradley insists he is up for the competition.

"I'm being watched. I know I am," he said. "I'll be fine. I promise you that."

NOTES, QUOTES

--C David Ross won't miss getting run over on plays at the plate, but he also knows the new rules legislating against collisions will mean catchers need to make adjustments in spring training. "There's going to be an element of learning on the fly, because rules have a way of being interpreted differently by every person," Ross said. "There's going to be a lot of talking in spring training to umpires about what they're looking for. It'll definitely be a conversation starter."

According to the new rule, a runner can't initiate contact with a catcher, and a catcher isn't allowed to block the plate without possession of the ball. Violation of the rule may result in an out, an ejection or even a suspension, but when it comes to defining what it means to "initiate contact," umpires will have to use their judgment.

"As a catcher, the main thing you're used to doing is anticipating the throw and getting your body in the best position to receive the throw and block the plate. Now, all we've got to focus on is catching the ball," Ross said. "So, we're trying to figure out how to set ourselves up best, because in the heat of the moment I know I'm not thinking about the rule change. I'm thinking about the play at the plate. Our natural instincts are going to come into play."

--RHP Clay Buchholz has never made it through an entire season healthy, so the Red Sox are taking steps to see if they can help. Buchholz showed what he could do during an All-Star first half last season before missing three months with shoulder and neck injuries. Manager John Farrell suggested that improved nutrition could be one path to durability. "To me and us, as we've outlined to him, it's probably a combination of nutrition and consistent routine," Farrell said. "That's not to say he's lacked in those ways, but how can we improve the nutrition to the point of giving him the fuel to continue to remain durable? And if there are times when that might not be there, are there times he's starting to wear down the body a little more rapidly than otherwise?"

--RHP Koji Uehara told the Boston Herald that he doesn't believe the Red Sox's closer job is his, that he still must win it in spring training. That was music to manager John Farrell's ears. "As we've come to know, he's a standup guy and there are no excuses," Farrell said. "It was even refreshing to hear his comments that I don't want to be given anything, I have to go out and earn my job again." Uehara also admitted he is driven by doubters who don't believe the soon-to-be-39-year-old can repeat his magical 2013. "I don't care about what people think," Uehara said. "Every year is a challenge. I try to make that motivation to be better."

--OF/1B Mike Carp could be adding a new position to his repertoire in order to get some more at-bats. Manager John Farrell wouldn't name the position -- "stay tuned," he said -- but third base seems like a natural possibility, since Carp played 12 games there early in his minor league career with the Mets. "Occasionally, every now and then, I'll go over there and get some work in, but nothing really in the last couple years," Carp told WEEI.com. "It's something I always keep in the back of my mind. If something might present itself to get a few more at-bats, I'm certainly open to playing there. I'll talk to (third base coach Brian Butterfield) and hopefully get some work in, keep an open ear, open glove hopefully, and see what happens. Anything I can do to get an extra at-bat here or there, if there's a blowout ballgame and I can give a guy a blow, if I can slide to another position, it's only going to help our team. That's all I want to do."

--LHP Chris Capuano has experienced quite the odyssey over his big league career, pitching for the Brewers, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, and Mets. In that time he has made an All-Star team, undergone Tommy John surgery twice, and nearly been traded to the Red Sox in an effort to salvage their ill-fated 2011 season. One thing he has not done? Pitch in Fenway Park. That should change now, however. Capuano, a native of West Springfield, Mass., signed a one-year, $2.25 million contract with the Red Sox to essentially fill the long-reliever/depth-starter role vacated when RHP Ryan Dempster announced he won't pitch this season. "I was 8 years old in '86 when (the Sox) lost to the Mets," Capuano said. "I can remember being devastated as a kid. I grew up watching the Sox and really following them. When I was out in the backyard playing Wiffle ball with my friends, we'd always imagine ourselves on the mound at Fenway, so it's kind of cool to come back and maybe have a chance to be there."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're very different animals. I'm proud of that difference. I always cringe when people lump us together. Other baseball teams sometimes do that. They are still, this year at least, relying heavily on their inimitable, old-fashioned Yankees style of high-priced, long-term free agents. And, uh, I can't say that I wish them well, but I think that we've taken a different approach." -- Red Sox president Larry Lucchino, on what he perceives as the difference between his team and its archrival.
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