Jackie Bradley, Jr.’s Hot Spring Forcing Red Sox to Make a Decision

Boston Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley, Jr.

The Boston Red Sox have set themselves up for the future. The organization has built a strong farm system through the years via the draft and trades with players who are developing into potential stars. The plan, seemingly, is for those players to start breaking through later on this season with the 2014 roster starting to consist of some of those players.

Boston Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley, Jr.
Boston Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr hits a single in the third inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at McKechnie Field Kim Klement USA TODAY Sports

But, the ascension to the big club may be sped up for one prospect, based on his spring performance, but also out of necessity. Outfielder Jackie Bradley, Jr. is having a March to remember. He is hitting .436/.551/.564 in 39 at bats. He ranks second in spring training OBP, eighth in batting average, and his eight walks are tied for fifth. He has become the talk of Fort Myers.

It’s not as if his performance is coming out of nowhere, though. The first round pick of the 2011 Draft broke out last year in the minors. Between high-A Salem and AA Portland, Bradley hit .315/.430/.482 with 146 hits, 42 doubles, and 24 stolen bases. His talents also extended to the defensive side of the ball, earning the Red Sox Minor League Defensive Player of the Year award.

It became clear that Bradley was the Red Sox’s center fielder of the future. With Jacoby Ellsbury’s contract ending after the 2013 season, and with him being a Scott Boras client, the general perception is that he will have a new home next year. And the timing will work out perfectly for Bradley to slide into center at Fenway and the Sox won’t miss a beat.

While that still may end up the case, what happens in the interim may now have a new narrative. Another year in AA or AAA wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for Bradley. At just 22 (he will turn 23 in April), he is still developing and he will be able to do that by playing full-time against other high-level prospects.

With all the heads he’s been turning this month, though, there is a growing campaign to promote him for Opening Day. And with the current state of the Red Sox, there is opportunity. Ellsbury will be entrenched in center and Shane Victorino will be in right. Jonny Gomes is expected to be the primary left fielder, but that could change.

Designated hitter David Ortiz has been hampered by inflamed heels and his status is in doubt for the start of the season and maybe longer. One of the likely candidates to replace him would be Gomes, thereby opening a spot in the outfield, which Bradley has effectively earned the right to fill.

At the same time, there are reasons the Red Sox would be reluctant to add him to the roster early on. Firstly, if he plays in the majors before mid-season he would have one extra year of arbitration eligibility, which could very well result in the organization paying him several million more dollars down the road. At the same time, if he makes the Opening Day roster, he would have to be demoted to the minors for at least 20 games in order to keep him under team control through 2019, rather than 2018.

Additionally, there would be an issue with the Red Sox’s 40-man roster. Currently, Bradley is not on it, so the organization would have to make a corresponding move to make room for him. And a spot on the Red Sox’s 40-man roster is a hot commodity these days. Manager John Farrell has admitted that the decision of whether to add Bradley to the team would not only be based on his performance, but also on the implications his inclusion would have.

Even still, compared to past spring performances, Bradley has gone above and beyond what other Sox top prospects have done to earn spots on the team.

Dustin Pedroia – 2007

Pedroia had been a September call up in 2006, but did very little to show he should make the team the following year, hitting a paltry .191/.258/.303 with two home runs in 31 games. Even during the next spring, he hit just .226 with little power. But the organization was committed to making him their new second baseman, still sticking with him through a disastrous April when he hit well below the Mendoza Line. Their patience paid off as he ended the year as a .317 hitter and the American League Rookie of the Year.

Daniel Bard – 2009

Bard was arguably the best pitcher in Red Sox camp in the spring of 2009. He made eight appearances, throwing 9.1 innings. He didn’t give up a single run and allowed only five hits. Even still, with the Sox bullpen already full, he started the season with AAA Pawtucket. It didn’t take him long to earn his way to Boston, though, getting the call up in May. He ended up as a key part of the pitching staff that year, becoming a reliable late-game option for manager Terry Francona.

Will Middlebrooks – 2012

Middlebrooks went into camp with no real immediate path to the majors. With Adrian Gonzalez at first base and Kevin Youkilis at third, he would have had to settle for a backup role. But the Red Sox would rather see their prospects get regular playing time in the minors and that’s what happened with Middlebrooks. Even after making a good impression by hitting .300, it was back to Pawtucket so he could play every day. He started there by hitting .333/.380/.677 in 24 games and adding nine home runs. When Youkilis went to the disabled list in May, Middlebrooks was the clear replacement. In 75 games with the Red Sox he hit .288 and had 15 home runs before a broken bone in his right hand ended his season.

As with Bard and Middlebrooks, the Red Sox have shown they have no qualms about keeping prospects in the minors after productive springs. At the time, there was no real need for them to start the season with the Major League club because there were already other suitable options for their roles. But injuries and poor performances provided them opportunities early on in the season.

Neither, though, had as good a spring as what Bradley has put together this year. And, with injuries already starting to impact the team, there is a need for keeping another productive player on the roster. If Red Sox management is truly intent on fielding a competitive team this year, Bradley would seemingly give them their best chance to do just that.

As evidenced by Pedroia, the organization has shown commitment to prospects who gave the team every reason to demote them. It would stand to reason they could make the same commitment to someone doing everything he can to prove he belongs. With less than two weeks until the Red Sox open their season, time is running out to make a decision on Bradley’s fate. And, if they do decide to start him in the minors, chances are it won’t be long before he will be patrolling Fenway’s outfield.

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Tony Consiglio
Tony Consiglio is a lifelong baseball fan and has worked for television and radio stations throughout New England. !function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0],p=/^http:/.test(d.location)?'http':'https';if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);js.id=id;js.src=p+'://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js';fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document, 'script', 'twitter-wjs');