Jackie Bradley Jr. is not Jacoby Ellsbury – figuratively and literally. Now 30, Ellsbury is one of the best base stealers in Major League Baseball, and he is proven leadoff hitter who is productive at the plate, disruptive on the basepaths and graceful in center field. The veteran of seven Major League seasons parlayed his success for the Red Sox into a seven-year, $153 million contract with the New York Yankees earlier this season.
Just 23, Bradley has plus speed, but he is not as fast as Ellsbury. And though he has more raw power at the plate, demonstrates the ability to get on base, features a stronger throwing arm and provides greater range than Ellsbury, Bradley is not a proven Major Leaguer, having only 107 big league plate appearances and a .189 average. Yet, when Opening Day arrives next spring, chances are the charismatic Bradley will be starting center fielder for the Boston Red Sox, and he will find himself under a microscope with high expectations.
Red Sox fans and baseball pundits alike wonder, “Is Bradley ready to serve as the everyday center fielder for the Red Sox?”
It would be difficult to find scouts, general managers and player development personnel who offer anything but praise for the supplemental first rounder in 2011 out of the University of South Carolina. Most talent evaluators believe that, at worst, Bradley will be a productive everyday center fielder for the long term. Some think he will be an All-Star caliber part of the Red Sox lineup for several seasons. There is debate, though, whether he will showcase that promise in 2014.
Bradley entered 2013 at No. 31 on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list and one spot lower on MLB.com’s list. He was projected to open the 2013 campaign at Triple-A Pawtucket but had such an impressive spring training that he made Boston’s Opening Day roster since David Ortiz was placed on the disabled list. Bradley quickly struggled with inside fast balls and was optioned to Pawtucket, becoming one of the rare cases of a player who makes his Major League debut before his Triple-A debut.
In three stints with the team that would win the World Series, Bradley hit .189 with three home runs, 10 RBI and two stolen bases in 95 at-bats for the Red Sox. At Pawtucket, his numbers were modest yet respectable: a .275 average with 10 homers, 35 RBI, a .374 on-base percentage and a .842 OPS in 320 at-bats. He swiped seven bases in 14 attempts.
This spring training, expectations will be different for Bradley. Ellsbury is the center fielder for the Yankees, and to date the Red Sox have not acquired a replacement. There were trade rumors surrounding Los Angeles Dodgers’ center fielder Matt Kemp, who remains in LA. There was talk the Boston would ink former Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson, but he agreed to a four-year deal with the New York Mets.
Because of top catching prospects like Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart, the Red Sox were unwilling to offer Jarrod Saltamacchia more than a two-year contract, and he eventually signed a three-year deal with the Miami Marlins. Understandably, Boston was not interested in bringing in someone like Granderson for the long term considering the presence of Bradley.
Even without Ellsbury, the Red Sox lineup remains one of the most formidable in baseball. For the long term, Bradley is projected as a leadoff hitter because of his on-base ability and his track record of hitting for average.
If he opens the 2014 season as the club’s starting center fielder, likely he will occupy the No. 8 or No. 9 spot to remove added pressure. Shane Victorino, who is slotted to play right field, or Daniel Nava, who is expected to platoon with Jonny Gomes in left field, will reportedly see time in the leadoff spot.
Bradley’s current scenario is reminiscent of Dustin Pedroia before the 2007 season. One of Boston’s top prospects, Pedroia made his Major League debut in late 2006. He appeared overmatched, batting .191 with a .561 OPS in 89 at-bats.
That offseason, Red Sox fans clamored for the team to bring back veteran second baseman Mark Loretta. Instead, they opted to give Pedroia a chance to win the job, and he earned American League Rookie of the Year honors while helping the Red Sox capture a World Series title.
If the Red Sox were the Rays, there would be no debate. Bradley would have been named the starting center fielder the moment that Ellsbury signed his free agent deal. Though the Red Sox are far from a small market team, and many baseball pundits still believe that general manager Ben Cherington will at least find a right-handed hitting outfielder to spell Bradley at times, the club has adjusted its roster construction blueprint.
Last offseason, instead of adding big ticket free agents, the Red Sox brought in complementary pieces. This offseason, top prospects like Bradley and Xander Bogaerts appear Major League ready, and 25-year-old third baseman Will Middlebrooks has shown the potential to emerge as a middle of the order bat.
The Red Sox have invested significant resources into building a deep and talented farm system. Though Ellsbury is gone, an impressive veteran core remains, anchored by names like Pedroia, Ortiz, Victorino and Mike Napoli. Boston can afford to give Bradley a chance, as well as Bogaerts and Middlebrooks.
Bradley did struggle at the plate for the Red Sox in 2013, but he showed that he can have the maturity and advanced plate approach to excel in the majors.
Boston’s ownership group says it will not exceed the $189 million luxury tax threshold for 2014, and currently the club is barely under that mark – though it will likely shed the salary of a veteran starting pitcher such as Jake Peavy or Ryan Dempster.
Recognizing this, it is unlikely that Boston will make a significant free agent signing or take on a high-priced contract via trade. When Opening Day 2014 arrives in Baltimore on March 31, Bradley will likely be the starting center fielder for the Red Sox. He is Major League ready, and he deserves the opportunity.