USA TODAY Sports
The Red Sox outfielder of the future has kicked off his first big-league spring training with success
Contrary to how things are sometimes presented in terms of competition, most major-league baseball jobs are locked up prior to spring training. The idea of competition exists mostly to figure out who the backups, depth, and insurance policies are going to be, so that a team isn't left unwittingly empty-handed when plans go awry.
However, at the minor-league level, a strong spring might be cause to push a prospect up through the system, accelerating their journey to the big leagues. Jackie Bradley, who has already played in three spring training games and is starting a fourth on Tuesday, might be one such prospect. Bradley split 2012 between High-A Salem and Double-A Portland, and has already played 61 games with 271 plate appearances at the latter. If he tears things up this spring, then there just might be room for him at Pawtucket a bit ahead of schedule.
This would not have been true just a couple of months ago, but Pawtucket's outfield went from having far too many options to possibly not enough. Alex Hassan has a broken foot, Bryce Brentz is recovering from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his leg, and the likes of Mitch Maier are currently populating the Pawtucket roster in their stead. Sox Prospects projects the current outfield alignment in Triple-A to be Daniel Nava in left, Maier in center, and Jeremy Hazelbaker in right. While you can quibble with that -- maybe Ryan Sweeney goes to the minors and doesn't opt-out, maybe Nava is on the big-league roster, maybe J.C. Linares gets starting playing time instead of Maier -- it's not a particularly strong group either way.
Nava is the most obvious contributor of the bunch, but his presence (if it even comes to pass) doesn't interfere with Bradley at all, given the latter is a center fielder and Nava is a corner guy, mostly a left fielder. So, the only options that are in Bradley's way are a non-roster 31-year-old on a minor-league deal in Maier, a future big-league bench outfielder in Linares, and Hazelbaker, whom the Red Sox didn't even protect from the Rule 5 draft this past off-season. There are reasons to give all three at-bats, but those reasons have to do with depth: if Bradley shows himself worthy of a promotion to Pawtucket, just one step from the majors, he's their best option for outfield depth in the system anyway.
Even if Bradley's bat isn't 100 percent ready for the show -- and there are reasons to think it could be, between his quick minor-league acclimation and the optimism of projection systems -- his glove most certainly is. He's the best defensive outfielder the Red Sox have in the upper levels, so, if injuries force the issue and Bradley were needed in Boston, he would be able to contribute even if it were only by assisting the pitchers on balls in play. Having him in Pawtucket, facing the most experienced players the minors have to offer, is one way to get a better sense of just how ready he is.
There could be some issues shortly into the year. Brentz and Hassan aren't expected to be out for very long, meaning the space that exists now won't forever. With that being said, if Bradley put up a monster April at Portland, the same problem would exist in terms of real estate for outfield prospects.: this would just be reaching the same destination by a different route. Really, it comes down to how willing the Red Sox are to limit the playing time of the likes of Hazelbaker and Linares, who are interesting in their own ways, but are certainly not akin to one of the top prospects in the game. Bradley is going to need a spot in Pawtucket sooner than later, and there isn't anyone in the system who should stand in his way.