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The talk of Red Sox camp is young outfield prospect Jackie Bradley. The Red Sox snagged Bradley in the supplemental round of the 2011 draft out of South Carolina University. Bradley had played very well the prior year, but injuries took their toll on his performance (and thus numbers) the season before he was drafted, and his stock slipped. The Sox grabbed him with the 40th overall pick.
The selection was not unlike the previous year's pick of Anthony Ranaudo, who's draft stock had slipped following a down season. That slippage allowed the Red Sox to grab a player at the back end of the draft who many had pegged prior to the season as a top five talent. Unlike Ranaudo who has struggled since turning pro, Bradley has, to date, shot through Boston's system. Last season he burned up Single-A ball, hitting .359/.480/.526. Even though it was just 234 at-bats, the .480 on-base percentage stands out like a skyscraper on a farm and Bradley was promoted to Double-A Portland. There his power dimmed a bit though his excellent defense and ability to get on base remained.
Flash forward to Spring Training and now, after going 3-for-5 on Thursday, Bradley is leading the team in hitting with a slash line that looks like something out of a video game: .571/.625/.643. This has caused somewhat of a stir in the press where headlines like "Could Bradley earn spot with Red Sox?" and the not quite succinct, "John Farrell Not Ruling Out Chance of Jackie Bradley, Jr. Making Red Sox Opening Day Roster."
Bradley is a tremendous story in that he's a young and talented player coming up through the system in an organization that hasn't seen a whole lot of that over the past few years. That's exciting and fun, and Spring Training is the perfect forum for a player like Bradley to open some eyes, both ours as fans as well as a few inside the organization. Bradley has a future in Boston and we're all just starting to get a handle on what that might look like. It's an exciting future, but it's a future in the future, not in the present.
Baring injury, Bradley should not make the opening day roster, and shouldn't see the light of a major league field before proving himself in Triple-A.
I don't write this to be a kill-joy. Putting Bradley in the big leagues now presents a series of real problems. He may well be able to hold his own at the level, but bringing him up now when there is no spot for him beyond a platoon or bench role risks slowing his progress as a player. To improve, Bradley needs to play every day and he needs to play center field if at all possible. It's true his defense in center is already excellent, but like any skill, it risks degrading if it isn't put to use.
There's also a service time issue to starting Bradley with the Red Sox. That's admittedly a lesser problem -- if there is both a need and a role in Boston for Bradley, the Red Sox can live with losing a year of control -- but if both that need and that role don't exist, putting Bradley in Boston will blow a year of team control, whether he's rotting on the bench or platooning with Jonny Gomes. That's one fewer year the Sox would hold the rights to Bradley, and considering what's being said of him now, giving that up for anything but maximum production would be a mistake.
The final point is that there isn't a suitable role in Boston available right now. No matter what you think of the deals, the Red Sox went out and spent money on Shane Victorino and Gomes and both will figure prominently in the outfield this season. In other words, they may be over-paid, they not be, but they're here and they're going to play. Bradley isn't going to back up Gomes or Nava or whomever and he's not platooning with Gomes either for all the reasons I specified above. He's not playing left field unless the major league club has a real need and it's determined that Bradley is the one to fill that hole. Of course he's not starting over Gomes, Victorino, or Jacoby Ellsbury, either, and that's it. That's the end of the list of positions.
If you think about this from a value standpoint, you can see that a backup or platoon role limits his impact, but more practically speaking, it limits the difference between he and another player. If Bradley is twice the player that Daniel Nava is, over 600 at-bats that will show itself to be true. But over 125 at-bats that the backup left fielder might get, the difference is minimized. This is also true defensively where Bradley's defense at a new unfamiliar position and in the shadow of the Monster takes a valuable asset and removes much of the value.
So why lose a year of service time, risk setting back the player's development, all while forcing him into a role that under-utilizes him? Of course the answer is you wouldn't do any of those and doing them all together is just silly.
Bradley's future is bright and the Red Sox future is brighter because of him. But that future isn't now. Bradley's needs and the needs of the team dictate that we all must wait, 8-for-14 or not. John Farrell will continue to sing his praises, but he knows there's no spot for Bradley and no reason to rush him. So enjoy Bradley in Spring Training. Enjoy his gap power and his excellent center field defense. Then follow him and root for him as he mans center in Triple-A Pawtucket this season.