Once upon a time, Jed Lowrie was Jackie Bradley Jr.
A compensatory pick in the 2005 draft, Lowrie had risen through the ranks of Boston's farm system until he stood as one of the best they had to offer. In June of 2008, SoxProspects ranked him behind only Michael Bowden and Justin Masterson, one step ahead of Lars Anderson. Now that falls somewhere on the spectrum of silly and depressing, but at the time, it was impressive. It would mark his first and only appearance on top-100 prospect lists before graduating, coming in at #73 with Baseball America, #57 with Baseball Prospectus.
For Jackie Bradley Jr., the story is similar. Picked just five spots ahead of Lowrie (albeit six years later), Bradley too rose to one of the top positions in the farm system, though he never quite reached that top spot. Bradley, too, appeared on top-100 lists, though he peaked somewhat higher than the shortstop.
It's not just their trip through the minor leagues that the two share, though. Their early appearances in the majors have a lot in common as well. Both started fairly strong, with Bradley enjoying his dynamite spring training performance that left him poised to become the next big thing in Boston, and Lowrie performing well in a second-half callup in 2008. Those strong starts would immediately hit roadblocks. Jed Lowrie underwent wrist surgery in 2009, leaving him with a 2009 line of .147/.211/.265. Jackie Bradley Jr. has less concrete of an excuse for his .198/.265/.266 performance in 2014, but suffice it to say that both players were broken--one physically, the other fundamentally.
Which brings us to 2009 for Lowrie, and the present day for Bradley. We all know what Bradley is doing at the plate these days. Bradley is currently hitting .299/.375/.605, good for a 161 wRC+ that, if he were qualified, would leave him trailing only Bryce Harper, Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, Nelson Cruz, Mike Trout, and Josh Donaldson in all the majors. Go back just two days ago, and you could strike Cruz, Trout, and Donaldson from that list. That performance calls to mind the second-half tear that Jed Lowrie went on for the 2010 Red Sox when he made his return from injury. Over 55 games, Lowrie would hit .287/.381/.526 as the Sox tried to claw their way into the postseason (ultimately falling short). He hit nine home runs in that span after managing just four over the course of his first 382 plate appearances with the Red Sox. For all the world, it looked as though the Red Sox had finally found a long-term answer at shortstop.
As we know, that did not turn out to be the case. Lowrie quickly fell back to Earth in 2011, hitting just .252/.303/.382 and eventually winding up traded to Houston for Mark Melancon. In fairness to Lowrie, his season was set back by a case of mononucleosis, and since then, while he has continued to struggle with injuries, Lowrie has still managed to hit .262/.330/.413 over 2147 plate apearances, good for a 105 OPS+. He has never again been the player the Red Sox saw in 2010, but that doesn't mean he's been bad.
For Bradley, Lowrie might seem to represent a cautionary tale, but in reality, the opposite is closer to the truth. Since the first days of Bradley's rampage, there's been no shortage of those cautioning against buying into the center fielder's new and improved bat, myself among them. And it's a fair caveat when you consider that Bradley is doing all this with a fairly high strikeout rate and BABIP to go with a homerun rate that's really come out of nowhere. Expecting Bradley to maintain these levels into 2016 goes beyond optimism. If we really wanted to be realistic, the slightly above average bat that Lowrie has had since is far closer to the mark, with the optimistic projection likely somewhere in the neighborhood of 2013 Shane Victorino.
Obviously if the Red Sox get 2013 Shane Victorino from Bradley, we'll all be overjoyed. 2013 Shane Victorino was one of the best players on a World Series winning team. The important thing is that the same should be true if the Sox get that Lowrie-type bat, or even something a fair bit below it. They've had some strong defensive right fielders in the recent past. Shane Victorino, Josh Reddick, J.D. Drew were all strong defenders. Jackie Bradley Jr.--should he stay in right--would not rank among them. He would dwarf them. Bradley is Jacoby Ellsbury with excellent reads. Where others would have to dive, Bradley makes catches look easy. Where Bradley dives, others would be chasing an extra-base hit into the gap.
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The true value of a glove like that is difficult to fully grasp. We talk of the Mendoza line, and if ever there was an outfielder that should apply to, Jackie Bradley Jr. is the one. But it's damn hard to look at a player batting .198/.265/.266 (as Bradley did in 2014) and accept that said player could be at all valuable to a team. There is an argument to be made that Bradley would be worth playing even at that terrible 2014 level, but there is also little expectation that Bradley will return to that level. If he is due for regression, it's hard to imagine a player capable of hitting the way Bradley has over the course of a couple months is ever going to have a season quite that miserable again, barring injury.
Hitting the way Lowrie has, it would be possible to make the argument that Bradley is not simply worth playing, but one of the better players in the game. Classic Brett Gardner would seem a pretty good analogue. Even in seasons when his bat came in below league average, Gardner was a weapon, albeit one that was unleashed against the opponent's batters rather than their pitchers.
While Lowrie and Bradley have shared remarkably similar early career paths, Bradley frankly has a lot more going for him than Lowrie did after 2010. Lowrie was never a player whose glove alone could carry him with virtually no bat, and Bradley has not had the same difficulties staying on the field. The former make Bradley's bat an easy gamble to take in 2016, the latter makes him that much less likely to hit an unexpected roadbump as he tries to carry some of this performance into 2016 and beyond.
So, if we shouldn't let our expectations for Bradley in 2016 get carried away, we also shouldn't underestimate just how good Bradley would be with even an average bat. We aren't talking about a decent role player, or a second division stater. We're talking the sort of player who should start on 30 out of 30 teams. One year ago, "league average" seemed unlikely for Bradley, so great were his struggles in 2014. Today, it's easy to imagine, because we've seen so much better.