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Jackie Bradley’s injury and the outfield defense

The Red Sox are uniquely built to manage an injury to Jackie Bradley.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Boston Red Sox Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

While the Red Sox roster was being torn through by the flu in a way that most of us have never seen before, Jackie Bradley Jr. hurt himself in the most bizarre possible way. Because of course he did, because nice things cannot happen to the Red Sox right now. If you missed it on Saturday, Boston’s center fielder hit a routine fly out and as he slowly rounded first base to head back to the dugout, his toe got caught in the dirt and he hit the ground. Bradley clutched his knee, and we all hoped for the best but expected the worst. Luckily, he eventually made it to his feet and walked off the field without assistance. After the game, he proclaimed he’d be good to go for Sunday. He was not.

As of this writing, it’s not entirely clear what the injury is. The latest is that he has a sprain, which was discovered by an MRI in Detroit, but he’s heading back to Boston for a full work-up of the issue. It looks like Bradley may be able to avoid a DL stint, but nothing is certain at this point.

If Bradley does indeed miss time, it goes without saying that it is a bad thing for the Red Sox. Through the first week of the season, he has arguably been their very best player. (SMALL SAMPLE ALERT) He hasn’t blown anyone away at the plate, but he’s hitting a solid .286/.353/.429 for a 114 wRC+ in his first 17 plate appearances. More importantly, he’s pairing that with his typical phenomenal glove work and has been an all-around asset for the team. Generally speaking, replacing that kind of talent would be tough for a team, particularly one with as little outfield depth outside the major-league roster as the Red Sox.

With Steve Selsky starting the year on the major-league roster, there really isn’t a good option to call up if they needed another outfielder. Bryce Brentz would likely be the next man up, and he just cleared waivers despite having some modest potential with the stick. For what the team lacks in outfield depth, however, they make up for with their dynamic core at the position. It is that core that has them uniquely set up to withstand this kind of injury, as major or minor it may be.

In their young Killer B’s outfield, the Red Sox have three outstanding hitters who can all play an above-average center field. We’ve only watched this outfield in action for a few months — counting the end of last season — but it seems we already take this fact for granted. There are teams that have trouble finding one player who can play an above-average center field while Boston has one at all three spots. It’s kind of ridiculous.

Boston Red Sox v Washington Nationals Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Mookie Betts’ defense we are pretty much used to at this point. His transition to this position from the infield a few years ago has been incredible, and he’s already turned himself into one of the best defensive players in the league. He gets good reads on the ball, has the athleticism to chase anything down, and has developed his arm into a legitimate weapon in right field. He played center field in his first major-league season, and he showed he’s more than capable of playing it. In fact, that’s where he’d be if he weren’t playing next to a magician like Bradley.

Benintendi isn’t quite on the Bradley/Betts level, but he’s quite good himself. Like the other two, he’s a smart outfielder who can read the ball well off the bat and has the wheels to go get most balls. Where he is lacking is with the arm, which has taken strides since being drafted but still is best suited for left field. Of course, we’ve seen center fielders at Fenway with weak arms before (hello, Jacoby Ellsbury and Johnny Damon), so it’s not a disqualifying feature. Most teams in the league would love to have him in the middle of their outfield.

Now, with Bradley out for at least a few games and probably more, John Farrell and the Red Sox have two weapons to move around to fill in the rest of the pieces. Chris Young isn’t a bad defensive player, but he’s much better suited for a corner. The same goes for Steve Selsky and Brock Holt, either of whom are also candidates for playing time under this scenario. Having this alignment allows one of them to play rather than feeling the need to call up someone like Rusney Castillo just because he’s the only player in Pawtucket who can really play center field.

Of course, all of this is contingent on Farrell properly utilizing his weapons. On Sunday, the team’s first game without Bradley, he opted to put Selsky in center field while putting Betts and Benintendi in their normal corners. I understand the temptation to not want to mess with either of their routines, but ultimately the Red Sox can not take this trio for granted. Both Betts and Benintendi can handle center field, and they won’t forget how to play a corner if they have to spend a week or so in the middle of the outfield. Selsky is a fine depth piece, and as I said Young and Holt can play there as well. However, just because someone can do something doesn’t mean they should.

This post isn’t meant to be a full-blown criticism of Farrell, as I include myself in the group that feels he gets too much of that around Boston. It’s just that his lineup decision on Sunday had me worried about the near-future. Part of this team’s run prevention strategy is to put a dynamic defense on the field, and the outfield was a huge part of that strategy. Even if Bradley isn’t out for a long time, it’s worth thinking about a potentially worse situation in the future. The Red Sox have a unique combination of outfielders, and they have to be willing to use it to its full potential.