Whether Jackie Bradley will make the Boston Red Sox’s 25-man Opening Day roster is one of the most compelling storylines of spring training.
Bradley has been on an absolute tear since going down to Florida for camp. In 18 games, Bradley is hitting .436/.551/.564 with three extra-base hits, nine runs, four RBI and eight walks. While he’s certainly been a star for the Red Sox, Jon Heyman of CBS Sports recently deemed him the player that’s made the most progress this spring.
The Red Sox are in a tough spot, though, as there’s more than just putting him alongside 24 other players on April 1 against the New York Yankees. The decision is far from easy.
Bradley has yet to play a game in Triple-A. Last season, he hit .315/.430/.482 with 55 extra-base hits, 63 RBI, 90 runs and 24 stolen bases between Single-A Salem and Double-A Portland.
Coming into camp, there was an extremely slim chance that Bradley would start the season anywhere but Triple-A Pawtucket. He’s developed into a great prospect that the Red Sox will have control of for a long time, but to think he’d make the Opening Day roster was a bit crazy.
With how well Bradley has hit, fielded and run this spring, it all doesn’t seem so crazy anymore. There’s a legitimate chance that he’s in the Bronx for Boston’s first game of the 2013 season. But let’s break down each side of Boston’s eventual decision a little deeper.
Why Boston Should Promote Bradley
How could Boston possibly start the regular season without the spring’s hottest hitter on the roster? An American League scout asked the same question, according to Heyman. It just seems like the wrong move considering the type of season the Red Sox are coming off of.
So would Boston promote Bradley this early?
“That’s a hell of a question,” manager John Farrell told reporters (h/t The Boston Globe). “We’ve got two weeks to determine that. But you can’t deny the fact he’s had a hell of a spring training.”
There’s one major reason why Boston would put the 22-year-old on the Opening Day roster: injuries.
David Ortiz isn’t going to be healthy enough to start the season in the lineup. He’ll likely be placed on the 15-day disabled list and miss the first chunk of games. It doesn’t seem like the biggest ordeal in the world at the moment, but it does affect a couple of people.
The injury to Ortiz leaves a major void in the designated hitter’s spot in the order. Farrell is going to have to find someone worthy to just hit and not take the field. One of the leading candidates happens to be Jonny Gomes, whom the Red Sox signed over the offseason.
Gomes was acquired to play left field regularly. But now that Ortiz is going to be sidelined, it makes sense to have him DH. Why? He’s not the greatest fielder and although he’s played the replica Green Monster at JetBlue Park, it will still take some adjusting once playing at Fenway Park.
Who will be Boston's Opening Day DH?
So if Gomes is the new DH while Ortiz is out, who plays left field? We know that Jacoby Ellsbury will be in center and Shane Victorino in right, but there’s now a void in left. That could be where Bradley gets slated to play. Boston doesn’t have a lot of great options outside of the young outfielder—mainly just Daniel Nava and Ryan Sweeney.
Boston could choose to DH Mike Napoli, who’s projected to be the everyday first baseman, but that’s not in the team’s best interest. The Red Sox really lack depth at first, and it wouldn’t make much sense to play someone worse at first if you can play someone better in the outfield. Gomes should be the DH, not Napoli.
So the only way that Bradley makes the team is if there’s a spot in the outfield for him and if he’s going to see a considerable amount of time. The Red Sox aren’t going to put him on the bench. He needs to get at-bats and sitting him won’t do any good. It’s either a starting role or back to the minors and nothing in between.
Why Boston Shouldn’t Promote Bradley
Baseball is a business, and with every business there are decisions that can change a lot of things. This situation that the Red Sox find themselves in this spring is no different. From a business standpoint, Boston shouldn’t start the season with Bradley on the 25-man roster.
The main reason is due to the way that free agency works. Tim Britton of The Providence Journal goes into detail about why Boston could refrain from doing what so many fans want to see once the season begins.
Here’s how it works: Since Bradley is not on the 40-man roster yet, he needs to spend only 11 days in the minor leagues at the start of the season to prevent him from accruing a full season of service time. If the Red Sox call Bradley up on April 12 and keep him all season, he won’t hit free agency until at least after 2019.
If Bradley is placed on the 40-man roster and promoted before April 12—for instance, on Opening Day—he would need to spend at least 20 subsequent days in the minor leagues to prevent that extra year of team control. If Bradley breaks camp with the Sox and doesn’t get sent down for that minimum amount of time, he can be a free agent after 2018.
Whether Bradley becomes a free agent after 2018 or 2019 doesn’t seem like the biggest deal in the world at the moment, but it is something Boston has to consider when making this immediate decision. Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports thinks that the Red Sox should call Bradley up and worry about his contract status later, stating that “all teams would welcome such a problem.”
The Red Sox could always try to negotiate an extension with Bradley before he would be scheduled to hit the open market, but that doesn’t always happen.
For instance, take a look at where Boston is with Jacoby Ellsbury. Ellsbury is one of the Red Sox’s most prized possessions, but he’s entering the final year of his contract and it appears that he’ll test the free-agent waters. It would be further down the road, but losing two outfielders with MVP potential to the market would be extremely detrimental to the franchise.
This is all hypothetical, of course. For all we know, Ellsbury could re-sign with the Red Sox and he’d be playing right next to Bradley in Boston’s outfield next season. These are all things that Boston has to consider, though.
Is the benefit of having Bradley on the team out of camp worth the risk of losing him a year early? That’s one of the questions that general manager Ben Cherington has to answer and will answer by the time April 1 rolls around.
The Red Sox have other ways to go about opening the year without Bradley in the mix. The Ortiz injury certainly improves Bradley’s chances of making the team, but it doesn’t guarantee a thing. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if Jonny Gomes starts the year in left field with Mike Napoli as the designated hitter and Mike Carp or someone else at first base.
Up until this point, I didn’t think that Boston would start the season with Bradley on the roster. In my recent installment of Opening Day roster predictions, I left him off despite knowing that Ortiz would likely start the year on the disabled list.
Where will Jackie Bradley start 2013?
But as each day passes and Bradley continues to impress, I change my mind a little bit more. Now, I think there’s a very good chance that we see Bradley in the lineup against the Yankees on Opening Day. It just makes the most sense considering the situation the Red Sox are in.
If Bradley isn’t there, though, I wouldn’t be completely surprised. Bradley is going to make an impact in the lineup no matter when he makes his debut and his attitude has been nothing shy of professional.
“I’m excited no matter what,” Bradley said, according to Britton. “If I happen to go down, I’m still going to get my work in. I eventually want to play in the big leagues, just like everyone else. I’m just going to keep working.”
Even though Bradley says he’ll work hard in the minors, I don’t think he will. And that’s because he’ll start his major league career in Boston on Opening Day and never return to the minors again—unless it’s for a rehab assignment, but that’s a different story.
The Jackie Bradley plane is about ready to take off. Take your seat, buckle your seat belt and enjoy the ride that will be 2013.