Center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. may not be in the Boston Red Sox's immediate plans this year. That doesn't mean he isn't ready to make an impact in the big leagues.
While the Red Sox front office has yet to make a decision on where Bradley will start 2013, all signs point to a trip starting at Triple-A Pawtucket. It's not Bradley's fault—the front office added too much outfield depth in the offseason, so someone has to pay the price.
The additions of Shane Victorino (who signed a three-year deal as a free agent this winter) and Jonny Gomes (who signed a two-year contract), along with a healthy Jacoby Ellsbury gives the Red Sox their starting outfield.
Daniel Nava, who has a .352 career on-base percentage in 148 games, will be the backup outfielder. So Bradley becomes an unfortunate victim of circumstance, because he is entering his second full season in professional baseball and never played above Double-A.
The fact that Bradley is already being talked about as ready for a big league job with the Red Sox less than two calendar years after he was drafted is a testament to the work he has put in over the last 12 months.
Bradley was on top of the world after the 2010 college season at South Carolina. He hit .368/.473/.587 with 89 hits, 60 RBI, 56 runs, 13 home runs, 12 doubles and seven steals in 67 games during the regular season.
The Gamecocks advanced to the College World Series and eventually defeated UCLA to win the first national championship in school history. Bradley, who went 10-for-29 in the series, was named the Most Outstanding Player.
As draft boards were being filled out in 2011, when it once seemed like a lock he would be a first-round pick, Bradley's name was nowhere to be found because a wrist injury he suffered in April took away a lot of what made him one of the best college hitters in the country.
There was also the matter of what Bradley's ceiling was going to be, as he struggled to drive the ball with the new college bats even before the injury. He always had the talent to play center field, but his offensive profile was a mystery.
As they are wont to do, the Red Sox put faith in Bradley's raw tools, advanced skills and made him the 40th overall pick of the 2011 draft. He was actually their fourth pick of the day, after pitcher Matt Barnes (19th overall), catcher Blake Swihart (26th) and pitcher Henry Owens (36th).
Not knowing what to expect from Bradley, he had a brief 10-game run in the New York-Penn League and South Atlantic League. He hit .250/.325/.361 in a 36 at-bat sample size.
Heading into 2012, preseason prospect rankings were not especially kind to Bradley because no one knew what to expect. Baseball America (subscription required) had him as the 10-best player in the Red Sox system to start the year.
Then the season started and Bradley looked like the player everyone thought he was going to be after the 2010 season. He hit .359/.480/.526 with a 52-40 walk-to-strikeout ratio in 67 games at High-A Salem.
No one could have predicted he'd perform that well, but it was not exactly a complete transformation from his college game.
Bradley's old scouting reports—plus defensive player in center field, incredible instincts, average speed, line-drive swing—certainly looked like it was right.
A move up to Double-A would provide Bradley with the first real test of his minor league career. He passed with flying colors, hitting .271/.373/.437 in 61 games and playing his usual stellar defense in center for Portland.
Bradley hit .315/.430/.482 in 128 games across the two levels last season, and his prospect stock was soaring.
In his midseason re-ranking of the Top 50 Prospects of 2012, ESPN's Keith Law (Insider subscription required) had Bradley as the 43rd-best prospect in baseball after not having him in his original Top 100.
Heading into 2013, Red Sox fans heard rumors that the team might be looking to trade Jacoby Ellsbury, though Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported that really wasn't the case because of the motivation he had to get back to where he was in 2011.
Things change, but #RedSox currently disinclined to trade Ellsbury with value down. Club figures he will be highly motivated in FA year.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) November 7, 2012
Ellsbury's impending free agency—not to mention is long history with injuries—means that Bradley is the ultimate insurance policy for the team. But it is not just because of Ellsbury that the Red Sox should be inclined to give Bradley a spot in the rotation.
In addition to Ellsbury, let's not ignore Victorino's steep decline from 2011 to 2012. He hit .279/.355/.491 with 17 home runs with Philadelphia two years ago. He had the highest walk rate of his career at 9.8 percent (h/t Fangraphs.com) and his second-lowest strikeout rate at 10.8 percent.
Then last year Victorino fell hard, slumping to .255/.321/.383 in 154 games with Philadelphia and Los Angeles. His walk rate dropped back around his career average at eight percent and his strikeout rate climbed back up to 12 percent.
Even though the Red Sox are paying Victorino like a starter for the next three years, Bradley is a much better and much cheaper version of the Flyin' Hawaiian.
Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe wrote a piece about why it would be in the Red Sox's best interest to start the season with Bradley on the 25-man roster.
...David Ortiz was out, but he hadn’t had a setback. Now he’s had one, and he still feels soreness in his right heel. He’s still nowhere close to running again. A batting practice session scheduled for Monday is now on hold. Time is of the essence, and Ortiz undoubtedly will be put on the disabled list.
So what better Plan B than to create excitement on what could be a blah team by adding Bradley?
Bradley's stock is as high as ever, with many outlets, including Baseball America, ranking him as the No. 2 prospect in the system this year.
It is important to keep some things in check here. Bradley is a very good prospect, but he is not a superstar talent. He plays great defense at a premium position, can hit for average and get on base, but he doesn't hit for power.
Yet for a Red Sox team that, as Cafardo says, seems like it could be rather blah once the season gets underway, having a spark plug at the top of the lineup for Dustin Pedroia, Mike Napoli and, when he is healthy, David Ortiz, could be a big difference maker.
This isn't some young, unproven kid who just had a hot streak in the minors last year and is getting overrated. Bradley has a lot of talent. He really doesn't need a lot more seasoning in Triple-A before he is ready to make the leap to Fenway.
Where should Jackie Bradley, Jr. start the 2013 season?
Cafardo's article states that people in the baseball operations department would prefer Bradley starts the season in the minors because "he’s only had limited time at Double A, and that his arbitration/free agency clock starts as soon as he’s on the major league roster."
The Red Sox have never been one to care about delaying free agency and arbitration. It is just a matter of strong-willed people in an organization battling with each other to make a decision.
But if Bradley is one of the 25 best players the Red Sox can bring back from their spring training complex in Lee County, Florida, and they can guarantee him playing time to ensure his development doesn't stall, what is the problem?
There could be some changing of the guard in Boston about what to do with Bradley, because we have seen a number of top prospects get reassigned to minor league camp over the last few days, and his name has not been among them.
Of course, Bradley still being in big league camp could mean nothing. Mets catcher Travis d'Arnaud remains with the team, even though Marc Carig of New York Newsday reported that he will be sent back to Triple-A.
Nothing that Bradley has done for the Red Sox, either last season across two levels of the minors or this spring, can prevent the team from recognizing the considerable talent he has.
Through March 18, he is hitting .436/.551/.564 in 39 at-bats, though his Opposition Quality (h/t BaseballReference.com), which averages out the level of competition a player is facing with 10 being an MLB regular, 8.0 being a Triple-A player, etc., is just 8.2.
That means Bradley is facing competition slightly better than the average Triple-A player when he steps up to the plate.
However, that is actually another case in the favor of Bradley. The Red Sox might plan to start Bradley at Triple-A, yet they are able to make an evaluation of how well he would do against a typical player at that level based on his spring performance.
Yes, when you put stock in spring training stats, you are going to look foolish. Pitchers are often working on a specific pitch to get a feel for it, giving the hitter an advantage he might not otherwise have.
But when you factor in Bradley's tools, success in 128 games across two levels in the minors last season, the franchise's need for impact talent in the outfield and what he has done this spring, it has become clear that the soon-to-be 23-year-old has earned a spot on the 25-man roster.