So far in the early going, the Boston Red Sox have struggled to find a dynamic leadoff solution to set the tone for their offensive attack.
Through 13 games, the club has seen Daniel Nava, Jonny Gomes, Grady Sizemore and Dustin Pedroia man the top spot in the order in the club’s attempt to fill the gaping hole Jacoby Ellsbury left when he departed for New York.
But there’s another solution lurking, and he may be the best option the Red Sox have at the leadoff spot, even though he didn’t make the team out of spring training: Jackie Bradley Jr.
Granted a last-minute reprieve due to Shane Victorino’s injury, Bradley grabbed a spot on the team to begin the season and has played quite well, posting a .273/.368/.333 line in 38 at-bats. With injured outfielder Victorino set to begin a rehab assignment in Double-A on Tuesday, per Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal, Boston is running out of time to figure things out.
When Victorino returns, if the Sox opt to keep Bradley, the team will have to wave goodbye to one of Nava, platoon outfielder Gomes or bench hitter extraordinaire Mike Carp—and none deserve to lose their jobs.
It’s not an easy decision.
However, the most important thing the Sox need to focus on currently is not who will lose a spot on the team, but how to solve the leadoff problem.
Even Victorino isn't the answer. The 2013 ALCS Game 6 hero led off eight games last season, spending the rest of his time in the 2-slot. While he could lead off for the team, that's not the best use of Victorino's skill set: Victorino possesses enough speed to perform as a leadoff hitter but comes up short in patience. His walk percentage in 2013 was a career worst for him, per Fangraphs, walking in just 4.7 percent of his at-bats. That type of hitter doesn’t play well in the leadoff role.
Bradley will never have the power Ellsbury or even Victorino has, and while 38 at-bats is far too small a sample size to make any grand proclamations about Bradley's ability, his plate patience skills have been apparent since his college days. That kind of plate patience is valuable out of the leadoff spot to set the tone of the game and allow teammates as many opportunities as possible to scout the opposing pitcher's repertoire any given day.
Further, batting left-handed allows the team to set up a left-right-left-right combination to begin games: Bradley followed by Pedroia, David Ortiz and Mike Napoli.
That would leave Victorino hitting out of the 5-slot, dramatically lengthening the lineup. The team could even go to Sizemore in the 5-slot with Victorino out of the 6-slot before returning to A.J. Pierzynski, then Xander Bogaerts. Suddenly, there's a left- and right-handed hitter alternating all through the 8-slot in the lineup, putting quite the conundrum on the opposing manager's ability to leverage his bullpen.
See what leading Bradley off can do to the rest of the lineup?
Bradley doesn’t have Ellsbury's speed either but can still swipe a bag, and coupled with his strong instincts, he should make smart decisions on the basepaths, ensuring he doesn’t run into outs.
All in all, Bradley’s total package can’t help but be described as "dynamic"—a tag that has followed him around his short career extensively to the point that Google has 3.5 million results for the search term “jackie bradley jr dynamic.” These are the kind of players you want leading off for a club: someone who can make something happen and who has a well-rounded skill set of tools that make him especially equipped to lead off.
That also sounds a lot like Bradley’s predecessor in center: Ellsbury.
As general manager Ben Cherington tells Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com, "Providing opportunity for emerging players is also important to our short- and our long-term goals." If that's true, Bradley looks well set up to retain his spot upon Victorino’s return. Now the next step is leading Bradley off.
After dropping three of four games to the rival Yankees, the Red Sox will be looking to shake up a team currently ranked 20th in the league in runs scored. With Victorino looming, the Red Sox need to take a look at Bradley in the leadoff spot this week to figure out if Bradley can solve the team’s leadoff issues.
Should Bradley be thrust into the fire?
Well, the last time the Red Sox put a rookie in a situation that seemed too big, Boston won the World Series. Bogaerts ended up starting at third base in last season’s postseason and drew a crucial walk that helped win the ALCS—despite turning 21 on October 1.
When the calendar read May 1, 2007, the team’s then-rookie second baseman had a .205/.310/.312 line in 112 at-bats between September 2006 and April 2007. He would finish the year with a Rookie of the Year award and a World Series victory. Pedroia would go on to nab the MVP Award in 2008.
When the Red Sox place their trust in young, unproven rookies, good things happen. Now’s the time for Jackie Bradley Jr. to lead off for the Red Sox.