The Boston Red Sox don't really have any viable options to play center field everyday, but the time has come to send Jackie Bradley Jr. back down to the minor leagues.
As much as the Red Sox might want to allow Bradley to work his way through his struggles, they have simply reached a point where they risk causing potential long-term damage to him, especially if they are planning on him being the team's center fielder for the next six to seven years.
After Monday's 8-6 win, a game that Boston miraculously won after getting down 6-1 and finally breaking the team's 10-game losing streak, Bradley looked more and more overmatched offensively at the plate. As well as Bradley Jr. can play a solid defensive center field, they simply cannot carry his bat any longer.
The 24-year-old Bradley looks like he is regressing at the plate this season. In 237 at-bats over the course of two seasons going into today's game, Bradley has a slash line of .197/.285/.308. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is 3-to-1. No matter how good the Red Sox might feel Bradley is defensively, they simply can't have him struggle to this extent and expect it not to affect the player.
Boston has time to salvage this situation by sending Bradley back to the minors. Let him play another 100 games at the Triple-A level and have some sustained offensive success to rebuild his confidence. Bradley rose through the Red Sox system very quickly after being drafted out of the University of South Carolina in 2011.
In retrospect, it's been too fast. Bradley has had only one full season of at-bats in the minor league level, which came in 2012 when he hit .315 in 575 at-bats between two levels of the minors. He has had success at every level he has played at, and this is the first time in his career that he has struggled for a prolonged period of time. He needs more time at Triple-A to be ready to be a regular MLB center fielder, whether that is this season or next.
Boston has been aggressive with Bradley's advancement, but part of it has been out of necessity. With the departure of Jacoby Ellsbury in the offseason, Bradley is the only legitimate defensive center fielder on Boston's 40-man roster. It's easy to blame the Red Sox for not re-signing Ellsbury this winter, but really, it is more that. Boston needed to have a better insurance policy for Ellsbury's departure.
None of this is Bradley fault; it's a mistake made by the Red Sox organization this past winter that they need to fix. Prospects struggle. The Red Sox banked on Bradley's growth being supported by Grady Sizemore's comeback. Both players have gotten off to poor starts this year, causing the Red Sox offense to struggle dramatically against right-handed pitchers this season.
After today's victory against the Atlanta Braves, Bradley was hitting .193, placing him with the third-worst batting average among everyday outfielders in baseball. Boston currently ranks 13th in the American League in runs scored.
Where would Boston get another center fielder? That's a problem separate from Bradley's development. Boston has recently started getting top prospect Mookie Betts some work in center field in Double-A, but the Red Sox have to be careful here to not compound one mistake by making another. Using Sizemore and acquiring a right-handed hitting platoon partner would be the best bet for Boston right now.
This is where Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington and the Boston front office must act decisively. Somewhere in the minors is a veteran player who can hit left-handed pitching and can play as a league-average center field for the next month or two. It's up to the front office to find that player.
If the Red Sox can rebound as the season moves closer to the trade deadline, then maybe a more established outfielder would become available on the trade market. Right now, the Red Sox need to protect Bradley and plug the center field hole.
The Red Sox need to show more urgency to get this season back on track.
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