Jackie Bradley, 22, hopes to make Red Sox
It very well may have been Shea Hillenbrand, who impressed Jimy Williams enough in 2001 that the manager pushed Jose Offerman to the bench, shifted Chris Stynes to second base and inserted Hillenbrand as his Opening Day third baseman. Hillenbrand had never played above Double A.
More than a decade later, it's too early to say another player could make a similar leap. But outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., 22, has shown enough in just a few days since Grapefruit League games started to at least create the possibility in the mind of manager John Farrell.
"Is it completely far-fetched that he could make the team?" Farrell said earlier this week. "Good question. I guess the best way to answer that is, coming into camp, we didn't have that as a strong possibility, but yet we're four games into the game schedule and he could still be served well by getting more at-bats in the minor leagues before he comes up, but again, he's making a very strong impression in camp."
Bradley started in center field Tuesday and went 1-for-3 with a single in a 15-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. He also tracked down a fly ball in front of the center field fence and continued to exhibit the outstanding defensive instincts that make him a potential Gold Glover, even if he doesn't possess blazing speed.
"Every time he's stepped on the field, he's done something very positive," Farrell said. "For a young player, he's sound fundamentally. Defensively, he takes outstanding routes to some difficult plays in the outfield, even in the early going here. And he's hit both left-handed and right-handed pitching. As we said (Monday), for a young player to make a positive impression in camp, he's gotten off to a very good start."
With the Red Sox pledging baseball's version of the Hippocratic Oath while building the 2013 roster ("Do no harm ... to the farm"), Bradley represents one of the brightest pieces of the future. It is widely assumed he'll replace Jacoby Ellsbury when the latter inevitably departs in free agency next winter.
But what if Bradley accelerates his timetable? With draft-pick compensation rules changing (in order to receive a compensatory draft pick for a departing free agent, he must have been in your organization from Opening Day), would the Sox ever consider trading Ellsbury now and handing the job to Bradley?
Probably not, but the fact that we're even having this conversation shows just how wide Bradley has opened eyes.
"Well, the player tells you (when he's ready) and a lot of the little things inside of a game," Farrell said. "Defensively, he's very accomplished. But it's going to be how he fares against quality pitching as we go through camp."
Bradley's defense has been a sight to behold.
"We talk about (it) in the staff room," Farrell said. "You'd think he's been working at this a long time because your eyes are trained to follow the pitch and then you see contact, and it almost seems like before contact is made, he's already on the move. It's been impressive to see that. If you just time the sheer foot speed, it's not like he's a world-class sprinter where he's going to outrun the baseball. His instincts and his routes are exceptional."
The Red Sox are content to continue getting to know him. There's no rush to assign him to minor-league camp, and they're intrigued to see what he does against better pitchers later in the spring.
For now, Bradley still appears ticketed for the minors. But stranger things have happened, and he has another month to continue making an impression.