Boston Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. (74) doubles during the first inning against the New York Yankees at George M. Steinbrenner Field on Wednesday. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
Sox ponder three criteria before promoting Bradley
A double? Two more hits? Another strong throw?
By now, Jackie Bradley Jr. must seem to anyone who hasn't seen him play like a cross between the second coming of Willie Mays and a superhero.
Bradley isn't quite so impressive. But the Red Sox' touted center field prospect has gotten positive reviews from several of the scouts who sit behind home plate and jot notes to take back to their teams.
"In my opinion, he truly does have a chance to be an above-average major league center fielder," a scout from one National League club said Thursday. "He's fun to watch. I think he's good enough that he could make (center fielder Jacoby) Ellsbury a nice trade chip for them later in the season."
Lately, though, any discussion of Bradley has been focused on the short term, specifically whether the 22-year-old is ready to merit a spot on the Opening Day roster despite having never played above Double A, a decision that goes beyond his .429 average this spring. (Friday, he played center field and left field, and doubled for one of Boston's two hits in a 1-0 loss to Toronto.
The Red Sox probably won't render their verdict until at least the middle of next week. General manager Ben Cherington, of Meriden, N.H., outlined three criteria that will be taken into account with regard to Bradley.
Will he play every day? Is he really ready for the majors? Does he make the Red Sox better?
"If we use that to guide us, we'll more often than not make the right decision," Cherington said. "We have to see how it plays out. There are other factors, but those are the most important."
One of those other factors: major league service time. If Bradley spends more than 172 days in the majors, the Red Sox would risk allowing him to reach free agency after the 2018 season rather than 2019. Bradley's prime competition, outfielder Ryan Sweeney, would require only a spot on the 40-man roster but offers less upside.
But the Sox also play their first 13 games against AL East rivals. Given the fact that David Ortiz is bound for the disabled list, Bradley would have an opportunity to play every day, likely in left field. And one team official admitted this week that Bradley could potentially bring youthful energy to the lineup early in the season.
"We have to consider all of the data points and remember that every year in Boston is important," Cherington said. "With a young player like this, is he really ready for it?"
Indeed, that may be the most pressing question. Another NL scout worried that sending any young player back to the minors after his initial call-up could lead to a "letdown" and stunt development. But he also said that a conversation before a game last season in the minors convinced him that Bradley can handle anything.
"I met him last year, and he made a comment that stuck with me," the scout said. "He said, 'Guys who know who they are are guys who are successful. I know who I am.' That puts him over that hump. He might be mature enough to make that (Double A to the majors) jump. He has all the intangibles that make a good player a really good player."
So, how good is Bradley?
The aforementioned scout compared Bradley to Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino during his prime years with the Phillies. From 2006-11, between ages 26-30, Victorino batted .281 with a .795 on-base plus slugging percentage, averaged 14 homers, 30 stolen bases and 59 RBI, won three Gold Gloves, twice finished in the top 20 in the NL MVP balloting and twice was selected to the All-Star Game.
According to the scout, Bradley lacks Victorino's track star speed but possesses more discipline at the plate and better instincts in the outfield.
"I say that to myself, too," Victorino said. "I see a lot of the same attributes. He can run, he's a solid contact hitter, can hit with a little bit of power. I will definitely say he's better than me at 22 years old. I didn't become the player I am until 25, 26. It's exciting to have people comparing him to me."
Eventually, Victorino and Bradley will share the same outfield. Could it happen in the season opener at Yankee Stadium?
"It's hard to ignore what he has done this spring," Cherington said. "It's been fun to watch. One way or another, we know he's going to be a good player. We'll see when that starts for him. We're happy he's on our side."
Said the first NL scout: "I'm sure their expectations are to win this year because every team has a chance in (the AL East). It'll be interesting to see what they do. But he's the kind of kid, I don't think it'll hurt him either way."