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March 31. 2013 8:19PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: The future is now


Boston Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. (74) talks with assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez (57) prior to the game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Bright House Networks Field. (Kim Klement/USA Today Sports)

PRECIPITATED by his own torrid tour through the Grapefruit League this spring, and capacitated by David Ortiz's hurting heels, Jackie Bradley Jr. will play in the major leagues before ever spending a day in Triple-A. After weeks of debate, that was the decision announced Sunday, when the Red Sox revealed they'd designated Mauro Gomez for assignment in order to make room on the roster for their 22-year-old, blue-chip outfielder.

As he amassed a .413 average and his on-base plus slugging percentages totaled to 1.120 in the Grapefruit League, those debates began to ask not whether Bradley belonged in the bigs, but whether it was in the club's best long-term interest to include him on the opening day roster. If the Sox waited until April 12 they could delay Bradley's service time enough that he wouldn't reach free agency until after 2019.

By bringing him up in time for today's opener against the Yankees, they'll need to send him to the minors for at least 20 days at some point or else the team will lose a year of control over Bradley in what figures to be his prime. But the message behind putting him in left field this afternoon is clear: Boston brass believes it's imperative that the team get off to a good start this year.

Daniel Nava, fresh off a spring where he himself hit .327 with a .438 on-base percentage, could've handled the job adequately for a couple of weeks. Ryan Sweeney, playing for his big-league life, would've been acceptable. Sticking to the original plan of Jonny Gomes in left, and using the vacant designated hitter spot to let guys ease into the season would've been OK, too.

But after sitting at 4-10 after 14 games in each of the past two seasons, the Sox clearly don't want to settle for adequate, acceptable or OK in setting the tone for 2013. Bradley may be young, he may have so little experience that he was the opposing DH in the Fisher Cats' most recent home game, and using him now may have major monetary consequences down the road - though seven weeks in South Florida told the Sox that he is the player at that position who gives them the best chance to win.

So, they said, to heck with all the rest.

"He improves our outfield defense," manager John Farrell said Sunday in New York, according to the Boston Globe. "He showed a very consistent approach at the plate. A lot of people want to target the batting average in spring; in our evaluation it goes much deeper than that.

"When you see the consistency of at-bats he put up, we feel like the strength in his mental approach will handle some of the distractions that will ultimately be thrown his way. One of the better players we had in spring training."

He was one of the best players any team had in spring training, and with their offense missing Ortiz as well as shortstop Stephen Drew, and Gomes' defense a potential liability in left, they decided they couldn't pass up a chance to see if he was ready to make it all translate when the games counted for real.

It's a logical feeling because had they gone even 4-8 at the start of 2011, instead of 2-10, that season's infamous September collapse would've merely sent them into the playoffs on the heels of a September slump. Had they avoided a sweep at Detroit to start last year, and had they simply split their first 14 tilts, maybe one-and-done manager Bobby Valentine wouldn't have become a disrespected laughingstock quite so quickly.

Early-season games are easy to dismiss in terms of importance, but given what's happened on Yawkey Way the past couple years, the Sox can't afford to do so. These first few weeks will set the tone and the tenor for the team, for the franchise, and for an increasingly weary fan base - so after finishing at 69-93, and last in the American League East, they realize there's no time to stumble while finding their way.

As such, plans change. Just ask Jackie Bradley Jr.

"Our intentions all along coming into camp were for him to start the year in the minor leagues," Farrell told reporters Sunday. "But I didn't want to put a ceiling on a guy, where he came into camp feeling, 'Sure, I'm going to impress, but I'm just waiting to be sent out.' It's always important to just keep those situations alive. They'll probably settle in where they rightfully should. In this case, it's in New York."

Bradley's presence at Yankee Stadium this afternoon says something not only about what the Red Sox are hoping for this season at the start - but also about they way they think it could finish. If they were approaching this as some sort of bridge year, or if they'd lowered expectations, or if they didn't believe they could contend in 2013, they never would've brought Bradley up so soon.

If they didn't expect to be in the mix, they could've gladly gone with Nava, or Sweeney, or Gomes. If they were really more focused on the future than the present, they wouldn't have potentially sacrificed a full season of Bradley for essentially nine games. If they didn't consider themselves contenders, they would've helped him find housing in Pawtucket.

Only time will tell if the Red Sox made the right decision. But Sunday the Sox told everyone where their priorities are at, and that they're not concerned with six years from now as much as they are the next six months. The next six weeks. Or even the next six days.



Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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