By Jeff Louderback
Baseball is an unpredictable game. Sometimes, the script does not unfold as anticipated – whether it is a team’s overall performance or the plans for a top prospect. Count Jackie Bradley Jr. in the latter category.
The 22-year-old Bradley, who is widely considered the second-best prospect in the Red Sox system, is projected as the heir apparent to Jacoby Ellsbury in center field if Ellsbury does the expected and departs as a free agent after the 2013 season.
The original plan for this year was to start Bradley at either Double-A Portland or Triple-A Pawtucket. A supplemental first rounder in 2011 out of the University of South Carolina, Bradley split 2012 between advanced Single-A Salem and Portland (where he hit .271 with a .809 OPS in 271 plate appearances). His opening day destination could change though if he continues to impress in spring training.
Entering Thursday’s game against Pittsburgh, the left-handed hitting Bradley is 5-for-9 (.556) and has made numerous attention-grabbing plays in center field. Bradley is an ideal leadoff hitter who can hit for average with a little pop, steal bases and play exceptional defense in the outfield. He is also respected for his work ethic and his enthusiasm for the game.
The Red Sox need a left-handed hitting outfielder to share time with the right-handed hitting Jonny Gomes in left field. Bradley has the athleticism to play the corner outfield spots, and he is slated to see time in right field when Shane Victorino leaves camp to play for the USA in the upcoming World Baseball Classic. During the regular season, if Bradley makes the opening day roster, he could spell Victorino in right field since the switch-hitting Victorino is more productive from the right side of the plate.
The Red Sox have a legitimate chance to contend for the American League East title this year, and to secure a post-season spot the club should put the best 25-man roster possible. There is always an element of risk when a Major League team entrusts a prospect, but Bradley is a rare find, and the purpose of developing a deep minor league system is to bolster the parent team with homegrown talent.
Though the switch-hitting Daniel Nava is having a solid spring so far, and the left-handed hitting Ryan Sweeney was signed to a minor league deal to offer depth, Bradley offers better defense than Nava and significantly better offense than Sweeney.
Cherington recently acquired left-handed hitting first baseman/left fielder Mike Carp, who has a power bat and is just 26. He is best suited as a first baseman who just occasionally play left field, though.
Bradley is a high ceiling prospect who can make an immediate impact, a la Ellsbury in 2007. The Red Sox roster would be upgraded if it includes Bradley when the team travels to Yankee Stadium on opening day.