Good morning (if you’re on the Pacific Coast like me) – it’s Day 17, and the second installment of the AL portion of my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series. In yesterday’s AL opener, I looked at Baltimore’s complete lack of activity in this winter’s free agency period – leaving them a depth chart with only 80% of a rotation listed. Then they went and signed Ubaldo Jimenez, paving the way for Kevin Gausman to return to Triple A. Today, it’s the turn of the defending champions, the Boston Red Sox, who with few expectations entering 2013, pinned all their hope/hype on one player in particular during Spring Training. After enduring an April swoon though, the adulation of Jackie Bradley Jr. soon took a backseat to a fun team with plenty of other narratives to be pushed – bouncebacks, #BostonStrong, beards! With the spotlight on him now dimmed however, how effectively Bradley replaces Jacoby Ellsbury will be one of the storylines to watch in 2014.
I’ll admit it; despite considering myself wise to the perennial over-hyping of Boston Red Sox prospects, even I got caught in the Jackie Bradley Jr. hype. But didn’t we all? Entering 2013, Bradley was ranked No. 31 on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list; having had just over 600 professional PAs since being picked 40th overall in the 2011 amateur draft (with only 271 of those coming at the Double A level), the Univ. of South Carolina star was a non-roster invitee expected to begin the season back in the minors, barring him hitting an eye-popping 419/.507/.613 in Spring Training. That he did however, prompting Boston media to place him in the same breath as Mike Trout (heresy!) in wondering how best to fiddle his service time, and draw favorable comparisons to 1975 AL Roy and MVP Fred Lynn. After such coverage, there would have been rioting on Lansdowne Street had Bradley not broken camp with the team, an issue which the city of Boston fortuitously avoided when the persistence of David Ortiz‘s achilles injury kept him from being able to return in time for Opening Day. And so it was that Bradley made his majors debut, against CC Sabathia in Yankee Stadium no less, and somehow lived up to they hype despite going hitless; his performance leading Dan Shaugnessy of the Boston Globe to half-sardonically wonder “how long before Yawkey Way is renamed JBJ Way?” in one of the most retroactively funny pieces of the year. Despite his early impression however, all would not turn out so rosy for everyone’s March darling the rest of the way.
It took 31 AB’s for Boston to realize their mistake, Bradley’s honeymoon period lasting simply as long as that first game. While skipping Triple A proved to be effective in the development cases of Paul Goldschmidt and Manny Machado, Bradley was quickly overwhelmed by opposing pitchers who poured fastballs in on his hands; he accrued just 3 hits in compiling an .097 average, before being sent down to Pawtucket when David Ortiz was ready to return from the DL. Making his Triple A debut a month later than his first majors appearance then, Bradley showcased his promise, posting a respectable .275 average with 39 XBH (including 10 HRs), a .374 on-base percentage and a .842 OPS in 320 at-bats, all whilst playing gold glove caliber defense and occasionally providing cover for the big league team. When he returned to Boston for good as part of September’s roster expansion, his Triple A experience seemed to have served its purpose; in 13 games, Bradley had clearly improved, slashing .243/.317/.378.
With incumbent center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury gone to the Yankees – Boston sensibly opting out of ponying up $150+ for a player who has averaged only 96 games played over the last four years, or trading for either Matt Kemp or Curtis Granderson – Bradley is slated to once again open the season in the majors. Replacing Ellsbury though, is the tall task to which Bradley has been assigned by the press this Spring, though the media’s glare has been slightly lessened by their focus on Boston’s chance to repeat. Red Sox management on their part, have faith in Bradley’s ability to make a meaningful impact this time around – GM Ben Cherington recently remarking of Ellsbury’s heir apparent “Last year’s experience in the big leagues will only make him a better player. He’s that much closer to being a good major leaguer because of it.” For now at least, Bradley too seems to be just focusing on himself, refusing to be drawn into the inevitable comparisons of him to the man whose cleats he is stepping into: “You can’t replace a Jacoby Ellsbury… He’s an All-Star.” After getting a handle on the bigs last year, Bradley is just trying to be his own man.
This time around, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that Jackie Bradley is an elite-prospect; he is not Mike Trout, Fred Lynn, or even Jacoby Ellsbury. He’ll likely be batting 8th or 9th in Boston’s strong lineup, and asked simply to provide his customary strong defense and solid base running, walk a ton, and occasionally share playing time in an outfield which also includes Shane Victorino, Grady Sizemore, Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes; as put in the Baseball Prospectus 2014 Annual “he’s a complete enough package to start in the majors on Opening Day, and that’s all Boston needs.” The Sox are defending champions for a reason – that they have enough trust in Bradley to start him in Center Field on Opening Day should be enough validation of his talent than any Spring Training statistics. Right on schedule, Jackie Bradley is here to stay.