FORT MYERS, Fla. — The first look was . . .
Jackie Bradley Jr. knows. He knows there are doubts about his ability to be a solid everyday hitter in the big leagues. He made it to The Show last year on the strength of a spectacular spring training (.419 in 28 games).
While the Red Sox were trying to dig out from the disgrace of last place and Bobby Valentine, JBJ became the smooth, sweet face of the franchise. He was the unwashed phenomenon — the antidote to chicken-and-beer and the train wreck of 2012.
Jackie Bradley Jr. represented the infinite future instead of the sorry recent past, and the “Please Don’t Hate Us” Sox were only too happy to take him north and plop him into left field in Yankee Stadium for Opening Day.
At 22, he was the youngest Red Sox Opening Day outfielder since Dwight Evans started in right field against the Yankees in April of 1973 (that game featured the first DH in baseball history). His first big league at-bat resulted in a “quality walk’’ against CC Sabathia. Bradley went 0 for 2 with three walks, scored two runs, made a sharp slide into second, and had a nice catch in his big league debut, an 8-2 victory over the Yankees.
Bradley received one of the biggest ovations when the first-place Red Sox got home to Fenway April 8. Ten days later, batting .097 (3 for 31), Bradley was optioned to Pawtucket to make room on the big league roster for David Ortiz.
It would not be the first time he was on the I-95 Shuttle. Bradley was a virtual Lou Merloni Pawtucket Pinball in his first big league season. He was up four times with the Red Sox, but he never stuck and he was not on the postseason roster.
In 37 major league games, Bradley hit .189 with three homers and 10 RBIs. He stole two bases and scored 18 runs. He was not Fred Lynn. He wasn’t even Dwayne Hosey.
Bradley didn’t exactly light it up in Pawtucket, either. In 80 games with the PawSox, he hit .275 with 10 homers, 35 RBIs, and 7 steals (also 7 caught-stealing).
Now all he has to do is replace Jacoby Ellsbury in center field for the world champions. And he gets to do it slightly under the radar . . . at least compared with last season, when the Hub Hype Machine was in overdrive.
“It’s kind of hard to be under the radar when you’re in Boston,’’ Bradley said with a chuckle while standing in front of his locker at JetBlue Park Tuesday morning. “And we just won a national championship.
“But I guess it’s all relatively speaking. There’s not a whole bunch of hoopla, but I’m being watched, I know I am. That’s a good thing, though. I’m ready to embrace it and move on from it.’’
Ancient Baseball Axiom No. 101 holds that a team needs to be strong up the middle. You need a good catcher, shortstop, and center fielder. The Red Sox are one of the first defending World Series champs to go into a season with new people at those three key positions. Veteran A.J. Pierzynski is on board to replace Jarrod Saltalamacchia behind the plate. Pierzynski is 37 years old and has been the starting catcher on a World Series winner (2005 White Sox). Xander Bogaerts is only 21 years old but is ranked by ESPN as the second-best prospect in all of baseball.
That leaves JBJ and his .189 batting average in center.
“You’re always trying to earn your stripes and I’m constantly in that battle to compete,’’ said the ever-pleasant Bradley. “I’m not trying to replace anybody. I’m just trying to compete and work hard. I’m looking forward to being more comfortable at the big league level.
“You are going to struggle, but that’s good. That way, I’ll be able to overcome it and gain some confidence from it. Going through those battles and those fights are only going to make me better.
“I’m focused on what I can do now. I’m going to be a better ballplayer from it. I have to work on being more consistent and taking what the pitchers give me and executing.’’
Bradley turns 24 on April 19, but still has fewer than 1,000 professional at-bats under his belt. He was thrust into the spotlight relatively early last year, and now the center-field job is his to lose.
The presence of Grady Sizemore in camp makes this situation particularly interesting. Sizemore is a former All-Star and MVP candidate, a onetime 30-30 player who has not played in the big leagues since 2011 because of seven surgeries (back, knees, shoulder, groin) over a four-year period.
“I think he’s going to bring a lot to this team,’’ said Bradley. “We all know what he can do. You grow up watching that guy. He was kind of like The Guy. He was unbelievable. I grew up watching those guys, trying to emulate certain things.’’
In a Red Sox camp with few positions up for grabs, the center-field situation is front and . . . center. Jacoby Ellsbury is a Yankee, Grady Sizemore is on the comeback trail, and Jackie Bradley Jr. is here to show us he’s ready to be an everyday hitter in the majors.
“I’m a pretty mentally tough guy,’’ he said. “I know I can take my bumps. I’m going to get things back on track. I’ve been able to hit at every single level, so I’m ready to prove that I can do it at this level as well.’’