FORT MYERS, Fla. — Jackie Bradley Jr. found himself in a difficult situation by the end of spring training.
The pedestal he had reached in the spring of 2013 was impossible to replicate in 2014. He’d gone about his business, gotten his at-bats, played hard, made a few nice plays in the outfield, and genuinely believed he had made progress as a young player trying to break into the majors.
But he was met with two forces beyond his control — living up to the standards he set last spring (he hit .419) and the improbable comeback of Grady Sizemore.
“What [stinks] for him is the standard he set for himself last spring training,” said veteran outfielder Shane Victorino. “He can’t meet that standard again.
“I think he’s a going to be an excellent player. He can’t live up to what everybody thought of him last spring. The front office, the players, the media, the fans, everybody had him up here [pointing above his head]. Everybody. And it’s just not fair.”
Victorino knows what Bradley is going through, even though he may not have been as highly regarded as Bradley.
He did not have the “can’t miss” label, but in 2005, Victorino, then 24, was coming off a great Triple A season for Scranton in which he hit .310 with 18 home runs and 70 RBIs. He was called up by the Phillies in September and it .294 in 21 games.
Victorino figured he’d be Philadelphia’s center fielder in 2006.
“It was a little bit different situation,’’ Victorino said. “I was 25 years old. There were no expectations for me. I was a Rule 5 guy. I do well in September and then I watch them make a deal with the White Sox for Aaron Rowand. I sat on the bench, filling in for defense late in games.
“Then late in the year in ’06, Aaron slams his face against the wall and I get to play center the rest of the year. The next year they trade Bobby [Abreu] and I become the everyday right fielder. And after Aaron left in free agency, I finally got my shot to be the everyday center fielder.”
When Jacoby Ellsbury signed with the Yankees this past December, Bradley was hyped as his replacement in Boston. There was talk of trading for the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp, but that never materialized because of Kemp’s injury history (ankle, hamstring, shoulder).
Bradley was the heir apparent.
Then the Red Sox signed Sizemore, who had been in the Cleveland organization when Sox manager John Farrell was farm director there and Sox assistant general manager Mike Hazen was working in player development.
Sizemore had missed all of the 2012 and 2013 seasons with a plethora of injuries, but the Sox hoped he could be an extra outfielder.
But the improbable happened. Sizemore, 31, played better than expected — almost as good as when he was a five-tool player. Spring training might not mean a lot to most players, but to Bradley and Sizemore, it was everything.
Sizemore played so well that he won the center-field job. And Bradley was sent down to Pawtucket to start the season in Triple A.
“I’m the same player I was,” said Bradley, 23. “I’d like to think I’m better. That’s the goal, to get better. I’ve experienced the major leagues and I know what it takes now to play. I know the adjustments I have to make. I’ve been making adjustments throughout my career.
“Shane told me the story of what happened with him and he said if that happens to me to keep pushing, keep playing hard, don’t let it get to me.
“I know I’m going to be a major league player, but life is full of setbacks and disappointments, and you can’t let those things defeat you.”
Most baseball people agree there’s no harm in sending Bradley to Pawtucket.
“This is just me and I don’t make any decisions and don’t want to make decisions, but if it was me, I’d want to get 500-600 at-bats, get that positive feeling about me going again and then wait for my chance and seize upon it,” Victorino said. “That’s what I did way back. I forced my way into the lineup the next year.”
Bradley has taken a mature approach to this development, and the way he’s handled it hasn’t been lost on his teammates.
“I have a lot of admiration for the kid,” David Ortiz said. “We all went through some frustration when we were that age. I had more than my share of it, but this kid doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t doubt himself.
“I love the way he’s approached it. What he did last spring training was crazy good. But he’s a good player. We all know that. His time will come.”
That’s why Victorino is torn.
“On the one hand, we all root for Grady because that’s such an incredible story,’’ Victorino said. “On the other hand, you feel so bad for Jackie. He hasn’t done anything not to earn a job on this team.”
Despite a .189 average in the majors last year, and this spring’s demotion, Bradley stays positive.
“I just say no, I’m the same player I was then [in spring 2013] that I am now,’’ he said. “I’m not going to have those negative thoughts about myself. I’ve worked too hard to get where I am.”
Victorino has seen many players in Bradley’s predicament who went the opposite way.
“I think Jackie is mature enough and strong-minded enough to know he’s going to be OK and the Red Sox didn’t go out and get Grady to replace him,” said Victorino. “I hope he knows that and I think they’ve communicated that to him.
“He’s still a major talent. He has all of the physical tools to be an outstanding center fielder in this game.
“I’ve seen guys just lose all confidence in themselves when this happens, but like I said, Jackie is not cocky, but he’s sure about his ability. He’ll survive this and be better.”
‘Just getting ready’
Victorino hopes Bradley reacts the way he did.
“Get your chance and make the most of it because you may never get that chance again,’’ Victorino said. “To this day I have things motivate me.
“I know my parents had to work two jobs to make ends meet for our family and I vowed that would never happen with me. I had a special talent and I wasn’t going to waste it. Those things motivate me every day.”
And Bradley has those same trigger points.
“You always play with a chip,’’ he said. “You always want to prove people who doubt you wrong, but it’s not something you have to vocalize. It’s up here [pointing to his head] and you use it.”
People are amazed at how calm and collected Bradley has been.
“I’m not faking anything,’’ Bradley said. “Just being myself. That’s all I can be.
“I’m just getting ready for a season. Trying to get everything squared away. There’s always that competitor in you deep down inside. You don’t have to be vocal about anything.”
So maybe he’s not the .419 hitter of spring training 2013. Maybe he’s not the .189 hitter of 2013, either. Maybe he’s not Jacoby Ellsbury II.
What he is, or what he will become, is anyone’s guess.
But for now, he’s determined not to let the disappointment he may feel deep down in his soul ruin his dream.