No player embodies the Red Sox experience of the past decade quite like Jackie Bradley Jr.
Free agency now looms for the center fielder, bringing with it the possibility that after 10 professional seasons with the Red Sox, he’s played his last home game in Boston. Bradley suggested in the final days of the 2020 season that he was at peace with the uncertainty surrounding his future.
“It’s the baseball lifespan,” the 30-year-old Bradley said. “The ups, the downs, the great times, the difficult times, it’s one of those things where you sit back and reflect.”
In many ways, that notion captures not just Bradley’s career, but also the organization for which he’s played. His place on the crest of a homegrown wave of talent — one that experienced peaks and crashes — offers insight into what it means to commit to cultivating a core in pursuit of a championship.
In 2011, the Red Sox farm system had an opportunity to be replenished with four selections in the first 40 draft picks. Bradley, the 2010 College World Series MVP, had entered his junior year at South Carolina as an early-first-round candidate but plummeted down draft boards because of offensive struggles and a wrist injury.
But the Sox took a longer view, with area scout Quincy Boyd identifying Bradley’s offensive woes as the product of swing adjustments that could be repaired. While Bradley was the team’s fourth first-round selection that year — following Matt Barnes, Blake Swihart, and Henry Owens — his pedigree made him the standout.
Mookie Betts — a fifth-round pick in 2011 — once acknowledged being “in awe” of Bradley when he met the college star in the fall instructional league. The awe carried into 2012.
For most of the first two months of the year in High-A Salem, Bradley flirted with a .400 average and .500 OBP, emerging as a player who looked like a future anchor in center field and the leadoff spot.
“He was as automatic as any minor league player I’ve been around,” said Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers, the team’s minor league hitting coordinator in 2012. “It was just electric — hard hit after hard hit, the energy around the bases, sliding around, taking the extra base.”
Bradley’s significance to the organization in Salem extended beyond those numbers. On a team that first brought together several top prospects — Barnes, Xander Bogaerts, Brandon Workman, Christian Vazquez, and Travis Shaw — Bradley emerged as a leader by example.
“Jackie brings this calmness to everything he does and never makes a big deal about anything. His temperament is the same and it’s refreshing to have someone like that,” said Red Sox assistant GM Raquel Ferreira. “That would help when other kids, other players were coming through and they would see that.”
Bradley’s pregame “power shagging” work — replicating game-level intensity while chasing balls in center during batting practice — became legendary and helped his less-experienced teammates to understand and appreciate the value of routines. Meanwhile, as Bradley started zooming through the minors with a mid-year promotion to Double A, he offered insight into how quickly it was possible to start moving up the ladder.
“He was a model for everybody, for us younger guys,” said Vazquez.
As much as Bradley helped a coalescing talent base in 2012, his jaw-dropping spring training performance in 2013 accelerated the sense of excitement. He performed at outrageous levels, looking like the same player who’d dominated in Salem.
“He had, not one of the most, the most impressive spring training I’ve seen, ever,” said Bogaerts, who lockered next to Bradley that spring.
Baseball executives know that spring training often represents an optical illusion. But the Sox couldn’t deny the brilliance of Bradley that spring, placing him on the Opening Day roster. He played a key role in that season-opening victory, walking three times and making a twisting catch on a fly to deep left, in a game that was watched closely by minor league teammates who suddenly saw a path illuminating.
“Everyone was watching that game together,” said Vazquez.
Bradley’s stay in the big leagues proved relatively short-lived in 2013, but with Jacoby Ellsbury having reached free agency at the conclusion of a championship run, Bradley’s time seemed near.
Riding the wave
Bradley struggled in the spring of 2014 but made the Opening Day roster because of an injury to Shane Victorino, then emerged as an everyday player when Grady Sizemore’s spring training performance proved a mirage. Bradley’s defense alone seemed to justify his place as he delivered almost nightly highlight-reel plays.
But the Sox kept him in the big leagues chiefly because of a lack of alternatives. His offense was woeful — a sub-.200 average — to the point where his place in the team’s core came into question.
“I felt sad for him,” said Vazquez. “I knew what he was going through. His mind was going fast, thinking a lot.”
Yet even through that difficulty, there were lessons for the other members of the core. Bradley demonstrated what teammates came to appreciate as startling toughness, withstanding the skepticism of veteran teammates with his determination intact.
“The way he carried himself throughout those rough stretches, I can tell you there’s not even 10 percent of the guys that would be able to do that,” said Bogaerts.
The Sox could have bailed on Bradley after that poor season. Yet the decision-makers (led by GM Ben Cherington) remained committed to not being deterred by a bad season that played a significant role in a last-place finish in 2014.
“What I hope every organization does is stand by every player they commit to and believe in, and tries to get the best out of every player on and off the field,” said Ferreira. “I hope we did that with Jackie.”
Though Cherington was gone by late 2015, the Red Sox managed to do just that. Bradley broke through at the end of that second straight last-place finish — part of a young group breathing hope into a newly forming core — to position himself as the Red Sox' center fielder by 2016. That year, an early 29-game hitting streak put him on the national map and earned him a starting spot at the All-Star Game in San Diego with Betts, Bogaerts, and the retiring David Ortiz.
On one hand, Bradley’s breakthrough did not mark the end of his volatility.
“He’s had a lot of waves in his career,” said Vazquez.
Yet on a team built around youth — where anchors Betts and Bogaerts found it hard not to mask their struggles — Bradley proved steadying. Despite coming up with those players, he played the role of a wise big brother.
“He’s the model of consistency,” said Sox assistant GM Eddie Romero. “You know you’ll get every ounce of effort in every game, the entire season. He’s always the same. I think in the last few years, his leadership qualities in the clubhouse have really blossomed . . . He’s got a great feel for gauging the temperature of the clubhouse, when something needs to be said, when something doesn’t need to be said, to be compassionate about that. He kind of personifies what you want in a team leader.”
Bradley’s investment in his teammates remained unaltered, making it easy for other members of the organization to root for his success and to admire his work in periods of struggle. The first half of 2018 offered a fascinating example.
With the arrival of J.D. Martinez, Red Sox players looked to him as a swing guru, adopting some of the atypical drills from his bag of tricks. The effort came easily to Betts and some others. That wasn’t the case for Bradley, whose offensive struggles in the first half jeopardized his playing time.
“He was hell-bent — he knew that this was eventually going to be helpful, and that the information he was getting was going to help him,” said former assistant Sox hitting coach Andy Barkett. “He would overcome the discouragement that was there. He always just kept working.”
Down the stretch, the effort paid off, never more than when driving in nine runs in the American League Championship Series, when Bradley produced the margins of victory in three of his team’s four wins en route to the World Series. Joy for Bradley flooded Minute Maid Field that night.
“It was a series I’ll never forget and most of us won’t forget because of Jackie Bradley,” said Hyers. “To see against Houston all of it coming together . . . it was just unique.”
Ferreira, part of the Sox organization for all four titles this century, typically avoids the podium for the trophy celebrations in clubhouses. But for Bradley’s ALCS MVP award, she made an exception.
“I remember ducking through people because I wanted to crouch down in the front and see Jackie get his award,” she said. “I couldn’t be happier for somebody than I was for him that day.”
That October produced a trophy and a ring, Bradley having helped the young core that he initially heralded fulfill its promise. He and the Red Sox rode out the extremes of failure.
“That shows you there that nothing is impossible in this game,” said Vazquez. “He never gave up. It was incredible. He carried us to the World Series.”
Two years later, following his strong performance in an otherwise dismal Red Sox season, Bradley stands at a crossroads. With Betts already gone, his potential exit highlights the shifting identity of the organization, the inevitable shift from one core to the next.
The Sox publicly and privately insist that they’d love to prolong Bradley’s tenure. Yet they also recognize that his future may end up being elsewhere — a possibility that those who have known him the longest do not want to allow to pass without appreciation.
“It’s been an honor,” Ferreira said, “for us to have been blessed with having him in this organization for so many years.”