FORT MYERS, Fla. — We’re only five games into spring training. We’re jumping the gun. Are we crazy to think that Jackie Bradley Jr. is ready for the big leagues?
Let the kid develop, you say. Don’t put pressure on him already.
That is conservative, prudent reasoning. Who would argue? On the flip side, however, is the argument that the 2013 Red Sox need an infusion of youth. They need someone to bring energy to a veteran team that looks mediocre on paper.
There are signs that Red Sox decision-makers are more open-minded to the idea that sending him to Pawtucket might not be necessary.
Don’t you want your best, most talented players — if they’re ready — on your 25-man roster?
Manager John Farrell gave us our first hint that Boston’s thinking may be changing. When I posed the question to Farrell Tuesday morning on whether it was “far-fetched” that Bradley could make the team, the response was, well, telling. There was a pause and then he said, “That’s a good question.”
Farrell is enamored with Bradley. So are the coaches.
There’s nothing not to like. He has poise, speed, the ability to track balls in the outfield. He hits lefties and righties. He seems to have no fear, whether it’s high-velocity throwers or finesse guys. His jumps on the ball in the outfield are phenomenal.
He is Jacoby Ellsbury’s replacement next season, should Ellsbury leave in free agency. But Farrell revealed that when Shane Victorino departs for the World Baseball Classic at the end of the week, Bradley will play some right field.
As for Farrell’s eventual response to the “far-fetched” question, it was interesting.
“The best way to answer it, we didn’t have that [making the team] as a strong possibility, and we’re four games into the game schedule. He would be served well to get at-bats in the minor leagues before he comes up, but again he’s making a strong impression in camp.
“It’s going to be about how he fares against quality pitching as we go through camp. You’re finding out about the person from a maturity viewpoint. Is he going to handle adversity? We have to weigh all of those things.”
Farrell added, “Every time he’s stepped on the field, he’s done something very positive. He’s sound fundamentally, takes great routes to balls, and hits both lefthanded and righthanded pitching. For a young player in camp, he’s done a great job.”
Bradley, a lefthanded hitter, stroked three hits in Dunedin vs. the Blue Jays Monday. He started in center field Tuesday vs. the Cardinals and made a nice catch on Adron Chambers to lead off the game, then reached on an infield single off the pitcher. He struck out in his second at-bat, leaving two runners on base against lefty Jaime Garcia, and he grounded to first in his final at-bat.
On Tony Cruz’s wall shot that scored three runs, Bradley played the ball nicely off the wall but one-hopped the cutoff man.
“I’m just going hard every day trying to make an impression,” Bradley said. “Any player in my shoes wants to make it to the big leagues as fast as possible. That’s your goal. That’s your dream.
“I feel excited to get out there and play against this competition. I’ve always wanted to play against the best and prove that I belong.”
Asked about moving to a corner if it meant making the team, Bradley said, “Where do I sign up for that?
“I’ve played the corner outfield positions before. It’s a little different, because the ball is in front of you when it’s hit to center, and at the corners, the ball is always going toward the lines. It’s not a big adjustment, really.”
Of course, the concern is always whether he gets enough playing time and at-bats to make the move worthwhile. If he were the fourth outfielder and played a little left, a little center, and a little right, he should get enough at-bats to keep progressing.
Last year, Bradley hit .359 with 3 homers and 34 RBIs in 67 games with Single A Salem and .271 with 6 homers and 29 RBIs in 61 games with Double A Portland. In some organizations, the case could be made that Bradley should start the season in Double A and then go to Triple A if he gets off to a hot start. But he seems to be one of those guys who can make the leap from Double A right now.
Bradley doesn’t seem overwhelmed by anything. He doesn’t seem to be a candidate to be emotionally destroyed if things don’t work out and he has to go back to the minors.
Jonny Gomes is the left fielder, but the Red Sox want a lefthanded platoon. The options now are Daniel Nava, Ryan Sweeney, and Mike Carp. Nava, a switch hitter, is having a nice camp, especially batting righthanded, the area he wanted to improve in.
Sweeney remains an enigma; he is one of the most physically imposing and talented players, yet he seems unable to hit a home run. Carp has good lefthanded power, but left field won’t be his forte.
It’s also an older team. Seven of the nine starters are either over 30 or will turn 30 this season.
There is certainly a long way to go in spring training. And before the Sox brass gets ahead of itself, Farrell wants to keep watching for signs that Bradley isn’t quite ready.
“We talk about it in the staff room,” said Farrell. “It looks like he’s been doing this a long time. Defensively, when contact is made, he’s already on the move. He’s a world-class sprinter where he’s going to outrun the baseball.”
Farrell wants to see how Bradley reacts to adversity. He wants to see his approach against some of the better pitchers. He wants to see how he adjusts in an at-bat or his next at-bat.
But what he’s seeing is a pretty polished-looking player. Because he was a college guy (South Carolina), he’s not super young. He’ll be 23 April 19.
The other mature aspect about him is that all the accolades haven’t gone to his head. Bradley doesn’t run from praise, but, he said, “I know that I can’t rest on a good game or a good season. It’s hard work making it to the big leagues and I’m willing to do what it takes. I have to keep learning about every single aspect of this game.”
We all get excited about young players. We did when Dustin Pedroia came up. We did when Ellsbury came up. We did when Will Middlebrooks came up.
Jackie Bradley Jr. is on deck. And it looks like he’s pushing the development envelope.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.