SEATTLE — We all know who the best center fielder on the Red Sox is, but he’s not playing center field.
Jackie Bradley Jr. may be the best center fielder in baseball, but he’s playing right field. That’s because Mookie Betts, a good center fielder in his own right, is the starter and the leadoff hitter, and the conventional wisdom in these matters is that you don’t displace the starter.
That’s the Betts/Bradley conundrum.
“Jackie will not start every game, and I don’t want Mookie to bounce back and forth,” explained Red Sox manager John Farrell.
It’s tough not to see Bradley roaming center field. Betts is good, but not Bradley good. You can already point to a couple of balls that Betts didn’t get to that Bradley would have caught. Nothing against Betts, because he is very good out there — especially for a converted second baseman. And he’s only 22.
The other issue is that Bradley, who hit .343 (.857 OPS) at Pawtucket, is 0 for 8 this season and 0 for 26 dating back to last season. If that keeps up, he will find himself back in Pawtucket and Rusney Castillo will take his place.
Bradley, 25, would certainly prefer to play center over the corners, but he’s just happy to be in the major leagues. He has the arm strength for right field, and can cover a lot of ground there, but he doesn’t want to become a permanent right fielder or a fourth outfielder who is used in multiple roles.
You wonder whether a shift to right field would be disruptive to Betts. Because he’s 22 and new to the outfield, you would think he could easily adapt. And he’s mentally tough enough to handle anything that’s thrown at him.
But until Bradley’s offense comes around, the point is moot. Farrell isn’t going to push the envelope and get his best center fielder playing center field unless Bradley hits so well that he leaves no doubt that he’s staying on the major league team.
There are few center fielders who read the ball off the bat like Bradley. He has a sixth sense, it seems, as to where the ball is going to travel, and he seems to get to that spot faster than most would.
So is Farrell’s decision the right one?
Asked what he would do, another American League manager said, “I agree with John on this one. Betts is your established, permanent starter. If you displace him, you’re saying to Mookie, ‘Jackie is better than you are.’
“Not sure that’s a great message to send to a player who is pretty dynamic in his own right. Now if Jackie gets his complete game back, then you have a legitimate competition for that job.”
But what’s better for the team and the pitching staff?
Is it Betts, or is it Bradley making spectacular plays and saving extra-base hits for an embattled pitching staff? Is protecting a young player’s psyche more important in the overall scheme of things?
By switching his position, you also may be putting a “looking-over-your-shoulder” thought process in Betts’s mind.
You can see, it’s not the easiest situation.
“Jackie Bradley Jr. is the best center fielder in the game of baseball,” said a National League scout. “It’s like playing Brooks Robinson at second base.”
The Red Sox aren’t unique in such an issue. Stephen Drew is a really good shortstop who is playing second base for the Yankees because Didi Gregorius is at short. Brett Gardner is a terrific center fielder, but he’s playing left field because Jacoby Ellsbury is in center.
But Betts/Bradley is unusual in that they’re both young players. In some cases, a longtime star center fielder eventually moves to a corner when he slows a step; it’s happened with Coco Crisp, Torii Hunter, and Shane Victorino, among others. All three are very good at the corners.
For Bradley, he’s had to adapt to the corners, where the rotation of the ball is far different. He’s not going to make those sensational catches in right field that he makes in center.
“It’s different playing right field instead of center,” Bradley said. “But I’m playing in the major leagues and I’ll do anything they want me to do. Mookie does a great job. He’s a great center fielder. I’m just here to help us win games.”
And so we’ll all play the game every time there’s a ball hit to center or the gaps that isn’t caught. Could Bradley have caught that? Most of the time the answer will be yes.
It’s a shame that Bradley hit only .198 last season and lost his job.
He came out of camp this year as the seventh outfielder on the depth chart behind Hanley Ramirez, Betts, Victorino, Daniel Nava, Allen Craig, and Castillo. Virtually forgotten.
Through injuries, a poor performance by Craig, and a nice offensive start in Pawtucket, Bradley has thrust himself back into the picture.
But the picture is slanted right. Not center, as it ought to be.