FORT MYERS, Fla. — In this age of prospect pumping and would-be star worship, Jackie Bradley Jr. stands as a cautionary tale of baseball’s prospect industrial complex. He has been both prematurely hailed a future star and hastily written off as a fourth outfielder, all before completing five years in professional baseball and 26 years on the planet.
“That’s dangerous,” said Bradley. “It’s funny. The expectations they put on prospects, me, anyone. Everyone is different. That’s what people fail to realize. They’ll bring you up, and you struggle, and it’s oh, he was rushed. They bring you up and you do well. It’s oh, perfect timing.
“There is no certain formula that says this person is going to be ready then and this person is going to be ready then. Everybody is different, so let everybody develop and do their own thing.”
Bradley is still standing — and running down baseballs with astonishing efficiency. Once considered headed for the Red Sox’ overhyped prospect scrap heap, Bradley is now penciled in as the presumptive Opening Day starting center fielder. He was in the lineup for the Grapefruit League opener at JetBlue Park against the Minnesota Twins on Wednesday, batting ninth and going 2 for 2.
No player in the Red Sox organization has benefited more from the baseball operations extreme makeover than Bradley. Installed as president of baseball operations last August, Dave Dombrowski looked at the Sox organization with a fresh set of eyes and saw Bradley as an asset, not a light-hitting liability. He has given Bradley’s Red Sox career a reboot.
Dombrowski is a card-carrying JBJ fan. He revealed that in his previous job as general manager of the Detroit Tigers he tried to trade for Bradley before the 2015 season.
On his first official day on the job, cameras caught Dombrowski saying, “Wow,” after Bradley robbed Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor with a leaping over-the-shoulder grab.
Bradley does that. If Hanley Ramirez trying to play the outfield was high comedy, then Bradley tracking down fly balls is performance art.
The question is whether Bradley, who batted .196 in his first 479 major-league at-bats, spanning the 2013 and 2014 seasons, can do enough damage with the bat to justify an everyday role.
The American League East is no country for light-hitting outfielders.
The Sox are betting that the Bradley who hit .294 with nine home runs, slugged .613, and posted a .366 on-base percentage in the final 50 games of the lost 2015 season is closer to the Real Jackie than the young player who looked overmatched and “lost” during the 2014 season, hitting just .198 in 127 games.
“That was my first time being able to say I truly struggled,” said Bradley, who won two national championships at the University of South Carolina and rocketed to the big leagues in 2013 after being drafted in 2011.
“It’s going to be something I’m going to use as a building block. I can be used as an example. Say I have an amazing year, an amazing career, I can be that person that someone can go back to and say, ‘Well, he started off like this.’ It is possible. Just because you don’t do it your rookie year doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the world.
“People forget that was my rookie year. I’m not going to have everything figured out. But I know that I’m going to put the work in, and I’m going to get better.”
What about the thought that some people have already made up their mind that his bat in the lineup is like a lead weight dragging down the offense.
“That’s fine. That’s all a part of the process. There are going to be people who don’t like the way you play the game for your whole career,” said Bradley. “We’ve got a Hall of Famer over there [in David Ortiz] who was bailed on. The list goes on.
“At some point someone is going to not believe in you. That’s where you’ve got to tell yourself, ‘I believe in you.’ I don’t need anyone to believe in me. I believe in myself. I’m very confident. I know I can play this game at the highest level. With that being said, I’m going to go out there and let the chips fall where they may.”
The Red Sox are confident that Bradley, who doesn’t turn 26 until April 19, can hit enough to be a regular.
He has spent time working with hitting coach Chili Davis to refine his swing and prevent pitchers from handcuffing him inside.
“Watching that player grow into the player that we hope he’s going to be is happening right now, and hopefully he takes that next step this year,” said general manager Mike Hazen.
Of course, last year the Sox thought they didn’t need an ace and that Ramirez could play left field. The year before that they thought Grady Sizemore was the baseball version of Ponce de Leon.
Spring training is a time for rose-colored sunglasses and forecasts of eternal sunshine of the spotless team-building vision.
There should be cautious optimism surrounding Bradley.
While his work with the bat last season much more closely resembled his minor league profile, he still hit .138 in his final 25 games.
The Dombrowski-designed Red Sox are determined to give Bradley a chance to deliver on the promise he showed here in Fort Myers three years ago.
It was in 2013 that Bradley forced his way into the Opening Day lineup, manning left field at Yankee Stadium, after a prodigious spring training that saw him hit .419, inspiring the infatuation and adulation that belongs to Mookie Betts now.
But that was the prospect intelligentsia’s timeline for success.
Bradley still has time for stardom.