More than just a ray of hope on the other side of the bridge, Jackie Bradley has emerged as perhaps the fun story from Red Sox camp. The 22-year-old outfielder, extraordinarily talented, bright of mind and disposition, downright impossible not to like, has been this spring's reminder that the future is not too far away from becoming the present.
I'm not saying he should break camp with the team. Oh, from the standpoint of wanting to watch an interesting, enjoyable team, I do wish he would. Having seen him more than a few times in Portland last summer, I can say without hesitation that he is the best outfield glove in the organization, and if John Farrell were free to play the best defensive center fielder in center field without politics, accomplishment, and status as factors (not to mention constant reminders of the Mike Cameron debacle), Bradley would be in center at Yankee Stadium on April 1 and Jacoby Ellsbury would be to his immediate right, covering that huge left field.
That's just a spring daydream, of course, rather than something that has a real chance of happening. Bradley would accrue a full year of service time with 172 days on the major league roster this season, meaning his arbitration clock and, eventually, free agency would start a season sooner than normal. The most prudent thing to do is to send him to Pawtucket, at least for a couple of weeks, to make sure his service time doesn't exceed those 172 days this season and he can hit free agency after 2019 rather than '18. It's no fun from an instant-gratification perspective, but it's good business and a common practice. The Rays may even do the same with Wil Myers, whom they actually need.
Now, if it were just a baseball matter, I have no doubt Bradley would make this team. And as tempting as it must be to keep around a talented kid who will help defensively and on the bases even if he isn't quite ready to deal with big-league breaking stuff, I have become convinced this spring that Ben Cherington and the baseball ops staff recognized Bradley's skill set -- that spectacular defense, a quick bat, superb plate discipline, the makeup and maturity to handle whatever challenges come his way -- would expedite his Major League ETA beyond even the most optimistic projections.
I think the Red Sox have planned for Bradley's rapid emergence, even expected it, which is why they have not brought in a lefthanded-hitting left fielder whose ceiling exceeds replacement level. Mike Carp, Daniel Nava, and Ryan Sweeney are place-holders, and they will not be holding the place for long.
I've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating with a little more depth: Bradley is on a very similar career path to the one Ellsbury took during 2006-07. The symmetry of how perfectly Bradley is lined up to be Ellsbury's successor (yes, I'm presuming he leaves to join the Dodgers as perennially injured Carl Crawford's replacement) is rather striking when you consider all that they have in common.
Bradley was the 40th pick in the 2011 draft after an outstanding career at South Carolina. (He was the MVP of the College World Series as a sophomore for the champs before slumping as a junior because of injuries.) In 2012, at age 22, he reached Double A, putting up a .271/.373/.437 slash line in 271 plate appearances. After the season, he was ranked the No. 31 prospect in the minors by Baseball America.
Ellsbury was the 23d pick in the 2005 draft after an outstanding career at Oregon State. In 2006, at age 22, he reached Double A, putting up a .308/.387/.434 slash line in 225 plate appearances. After the season, he was ranked the No. 33 prospect in the minors by Baseball America.
We know how spectacularly it all played out for Ellsbury the following season. He returned to Portland, hit .452 in 83 plate appearances, climbed another rung to Pawtucket (.740 OPS in 87 games), arrived for his big-league debut June 30, and after a couple of trips up and down I-95, ended up hitting .353 in 33 regular-season games, seizing the center field job from Coco Crisp in the postseason, and starring in the World Series during the Red Sox' second championship in four seasons.
Will Bradley's 2013 season be a similar whirlwind? Well, I think we can presume that World Series part probably isn't happening. But presuming he comes out swinging after his inevitable demotion this spring, his debut should come sooner than late June. Between two levels last year, he hit .315 with a .430 on-base percentage, 24 steals, and 87 walks, a reasonable approximation of the outstanding No. 2 hitter he should become.
He is not be ready to be that offensive player at the major-league level just yet. But he can help the Red Sox the day he arrives with his defense and his patience.
For now, those of us anticipating Bradley's arrival could probably use a little of the latter ourselves. Avoiding that service time now means we might get to watch him a little bit longer. But let's not be too patient. The Red Sox make their second trip to the Bronx on May 31, and you know, that outfield is rather huge.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.