When Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. dominated spring training prior to the 2013 season to the tune of a .419 average and 1.140 OPS in 28 games, the youngster’s potential was off the charts. Following a dreadful 2012 campaign, it captivated a disgruntled Nation.
Hopes deflated a tad when Bradley struggled through multiple major league stints over 37 games that year, finishing with a .189 average, .617 OPS, and an average of one strikeout for every 3.1 at-bats. Still, there was reason for optimism as he hit a far better .275 with an .842 OPS and 10 home runs in 80 contests for Triple-A Pawtucket.
At every stop, Bradley’s Gold Glove quality defense followed.
Last winter, Boston decided it had seen enough to confidently let long-time center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury walk to rival New York for a hefty ransom, pinning its hopes on Bradley’s bat to come around.
For the most part, it hasn’t happened. As a result, it’s time for him to go.
Through 106 games and 367 plate appearances, Bradley is batting just .211 with a .571 OPS. He’s hit only one home run and has struck out an undiscriminating 107 times (again, once every 3.1 at-bats). To date, he is enduring the worst offensive season by a center fielder with at least 300 at-bats since former Red Sox outfielder Mike Cameron batted .210 with 101 strikeouts in 396 at-bats in his sophomore year for the White Sox in 1998.
Along the way, Bradley has racked up an MLB-high 13 outfield assists while his flawless, instinctual defense has saved at least 16 runs. He has the second-best defensive WAR (2.3) in the American League.
Alas, for every web gem, there have been multiple failed opportunities at the plate.
Bradley is hitless in his last 35 at-bats, a victim of 18 strikeouts in that time. In Sunday’s series-finale with the Angels, he fanned four times in as many chances. He appears positively lost and overpowered.
Bradley’s latest stretch of immense frustration has followed a run just the opposite. From June 19 to July 26 (28 games), the lefty hit .315 with a .758 OPS. He raised his average from .205 to .233 before dipping down to his current mark.
Before his failures were so mightily magnified at the major league level, Bradley was a consistent offensive threat all the way from the short-season Single-A Lowell Spinners of the New York Penn-League to the International League PawSox.
In Bradley’s minor league career, spanning 218 games and 819 at-bats (just 320 in Triple-A), he hit .297 with an .876 OPS. He struck out only once every 4.8 at-bats.
At 24, though, Bradley isn’t far from where conversations about prospects evolve into debates over projects. Time accelerates when you’re underperforming.
Asked about Bradley’s present day value around the game, a National League adviser recently told The Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo, “Put it this way, at one time he would have been a featured piece in a deal, now he’d be a throw-in. He’s an outstanding centerfielder, but there’s absolutely no sign of the hitting getting better. He can be pitched to and he doesn’t seem to have the capacity to adjust. He gets fooled with off-speed stuff and he’s getting overpowered by fastballs. The Red Sox have a tough call there. They’ve given him every opportunity.’’
As Cafardo notes with some frighteningly disturbing stats, the Red Sox haven’t enjoyed the same fortune with Bradley in his rookie season as they did in the past with Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Nomar Garciaparra, Mike Greenwell, Ellis Burks, or others. Unfortunately, Bradley’s offensive issues have coincided with those of shortstop-turned-third-baseman-turned-shortstop-again Xander Bogaerts, who is hitting a mere .230 with a .644 OPS, though he is viewed as a superior talent with an MVP-caliber ceiling.
Many have debated whether Bradley was rushed to the big leagues. Frankly, that no longer matters. He’s here. If any damage was done, there’s no reversing it.
There is, however, one thing the Sox can do in an effort to remedy the situation.
Send Bradley back to the minors.
It is understandable why people would prefer to see the former first-round pick work his troubles out in Boston, all the while providing stellar, game-saving defense, but Bradley is clearly, painstakingly overwhelmed at the plate. Moreover, he’s already lost the everyday job and been relegated at points to defensive replacement duties (which he’s certainly made the most of).
A return to Rhode Island could do Bradley wonders. It’s an opportunity to play consistently and regain his confidence against lesser pitching, to work through his mechanics and experiment with alternative stances or approaches at the plate. Furthermore, he could be rejuvenated by the chance to play for something bigger than his own job with Pawtucket in the midst of a playoff push.
Big league rosters expand on Sept. 1. On that timetable, Bradley would have nearly three weeks to work out the kinks before bolting back to Boston with what would hopefully be a renewed emphasis on a strong finish.
If the results did not come with the demotion, finishing out the year in the minors may be the best option.
As that NL adviser alluded to Cafardo, the Red Sox are running out of time to determine what they have in Bradley and whether he can be trusted enough offensively to help the team defensively in a prominent starting role in 2015.
If healthy and intact as presently constituted (while ignoring the possibility of the Sox adding Cuba’s Rusney Castillo), next year’s roster will include a slew of outfielders looking for playing time, between Yoenis Cespedes, Allen Craig, and Shane Victorino, not to mention Daniel Nava, Mookie Betts, or even Brock Holt. And, of course, Bradley.
"I know what I'm capable of,'' the mature, outwardly confident Bradley told ESPNBoston.com’s Gordon Edes. “I feel like I've played well pretty much my whole life. This is my first true struggle at this game. I can't emphasize it enough, but this is not going to deter my career.”
Unlike the expectation this year (a polite pardon to Grady Sizemore), the centerfield job won’t just be handed to Bradley next spring. He’ll have to earn it in order to prevent being cast aside as a part-time, fourth outfielder. Or, worse, a minor leaguer.
To this point, even with his jaw-dropping, highlight-reel catches, he hasn’t.
A step backward now, in Bradley’s case, may just be the best way to take two steps forward in the future.
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