Jackie Bradley Jr. another step closer to making Red Sox

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Jackie Bradley Jr. probably had made the team before he drove in four runs in his first two at-bats Sunday and before Jacoby Ellsbury injured his right ankle lunging back to first base on a pickoff throw. But if he hadn’t, certainly he must have sealed the deal after his performance against Phillies lefty Cliff Lee?

It’s clear now that he belongs on the team, whether he’s the Red Sox’ starter in left field or in center (because of another Ellsbury injury).

In manager John Farrell’s news briefing Sunday morning, he said that Ellsbury (if healthy) remains the leadoff hitter, even if Bradley makes the team.

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You don’t have to be Christopher Columbus to know the Red Sox have made the discovery that Bradley is ready to start in left. Sunday he batted seventh against Lee, and blasted a three-run homer (granted, it was windblown) and hit a line drive to center for a sacrifice fly. Two at-bats — four RBIs.

He also did a couple of negative things. He made an error in left when he came in on a ball that third baseman Will Middlebrooks had called for (the wind gusts made playing defense hazardous). He also struck out twice, once when he was fooled by an offspeed pitch. That, of course, happens to veterans as well.

Bradley said about his homer, “See something early that I can put a pretty good swing on. [Lee] has a repertoire where he can throw any pitch at any time for a strike, so I didn’t want to get behind on him. It feels good; he’s a very great pitcher. I’m just trying to stick with my approach and get something good to swing at.”

Bradley said he didn’t change his approach to hitting lefties just because he was facing Lee.

“Not necessarily,” he said. “Eyes were on him, for sure. I treat every pitcher the same. It’s the kind of an approach I go with. I won’t let the lefty-lefty thing get into my head.”

At the start of the game, the Red Sox basically had three center fielders in the lineup, with Ellsbury in center and Shane Victorino in right. The alignment had to thrill Farrell, who likes the idea of balls being tracked down all over the outfield. Bradley and Victorino also have good arms.

Victorino hadn’t even thought about the all-CF defensive alignment, but said, “it’s great to have three guys out there who can cover that kind of ground. Hopefully Jacoby’s injury isn’t anything that keeps him out. Jackie has done a great job opening eyes both offensively and defensively. I’m sure it’s a tough decision to make, but he’s proven that he can play up here.”

It’s not really a tough decision. It’s the right decision.

Jonny Gomes has struggled in left field, so why not start the season taking advantage of Gomes’s bat by DH-ing him and allowing Bradley to provide defense and offensive spark at the bottom of the order?

Service time is a factor in whether the Sox keep Bradley, but Farrell acknowledged that run prevention is being factored in, too. “This outfield has a lot of range and covers a lot of ground,” he said.

It would make life so much more comfortable for the pitchers.

After resisting for so long, it appears Bradley may have convinced the Sox to keep him. They are now embracing the fact they have a 22-year-old who probably could skip a level and feel comfortable in the majors.

Farrell likened Bradley’s situation to that of Grady Sizemore in Cleveland back in 2004 when Farrell was the player development director.

He said he knew Sizemore was ready to be a big leaguer. When asked whether Bradley was ready to be a big-leaguer, Farrell said, “Could be. He plays the game pretty damn well.”

Sizemore was a high school kid who hit at every level in the Indians organization, including Triple A, where he played a full season at Buffalo. Sizemore, however, was only 21. Bradley, who attended the University of South Carolina, will turn 23 April 19.

Bradley, like Sizemore back then, was put through every test imaginable, under the toughest situations. Sunday was one of those tests — facing one of the best lefties in baseball in Lee.

“This is the best environment to put him in away from our ballpark against a good pitcher,” Farrell said before the game.

“This will be a good situation for him. It’s more of a test than just the environment. But it’s the best environment we can put him in with a few days left in camp and the fact we’re going against a good lefthanded pitcher. Part of what we want to look at is him in left field but in a setting in spring training this presents.”

It did that, but Bradley consistently has been able to handle the pressure.

“He hasn’t been in a prolonged slump,” Farrell said. “He’s taken a similar approach whether it’s against a lefthander or righthander. He’s hit lefthanders well. He handled Mike Dunn with the Marlins and put some good swings on pitches.”

While Bradley is still projected as a center fielder, “he’s gonna play any one of three positions well,” Farrell said.

Bradley’s error was under pretty tough circumstances.

“I wanted to stay shallow because anything over my head will hit the fence or go over,” he said.

“I took the approach I wanted to take away base hits. I had seen earlier that anything high pretty much is gonna be an outfielder’s ball. I was looking at the ball whole time. It was so windy I didn’t see Will waving his hand. My fault, I should have made the play, bad on my part.”

It should now be a slam dunk. No need to worry about arbitration clocks and all that stuff.

The best players should play.

Bradley is one of them.