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The Jackie Bradley conundrum

Posted by Peter Abraham, Globe Staff  March 21, 2013 08:45 AM

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FORT MYERS, Fla. If the idea was to pick the 25 best players, Jackie Bradley Jr. would make the Red Sox. He has been that good in spring training.

But it's rarely that simple with baseball.

The reason the Red Sox have a decision to make is buried within the pages of baseball's collective bargaining agreement and the rules for free agency.

Players become eligible for free agency after six full seasons of service time in the major leagues. The day a player appears in his first game, his "clock" starts. Players watch that clock intently knowing that it takes six years for them to gain some degree of control over their careers.

If Bradley starts the season with the Red Sox and sticks with them, he would become a free agent after the 2018 season. Because he is represented by Scott Boras, it's reasonable to assume that Bradley would then go into the open market to determine his worth.

However if the Red Sox were to keep Bradley in the minors for 11 days to start the season, he would not become eligible for free agency until after the 2019 season.

This is why, for instance, the Angels did not promote Mike Trout until April 28 last season.

The Red Sox could, in theory, have Bradley start the season with them and stop his clock later in the season by sending him to the minors for 20 days. That also would preserve a year.

The issue then becomes what if Bradley is so good that sending him down hurts the team? It might be a lot easier to send him down now than later on.

A few other factors that weigh into the decision:

This discussion is not even being held if David Ortiz were healthy because there would be nowhere for Bradley to play. But with Ortiz expected to miss anywhere from two weeks to a month (at least), the Sox could play Bradley in right field, shift Shane Victorino to left and use Jonny Gomes as the designated hitter.

This discussion is not even being held if they Red Sox had some other player in camp who was presenting a compelling case to stick. But if Bradley is sent down, that probably means Daniel Nava, Ryan Sweeney, Mike Carp or Lyle Overbay makes the team.

Nava has been the best of the four and has shown he can hit righthanders. He would probably make the team regardless. But if Bradley doesn't stick, one of the other guys will.

The Red Sox are battling a serious problem with public perception. Their fans are not buying tickets or watching on television at the rates they once did. The team has been perceived as boring before it plays a game. Bradley can change that. He's a fun player to watch, he's young and he has a personality.

How many players do the Red Sox have with even two of those qualities? It's a short list.

Is that a good reason to lose a year of control? Surely not. But 90 percent of fans don't care about the collective bargaining agreement and 2019. They want to watch something interesting on NESN in 2013 and Sox want them to buy tickets and drink overpriced beer.

If you stopped the average Sully on the street outside Fenway Park and asked him what he thought of John Henry, the answer would be that he's cheap and cares more about Liverpool. That is beyond stupid, of course, given the payroll of the Red Sox.

But keeping Bradley would give the impression that the Red Sox are all in. It's dumb, but you know it's true.

Here's an interesting question: What would hurt the bottom line of the Red Sox more, a 3-8 start to this season or having to (theoretically) pay a lot of money to keep Bradley for the 2019 season when he becomes a free agent a year early? If this team starts 3-8, Fenway could be a ghost town in the spring. The very last thing this team needs is another slow start.

Let's say Bradley is a free agent a year early. It's not the like Red Sox are some low-budget team with no chance of keeping him. There have been some Boras clients (Jason Varitek and Jered Weaver come to mind), who make deals to stay.

Bradley is not a Boras drone. If he likes Boston and wants to stay, they'll figure out a deal. They figured out a reasonable deal when they drafted him.

GM Ben Cherington is the guy who will make this call. Sure, it's easy to say that the right thing to do is send Bradley to the minors. But Cherington isn't going to be the GM in 2014 if the 2013 Red Sox fall on their faces. Is he in a position to worry about 2019?

It's too bad the decision is not simple because Bradley has done everything he can to make the team and the decision is far more involved than that.

Prediction: The Sox will send Bradley to the minors and see what transpires after 11 days. Prudent roster management has long been paramount for them and nothing indicates that will change.

The one caveat is that John Henry, who really is a baseball fan, might think like a baseball fan and tell them to keep the kid. After all, maybe he doesn't think he'll own the team in 2019.

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