Red Sox prospect Jackie Bradley, a gifted center fielder, was asked Friday how important the coming season could be for him given that Jacoby Ellsbury is coming up on free agency.
“Oh, he is?’’ Bradley said, his face serious for a second before he started laughing.
Bradley knows more than most. His agent, Scott Boras, also represents Ellsbury. But Bradley, 22, can’t concern himself with whether Ellsbury is traded during the season, signs an extension, or leaves for another team. His first priority is making sure the Red Sox view him as a viable alternative.
“I see opportunity anywhere. It’s being able to take advantage of every single opportunity that you get, whatever that may be,’’ Bradley said. “I’ll make sure I’m ready for it.’’
Bradley is one of 11 prospects participating in the team’s rookie program this week. It’s a sign of how close he is to the majors.
Bradley hit .315 with 55 extra-base hits, 63 RBIs, and 90 runs over 128 games for Single A Salem and Double A Portland last season. His .430 on-base percentage was the highest in the Red Sox system. The Sox also named Bradley their minor league defensive player of the year.
“He floats, that’s the best way I can describe it,’’ said Bryce Brentz, who played with Bradley in Portland. “Jackie gets an amazing jump on the ball. I loved playing with him. You don’t see too many center fielders as good as he is.’’
Ellsbury ended the 2006 season in Portland and returned there to start 2007. He quickly was promoted to Triple A Pawtucket and was in the majors by the end of June. Bradley could follow a similar development path, particularly if Ellsbury is traded or suffers another one of his lingering injuries.
Ellsbury played 67 games in Double A before the Sox pushed him forward. Bradley played 61 for the Sea Dogs last season.
“He wants to get to the big leagues and he wants be an impact big leaguer. He’s really taking care of his business to do that so far,’’ said director of player development Ben Crockett.
Bradley’s college experience helped expedite his progress. He played 172 games for South Carolina, helping the Gamecocks to NCAA championships in 2010 and ’11. Bradley was the Most Outstanding Player of the College World Series in 2010.
Bradley needed surgery to repair tendon damage in his left wrist during in the 2011 season, causing him to fall in the draft. The Sox picked him 40th overall and have not regretted it.
Bradley signed late in 2011 and played only 10 games. But he had 575 plate appearances last season.
“I did start to slow down toward the end. I got tired,’’ Bradley said. “It was coming from not playing that many games. You get to that point where your body can only take so much. I felt like I did all the things necessary to prepare. I ate the right things, I worked out. It was just getting accustomed to the system. The upcoming year I’ll be very prepared for it.’’
Crockett was perhaps more impressed with the emotional aspects of Bradley’s season.
“He gets a lot of attention, as he should and had previously based on his success in college,’’ Crockett said. “The way he was able to handle that and go out and take care of his business every day, the passion he continued to show . . . The way that he was able to maintain that throughout the year and a long season was pretty impressive.’’
Even shagging fly balls during batting practice became an opportunity. As teammates stood on the field and chatted, Bradley would aggressively chase down balls and work on his timing in the field.
“He takes it very seriously,’’ Crockett said. “He’s working on something at all times.’’
Bradley didn’t get much rest after the season. He enrolled back at South Carolina for the fall semester.
“I was two weeks late but I caught up,’’ he said. “I was at South Carolina, house and all. It was different going back and tough going back to the classroom. But I buckled in.’’
Bradley is nine classes short of graduating and vows he will complete his degree.
“I’ve got to be my own person,’’ he said. “That’s important to me.’’
This week has added to Bradley’s education. The prospects heard from Ben Cherington, John Farrell, several coaches, and even Celtics coach Doc Rivers.
Former Red Sox captain Jason Varitek spoke on Friday. The idea is to prepare the players for the day they’re called up.
“Playing in Boston definitely is different,’’ Crockett said. “They’re never going to know until they’ve gone through it. But I think the more they can be told about it from people with some pretty darn good credibility, that helps.’’
Bradley’s only complaint was the Boston weather. It’s a little cold for him.
“No big deal,’’ he said. “I’ll get used to it. Hopefully, I’ll be coming back.’’