Jackie Bradley Jr. Could Make Impact With Red Sox in 2013, But Outfielder Shouldn’t Crack Opening Day Roster

Jackie BradleyJackie Bradley Jr.‘s time will come, perhaps sooner rather than later. But despite his impressive spring showing so far, and John Farrell‘s recent vote of confidence, the Red Sox would be wise to begin the season with the highly touted prospect at Triple-A Pawtucket.

Bradley has turned heads down in Florida in a very short time this spring, hitting .556 (5-for-9), which includes gathering three hits and getting on base four times against the Blue Jays on Monday. When you toss in the great instincts he’s shown and the impressive routes he’s taken to the baseball in center field — staples in Bradley’s all-around defensive game — it’s easy to see why the 22-year-old might find his big league ETA get pushed up. But as exciting as the thought of Bradley patrolling the Fenway Park outfield is, and as much energy as he’d provide a club that so desperately needs it after last season’s disappointment, the Sox need to understand the risk/reward benefit that comes with rushing Bradley to the big leagues.

Many figure Bradley to be Jacoby Ellsbury‘s successor if Ellsbury elects to sign elsewhere in free agency after this season. Others even insist the Red Sox should deal Ellsbury at some point during the year, which would, in turn, open up a spot for Bradley. Until Ellsbury is out of the mix, though, Bradley should continue to be groomed so that he’s placed in an ideal situation when he finally reaches the major league level.

Bradley made it clear recently that he’d be willing to play either of the corner outfield positions if it meant playing in the majors. Then again, that willingness is something that’s fairly obvious when you’re talking about a prospect who’s looking for his first taste of The Show. No one envisions Bradley making a full-time transition to a corner outfield spot, though, so why rush him to the majors now, force him to adapt to such a role, and thus risk stunting his development as a center fielder? The more logical move instead is to take a patient approach and only call up Bradley when the stars are aligned, or do so later on during the season when the Red Sox know exactly where the club stands.

It’s tough to put a finger on exactly what direction the Red Sox will go in this season. The club has a ton of new faces, so it’s not completely outlandish to think they could experience some sort of turnaround. At the same time, 2014 seems like a more likely target date for contending again in the American League East, in which case rushing Bradley to the majors at any point before September — when rosters expand — would just be a risk not worth taking.

Plus, there are other factors involved outside of the whole, “he needs regular at-bats” argument that make it more logical to have Bradley start the year off in Pawtucket and join the big club only when the time is right.

If Bradley cracked the Opening Day roster and stuck around in the majors for good, he would be slated to become a free agent after the 2018 season as a result of when his MLB service time clock kicked in. Waiting, however, would push his free agency back until after the 2019 season. This all seems like a ways away, but those figure to be his prime years, and an extra year with Bradley under team control is very appetizing, especially if he turns into the ballplayer the organization envisions him becoming.

There’s also the fact that Bradley has yet to play at the Triple-A level. Triple-A has, in many ways, become an extension of the major league roster, so getting Bradley some at-bats down in Pawtucket against veterans pitchers could be beneficial for when he does make the leap.

Until that much-anticipated leap, the Red Sox have a few players capable of filling the role of Boston’s fourth outfielder — the role Bradley would play if he made the Opening Day roster. Daniel Nava, Ryan Sweeney and Mike Carp, to name a few, are capable of pushing for a bench spot, at least until a little bit later into the season. Nava, in particular, makes sense, especially now that he’s learning the ropes down at first base.

In all likelihood, when the Red Sox open up against the Yankees on April 1, Bradley will be preparing for the PawSox’ April 4 Opening Day. However, Bradley’s impressive spring has everyone, including Farrell, taking notice, so the idea of the outfielder potentially making the Opening Day roster is one worth addressing. It’s also one the Red Sox should be quick to sweep under the rug.

Bradley might arrive in Boston in 2013, but the Red Sox should see what they have first before making the potentially franchise-altering call-up.

Have a question for Ricky Doyle? Send it to him via Twitter at @TheRickyDoyle or send it here.

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