Red Sox Should Use Forward-Looking Approach With Jackie Bradley Jr., Even If Decision Proves to Be Unpopular

Jackie Bradley Jr.Two more weeks.

As you St. Patrick’s Day party animals shake off the hangover, just keep that little factoid in mind. Two weeks from Monday, the Red Sox will battle the Yankees in a baseball game that actually counts in the standings.

Sure, spring training is all fine and good, but as the exhibition games come and go, it’s hard not to get antsy about the start of the regular season. That’s especially true for this season, when it’s hard to put a finger on what exactly the Red Sox are going to do in the American League East.

Nevertheless, spring is still a time to reach into the mailbag. And here’s what was pulled out this week.

Why can’t Jonny Gomes DH and Jackie Bradley Jr. start in left field while David Ortiz is on the disabled list? Is keeping Bradley arbitration eligible for another year (seven years from now) really worth it?
–Josh Costigan, via Facebook

You pose a fantastic question, Josh. And it’s probably the biggest question the Red Sox are facing right now — understandably so. The short answer is that they very well could go that route to start the season, although I — albeit hesitantly — reside in the latter camp, and feel as though Jackie Bradley Jr. should start the season at Triple-A.

As everyone probably already knows, Bradley started off spring training with a bang, and he hasn’t slowed down since. As of Monday, he’s hitting .444 (16-for-36) with a home run, four RBIs, seven runs, eight walks and a stolen base. That’s all in addition to his stellar defense, which has been as advertised.

Yada, yada, yada, right?

Now, is this enough to warrant a spot on the big league roster out of camp? Well, I’ll be honest with you, I’ve gone back and forth on this topic a few times, because it’s rare that you see such a head-turning spring performance. There’s no doubt in my mind that Bradley is big league ready right now, and if the decision was based solely on this spring, you can bet Bradley would be in my starting nine come Opening Day.

However, as baseball decisions always are, there’s a lot more to the equation — which you already alluded to, Josh. Players are eligible to become free agents after six full seasons of service time in the major leagues, and the Red Sox are essentially in a position to ensure that they preserve another season of team control when it comes to Bradley.

Bradley isn’t on Boston’s 40-man roster yet, so it boils down to this: If the Red Sox bring Bradley up on or after April 12 (Opening Day is April 1) and keep him up for the remainder of the season, he won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2019 season. If Bradley is instead promoted before April 12, he’ll need to spend at least 20 days in the minors after that point in order for the Red Sox to maintain team control through 2019. Otherwise, he’d become a free agent after 2018.

I understand this all seems very forward-looking. I mean come on, who knows what we’ll be doing in 2018/2019 or where the Red Sox will be as a team at that point? However, given that Bradley needs just 11 days in the minors before the Sox gain an extra year of team control — presumably when Bradley is in his prime — then, yes, I do think it is worth it to start him at Triple-A to begin the season.

There are a lot of comparisons to the Mike Trout situation, in which the Angels missed out on the playoffs last season in large part because of their subpar April (when they didn’t have Trout). Let’s keep in mind, though, that this situation is very different.

First of all, Trout actually played in 40 big league games in 2011, and he hit just .220 with an on-base percentage of .281 in 123 at-bats. That was after jumping from Double-A to the bigs — the same leap that Bradley would be attempting. Before Trout eventually made another leap to the majors in 2012, he saw 20 games at the Triple-A level. So if you’re considering the Trout situation a cautionary tale of why the Red Sox shouldn’t wait any longer with Bradley (as it could cost them later in the season), you must also consider the struggles that Bradley could endure upon playing against legitimate big league competition right out of the gate in 2013 without any additional seasoning at the Triple-A level.

As I mentioned, I do think Bradley could be a major leaguer right now, and that’s mostly because of his defensive ability, which should translate well at any level. But when you couple the whole service time thing with the options that Boston has on the roster, it’s hard to justify losing what could be a crucial year of team control down the line for what amounts to an 11-day high.

Bradley might be the best option to plug into the lineup if David Ortiz misses the start of the year, but the Red Sox have enough options beyond the 23-year-old to weather the storm out of the gate — for 11 days, at least. The time Bradley spends down at Triple-A will also help his continued development, and enable the Red Sox to see their other guys in regular season action before making any drastic moves.

How many wins will Jon Lester get, and will David Ortiz hit 30 home runs?
– Rob Clewley, via Facebook

Jon Lester has been absolutely lights out this spring. And although my No. 1 rule — or somewhere in the top 10 or so — is to never get too high on spring training performances, it’s hard not to be encouraged about how he’s looked.

Lester’s command has been there, his cutter is again looking like one of the nastiest pitches in baseball, and the lefty’s ability to mix speeds has had hitters at his mercy this spring. Most importantly, though, judging by his actions and his comments, it appears Lester has a chip on his shoulder.

With all of this in mind, I fully expect Lester to have a bounce-back year. In fact, I think he’s more important to Boston’s success this season than any other player on the team. It’s hard to put an exact number on it, but I’ll go out on a limb and say he’ll finish with 17-19 wins, thus returning him to No. 1 status.

As for David Ortiz, I have a hard time believing he’ll reach the 30-home run plateau. I think the power is there, but there are just too many concerns to safely say he’ll reach that mark.

Why not promote the whole PawSox team to the majors? PawSox are champs, son!
– Allyn Smith, via Facebook

Haha.

What was the point of getting Mike Flacco if Drew Hedman and Travis Shaw are better?
– Tom Joyce, via Facebook

I wouldn’t read too much into the Mike Flacco trade. This answer may sound like a cop out, but he really is just organizational depth at this point, as the Red Sox’ system is very thin at first base.

Fun, little nugget for you: Flacco posted a .324/.378/.459 line against left-handers at the High-A level last season. (Bring your own grain of salt.)

With David Ortiz sketchy for the upcoming season, wouldn’t it be a good idea to DH Mike Napoli, given his hip situation and all?
–Darren Povelite, via Facebook

I certainly understand where you’re coming from. This is Mike Napoli‘s first season as an everyday first baseman, so there are inherently some defensive concerns. And, as you already pointed out, his hip condition is the elephant in the room. That being said, I’m not so sure moving him out of first base would be the wisest decision at this point.

David Ortiz will return at some point — I assume — so therefore shifting Napoli to a DH role would be temporary. Considering that, I don’t think the Red Sox should risk messing with what they’ve accomplished this spring. Even if Napoli proves to be an average first baseman at best, he does appear to be more comfortable after working with coach Brian Butterfield this spring. Taking him off the diamond would only risk backtracking in his progression as a defender.

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

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