Red Sox Comfortable With Jackie Bradley Jr. Potentially Replacing Jacoby Ellsbury in Center Field in 2014

Jackie Bradley Jr.Jackie Bradley Jr. hasn’t been handed the keys to center field just yet. But the Red Sox might fork them over eventually. If so, the organization is confident that the 23-year-old is up to the task.

Jacoby Ellsbury‘s departure leaves a gaping hole in the Red Sox outfield. And while general manager Ben Cherington insisted Wednesday that the club is still exploring external outfield options, both him and manager John Farrell expressed confidence in the organization’s in-house alternatives, including Bradley.

“If we look back, in the beginning of the offseason, we knew that we had four sort of prominent position player free agents in [Jarrod Saltalamacchia], [Mike] Napoli, [Stephen] Drew and Ellsbury,” Cherington said on a conference call Wednesday. “Part of our offseason was going to be figuring out those four spots either by retaining one or more of those guys or looking at alternatives. We certainly felt really good about some of the in-house alternatives, and one of those guys was Jackie Bradley.

“It doesn’t mean we wouldn’t add an outfielder. It doesn’t mean we wouldn’t add a player at another spot. We’re not going to talk about exactly what the team is going to look like on Opening Day, because we don’t have to yet. There’s still time. We’re working and we’re going to work through different options and continue to pursue ways to make the team better. But we certainly feel fortunate that Jackie is in our organization, and we would feel very good if he is playing center field if that’s the way it plays out.”

Bradley made four separate stints with the major league club in 2013, including one right out of the chute following a red-hot spring training. The rookie struggled for the most part, hitting just .189 (18-for-95) with a .280 on-base percentage and 31 strikeouts in 37 games. But he showed improvement later in the season, and if nothing else, his solid defense — particularly his strong route-running — was on display in his first taste of big league action.

Bradley, who also hit .275 with a .374 on-base percentage, 10 homers and 35 RBIs in 80 games with Triple-A Pawtucket this past season, will in all likelihood be better-prepared for major league action in 2014. He’ll be a year older with an additional year of development under his belt, and the major league work he garnered in 2013 amid Boston’s successful run should prove to be a valuable learning experience. As the Red Sox contemplate life after Ellsbury, Farrell has no issues with giving Bradley a bigger role, although replacing the outfielder’s predecessor is more about Boston’s entire roster than just one player.

“Personally, this is me speaking, this isn’t the organization speaking or [Cherington] speaking, [Bradley] fits as we continue to fill out the other areas on our club,” Farrell said on WEEI’s Salk & Holley Show on Wednesday. “I think our overall goal is to have no less than a top five offensive team. So if you’ve got a guy who’s still in the transition and somewhat projection, you’ve got to have more competent and reliable offensive performers who are out there. We know that Mike Napoli is still out there — our guy who we want to be sure to do everything we can to bring him back or get a performer at first base who will give us well-above-average performance. All of these things are in the equation. I guess that’s the best way to put it.”

Ellsbury’s exit will inevitably rub some Red Sox fans the wrong way, mainly because he’s joining Boston’s most hated rival. But both Farrell and Cherington are appreciative of what the 30-year-old contributed during his time with the Red Sox, and, as Cherington pointed out, the club had interest in re-signing Ellsbury. The market just escalated beyond the Red Sox’ self-imposed limit.

“We wish Jacoby well. He was obviously a really good player here during the time he was in Boston. He was a big part of two World Series teams. We would have loved to keep him,” Cherington said. “But we felt like there was an area, a range we were willing to go to and the market just got past that. So we wish him well and will continue to work on our offseason plans as we try to build the best team we can for next year.”

Building the best team for 2014 could entail bringing in another outfielder. Carlos Beltran, Shin-Soo Choo and Curtis Granderson are the three biggest names available, and the Red Sox have been linked to all three, to varying degrees. The Red Sox’ reluctance to shell out a long-term deal could eliminate the trio, though, in which case Bradley will be the guy steering the ship in center field next season. And that’s quite all right with the men in charge.

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

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