By Kevin Flanagan
Just 18 months ago Jackie Bradley Jr. was a shining beacon in the sea of abyss the Red Sox had become following the chicken and beer ending of 2011 and the calamity that was the Bobby Valentine run squad in 2012. While the September swoon in ’11 cost manager Terry Francona his job and was part of the reason general manager Theo Epstein bolted to Chicago for the Cubs, the ’12 season offered an opportunity for ownership and management to take a torch to the team courtesy of Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Dodgers via the Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford house cleaning gift from the baseball gods.
Bradley entered the spring with no expectations of making the big club. Jacoby Ellsbury was firmly in place to play out the string with the Sox in his walk year and the team had signed short-term fixes on the corner outfield spots in Shane Victorino and Jonny Gomes. Under the low pressure environment the then top prospect flourished, hitting .419 with an on base percentage (OBP) of .507 and an astronomical on base percentage plus slugging (OPS) of 1.120. When designated hitter David Ortiz wasn’t healthy enough to start the season with the big club, Bradley not only made the team but he was the starting centerfield in Yankee Stadium on opening day.
His performance – albeit against a bunch of guys who would likely never get a sniff at the show – gave some hope to beleaguered fan base who had reached rock bottom. It had gotten so bad even the pink hats didn’t want to sing “Sweet Caroline”.
Although he went hitless in his first game in the majors, JBJ reached base twice and scored two runs against the Yanks in an 8-2 win. But the pixie dust around the rookie soon settled and a 3 for 31 start to his career saw him sent to Pawtucket when Ortiz was ready to go on April 19th. And while he would ride the Lou Merloni memorial express from the Paw Sox to Fenway for a cup of coffee in June and July, Bradley became an afterthought in what turned out to be a season for the ages for the Sox.
Entering spring training this season as defending World Series Champions, the Red Sox seemed to think that Bradley had learned from his tough start to his career and was ready to assume the starter’s spot in center from the newly departed Jacoby Ellsbury, who took his World Series ring and headed 200 miles south to the Bronx.
Despite the fact that he had not shown any ability to hit big league pitching during his limited time with the big club, the Red Sox did little – Grady Sizemore really doesn’t count – to nothing to give Bradley competition during camp. Bradley was seemingly handed the starters role and yet his play that spring made a guy that hadn’t played a major league game in two years a viable option as his replacement in center come opening day. Had it not been for an injury to (shocker) Shane Victorino, Bradley would have started the year where he belonged in Triple A.
If his performance this spring wasn’t enough to cause the Sox to take pause then it should have been. Instead of getting him the plate appearances in an environment that would help his development in Pawtucket, their lack of organizational depth in the outfield and unwillingness to sign a free agent at the position in the off-season led them to leave Bradley to fend for himself.
The end result is what happened today, Bradley was optioned to the place he should have been all along and his future with the Red Sox – and perhaps in major league baseball as a full time player – is cloudy at best.
Former Sox GM Theo Epstein used to say that he liked to see prospects get at least 500 at bats at the Triple A level before proceeding to the big leagues. Prior to opening the 2013 season as the Red Sox centerfielder, not only did Bradley have zero at bats in Pawtucket, he had only 229 at Double A Portland.
I guess it’s fair to say that current general manager Ben Cherington doesn’t quite agree with his mentor’s philosophy, eh?
You will often hear uniformed staff and front office members say it is an important part of a player’s development to learn from their failures and overcome adversity. You will also hear the same personnel say that it is equally important for a prospect to experience success at the Triple A level before moving on to the big leagues.
The Red Sox never afforded Bradley that opportunity, and because of that he may never be the player he once could have been.
General managers in the NFL often say that if you draft because of need you are doomed to fail. The same applies to baseball when it comes to promoting prospects. If you rush a player because of need it almost never works. Besides a very few in the history of the game – if you don’t believe me then just take a look at what is going on with the “can’t miss kid” Bryce Harper down in Washington these days – players need to develop at their own pace and when forced to perform at a level they are not ready for (anyone remember Craig Hansen?), they will more times than not fail the way Jackie Bradley Jr. has failed.
Ironically Bradley’s move to Pawtucket was to make way for the rookie Mookie Betts, he of 399 at bats above the Single A level and who made his first professional appearance as an outfielder at any level this past May 19th.
Patience is a virtue, right?
Apparently the Sox believe being virtuous has gone the way of the rotary dial phone and signing starting pitchers over the age of 30, but I digress.
The Sox lack of patience seemingly has cost them a player who was once thought to be the best prospect in their system. Meanwhile they continue to rush players through to the big leagues who lack at bats, never mind who are in the midst of a position change for the first time in their professional career.
The organization that once strove to be – in the words of a young Theo Epstein – “a player development machine” is now devouring their young at an alarming rate.
The situation with Bradley may just be the tip of the iceberg. If they are not careful the developing story of shortstop (or not) Xander Bogaerts may turn out to be their Titanic.
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