There are some players who require time to appreciate, whose skill and potential become apparent only after seeing them play for a considerable stretch. And then there are the special talents, the ones whose abilities are so obvious that there is really no question.
In 2006, Dave Joppie served as the hitting coach for the Red Sox' High-A Carolina League affiliate, the Wilmington Blue Rocks. There, he encountered a dazzlingly gifted 22-year-old center fielder in his first full professional season. Every game, as the lineups were announced, Joppie and then-Wilmington manager Chad Epperson had a knowing exchange.
"[As the PA announced], 'Leading off for the Blue Rocks and playing center field, Jacoby Ellsbury,' as soon as he would start running out to the field, we'd just look at each other and say, 'Big leaguer,' " recalled Joppie.
Last year, in a way, represented a form of deja vu for Joppie. In late June, Jackie Bradley Jr. was promoted from High-A Salem to Double-A Portland, where Joppie was serving as the hitting coach. And when he saw Bradley depart from the dugout for his territory in center field, the longtime coach felt a strikingly similar certainty that he was watching a player who is sprinting toward the big leagues.
"It’s the same sense you get when [Bradley] runs out there [as Ellsbury]," said Joppie. "It’s pretty special."
The notion that Bradley is on a similar fast track to the one around which Ellsbury sprinted is particularly fascinating given that Bradley has positioned himself as the obvious heir apparent to the longtime Sox center fielder and leadoff hitter. The Sox are hedging their bets, of course (hence the acquisition of Shane Victorino on a three-year deal this offseason), but the next team official to rule out Bradley as the 2014 center fielder for the Red Sox will be the first.
Based on Ellsbury's path through the minors, it's not hard to see why the Sox have confidence that Bradley -- who will be in big league camp as a non-roster invitee this spring -- seems capable of emerging as a big league-ready player by next year.
Ellsbury got his professional feet wet in 2005 with the Lowell Spinners, then, as a 22-year-old in his first full year in 2006, hit a combined .303/.382/.425/.808 with seven homers, 48 steals, 49 walks and 53 strikeouts in 111 games for Wilmington and, after a mid-July promotion, Double-A Portland.
Bradley posted superior overall numbers as a 22-year-old in his first full pro season, with a .315/.430/.482/.911 line that included nine homers and 24 steals along with 87 walks and 89 strikeouts in 128 games. His promotion from High-A to Double-A came in June, roughly three weeks earlier than Ellsbury's.
Both demonstrated skill sets that suggested a direct path to the majors. In Ellsbury's case, his legs ensured that he would be an impact baserunner and defender in short order. For Bradley, his baseball knowledge and instincts have turned him into a player with tremendous on-base skills and a potential Gold Glove center fielder. Both looked destined for long careers as leadoff hitters in the big leagues in their first full pro seasons.
If anything, in terms of offensive approach, Bradley struck Joppie as a more advanced hitter in his first full pro season than did Ellsbury. (Joppie, however, did note that he worked with Ellsbury at the start of 2006 prior to his promotion to Double-A. In contrast, he encountered Bradley in the middle and end of 2012, after he moved up a level.)
"Jacoby, in Wilmington, he was a lot more of a guy that would kind of try to use left-center and left field a little bit more. He had some inconsistencies with that type of an approach as far as his path to that baseball and his ability to work behind the baseball and leverage it," recalled Joppie. "At times, he would lose the barrel and hit a lazy fly ball to left field because he was trying to force it over there a little too much. And then as you’ve seen, as time has gone on, he’s gained a mentality of hit first.
"I’ve seen the evolution of Jacoby as a hitter as somebody who now has that mentality of hitting first and working behind the baseball and leveraging the ball. Now he can drive the ball and hit home runs to right field and right center, where he obviously in A-ball didn’t have the ability to do that," he continued. "Jackie, on the other hand, already has that, has the ability to backspin the baseball and has some power that quite frankly I think is still going to evolve. I think as far as the ability to drive the baseball on a consistent basis, I think Jackie was just a tick better."
That shouldn't come as a surprise. Ellsbury was considered a somewhat raw talent when he turned down an offer by the Rays to sign out of high school and instead went to Oregon State. He'd been a multi-sport star in high school who hadn't ever dedicated himself year-round to baseball.
Bradley, on the other hand, has long cultivated his baseball gifts. He took the initiative to spend an entire summer -- after his freshman year in high school -- not swinging until he got into a two-strike count so that he would become a better two-strike hitter. That grounding, in turn, has paid dividends over time, and left Bradley with a more advanced approach than Ellsbury exhibited at a comparable career stage.
"The thing that Jackie does very, very well, that he takes a lot of pride in, is he makes the pitcher work. He can grind out the best of them. From that aspect, I think Jackie may be a tick more advanced, especially against left-handed pitching, than Jacoby was," said Joppie. "He’ll fight stuff off until he gets a pitch to handle. Jacoby didn’t exactly have that type of approach in April and May of 2006.
"Unquestionably, the ability for Jacoby to do that was in there. You could see it, given the bat speed. He just had to learn how to do it. He had to learn how to get to pitches middle to middle-in the right way. It was part of the process."
He did that, in one season-long tantalizing glimpse, in 2011, when Ellsbury's approach developed to the point where he could use his quick-twitch athleticism and strength to demolish pitches in his wheelhouse en route to the first 30-30 season in Red Sox history. The power explosion was startling given that Ellsbury had never before hit as many as 10 homers in a season.
Though most projections for Bradley suggest an everyday center fielder with excellent on-base skills who can reach the low double digits in homers, Joppie suggests that there's little reason to place limits on what the minor leaguer might accomplish.
"There are a lot of similarities in their games," he noted. "From an offensive standpoint, where Jacoby is now, I can see the same things happening to [Bradley]. I really can. It’s in there.
"For me, the term 'raw power' is meaningless. It’s the ability to impact and drive the ball on a consistent basis. If you’re able to do that with backspin, then the numbers will improve," said Joppie. "Jackie has that in him. Let’s put it that way."
There is another similarity. Just as Ellsbury's star quality and position necessitated comparisons between him and Johnny Damon from the day that he was drafted by the Sox, so, too, will Bradley's development necessarily involve a discussion of how he compares to Ellsbury, and whether his tools will make him a viable successor in center field.
Bradley -- who, like Ellsbury, has a chance to reach the majors this summer, roughly two years after being drafted -- understands the inevitability of such contrasts. And so, he is comfortable shrugging off such lines of inquiry.
"It’s not my spot. It’s his spot. Whatever happens between now and [Ellsbury's free agency], that’s Boston’s decision," said Bradley. "I’m just going to try to do my part, keep working as hard as I can, to get to that level. I want to be able to play at that level, play at a high level at that level, and not just be glad to be up there. I want to be successful."
To this point in his young professional career, Bradley has done nothing to suggest that such an outcome is beyond his grasp.