There was a fascinating vagueness in the answer, an undefined space that lent itself to speculation.
Jackie Bradley Jr. has just one full year of professional experience on his baseball resume. Yet he made such a strong impression in that time that he earned an invitation to big league camp this spring. And now, less than a week into spring training games, he's 5-for-9 with a double, walk and HBP, good for a .556 average and .636 OBP in these early stages of camp.
Bradley had performed so well that it wasn't outlandish to ask Sox manager John Farrell whether there's a chance that the 23-year-old could open the season in the big leagues.
"I guess the best way to answer that is coming into camp, we didn't have that as a strong possibility but yet we're four games into the game schedule and he could still be served well by getting more at-bats in the minor leagues before he comes up, but again, he's making a very strong impression in camp," Farrell told reporters.
That's not a hard no. Still, it's not exactly a screaming yes that Bradley will be in the big leagues to open the year, or even early in 2013.
Farrell referred to the fact that the Sox "don't have a predetermined date in which he'd be reassigned" to minor league camp, a statement that suggests that such an outcome remains likely. Still, Bradley may have shown enough that he won't be among the first wave of cuts, that he'll be given more of an opportunity to demonstrate his abilities against advanced big league-caliber pitchers who are incorporating a full mix of pitches.
All of that said, it would be a shock if Bradley doesn't open the year in the minors. Indeed, after he struggled down the stretch last year in Double-A Portland (in no small part due to simple fatigue at the end of his first five-plus month season in the pros), the anticipated conversation was whether Bradley was best suited for Double-A or Triple-A to open the year.
Now, through his early play, Bradley is offering a suggestion that the Sox can continue to put him on an aggressive development path. At the least, he may be building a case to open the year in Pawtucket rather than Portland.
"If you could draw it up, sure, you'd like to see 'X' number of at-bats at every level," said Farrell (who, it is worth noting, spent five years as Cleveland's director of player development). "But there are a lot of examples of guys around the league where guys came in a shortened path. Two of the most exciting young players [presumably, Farrell was referring to Bryce Harper and Mike Trout] in the game today didn't have that path. That's not to sit here today and say we're going to bypass any steps, but we're fortunate we have a good-looking young player."
Given the early accolades for the outfielder this spring, it is worth asking: What might a fast track look like for Bradley? How early might he make his big league debut?
It almost certainly wouldn't be Opening Day. Realistically, even if Bradley is insanely advanced, it would be shocking to see the Sox start the big league service clock running on a player like Bradley at the start of a year if the team possessed any viable major league-caliber alternatives.
After all, assuming that Bradley reaches the big leagues for good in 2013 (not a foregone conclusion of course, but a possibility), the team need only wait a few weeks into the season to ensure that Bradley wouldn't become eligible for free agency until after the 2019 season, rather than the 2018 season. That's potentially an incredibly valuable year, given that Bradley will be a 29-year-old squarely in the middle of his prime in 2019.
Moreover, if the team waits a couple months before promoting him, it would delay the onset of his arbitration by a year -- from after the 2015 season to after the 2016 season. That's not a deal-breaker -- in recent years, the Sox called up both Daniel Bard and Will Middlebrooks at times that seemed likely to earn them super-two arbitration status -- but it's certainly a factor.
There's also the matter of having to create a spot on the 40-man roster whenever the team calls up Bradley. A decision to bring him to the big leagues will require that the Sox either trade another player or subject him to waivers (unless someone can be placed on the 60-day disabled list).
Finally, the idea that spring training offers an imperfect setting for player evaluation is meaningful and relevant. Bradley started out like the proverbial house on fire in Double-A last year following his late-June promotion from High-A Salem; eventually, the league adjusted and Bradley struggled down the stretch. After an electrifying start in Double-A -- Bradley hit .384/.446/.507/.953 in his first 18 games after his promotion -- he hit just .218/.340/.404/.744 over the next 43 games. The center fielder will need to show the ability to curtail performance dips against upper levels pitching before a stint in the big leagues would seem advisable.
So, it would be a shock to see Bradley open 2013 in Boston. Still, that merely amplifies the curiosity: What might a fast track look like for the 2011 supplemental first-round pick?
First, it's worth contemplating Bradley's profile:
-- Starred at major college program (University of South Carolina, which won two College World Series with Bradley in center field);
-- Competed at the highest levels as an amateur (Cape League, Team USA);
-- Dominated competition at the start of his pro career in a fashion that a) led to an aggressive initial assignment (High-A Salem to start 2012) and then resulted in a quick promotion (to Double-A Portland) in his first full pro season;
-- Has some tools of sufficient advancement (defense, baserunning) that could allow him to contribute immediately at the big league level even if there might (emphasis on might) be some typical transitional issues while learning to hit major league pitching.
There aren't a ton of precedents for such a player within the Red Sox organization in recent years, given the team's emphasis on both high school position players (Will Middlebrooks, Anthony Rizzo, Ryan Kalish, Lars Anderson, etc.) and/or college players from smaller conferences (Ryan Lavarnway, Kolbrin Vitek, Bryce Brentz, etc.) in the draft. But there are two noteworthy examples of players whose bios at a comparable career point were similar to that of Bradley: Dustin Pedroia (second-round pick in 2004 out of Arizona State) and Jacoby Ellsbury (first-rounder in 2005 out of Oregon State).
(Jed Lowrie, a 2005 supplemental first-rounder out of Stanford, nearly qualifies, though he was not as advanced defensively as Pedroia and Ellsbury, something that helped to keep him on a more deliberate development path even as he was a standout hitter in the minors in 2007.)
Pedroia was pushed more aggressively than any other Red Sox position prospect in recent memory. He was assigned immediately to Single-A Augusta and spent roughly two weeks there before a promotion to High-A Sarasota and he finished the year with a stint in the Arizona Fall League. He then commenced his first full pro season in Double-A and, after a little more than half a season, finished the year in Triple-A.
However, Pedroia faced his first adversity as a 21-year-old in Pawtucket in 2005, hitting a modest .255/.356/.382 there. If there had been any thought of fast-tracking him to an everyday role in the big leagues in 2006, that stopped over the course of that performance. The Sox acquired Mark Loretta in a trade after the 2005 season and ultimately, Pedroia remained in Triple-A for almost all of 2006 before a late-season call-up. He played a total of 286 games in the minors before getting promoted to Boston.
Ellsbury's progression through his first full pro season more closely aligned with that of Bradley. He got a taste of pro ball in 2005, playing for a bit more than a month in Lowell, before spending 2006 (his first full pro season) dominating in High-A and then playing well in Double-A Portland. Then, in 2007, Ellsbury returned to Double-A to start the year and got off to a screaming start, hitting .452 with a .518 OBP and .644 slugging mark in 17 games to force his way to Pawtucket. He spent 50 games in Triple-A before a spate of injuries to Sox outfielders in June 2007 led to his debut. Ellsbury played a total of 238 minor league games (including a stint in the Arizona Fall League after the 2006 season) before his promotion to the big leagues.
It's worth noting that, even though Pedroia was the more advanced player at the start of his professional career, Ellsbury got to the big leagues faster. That fact underscores the fact that there needs to be an opportunity to advance to the big leagues. For a player like Ellsbury (and Bradley), injuries at any of the three outfield spots could lead to a promotion. For Pedroia, there had to be a need at second base (where Loretta remained healthy and largely productive for most of the year) or, if the Sox wanted to play him there, shortstop (where Alex Gonzalez and Alex Cora played well for much of the year).
At this point, given the histories of Ellsbury and Pedroia, the likeliest scenario for Bradley would seem to be at least half a season in the minors. Even that would represent a strikingly fast path to the majors, given that he's played just 138 games professionally.
Nonetheless, player development is an individual phenomenon. And if injury or poor production at any of the three outfield spots forces the Sox to seek upgrades in the outfield in the early months of the season, if Bradley builds upon his spectacular start in spring training, he could accelerate that timetable. Certainly, he's done nothing but create favorable impressions to this point.
"Every time he's stepped on the field, he's done something very positive," Farrell told reporters. "For a young player, he's sound fundamentally. Defensively he takes outstanding routes to some difficult plays in the outfield, even in the early going here. And he's hit both left-handed and right-handed pitching. As we said yesterday, for a young player to make a positive impression in camp, he's gotten off to a very good start."
But for now, it remains just that: A start. Bradley is doing everything in his capacity to give himself a 2013 big league ETA. Still, if the history of Ellsbury and Pedroia is any indication, he almost surely faces more growth in the minors, at least to start the year, before he leapfrogs several other prospects and reaches the big leagues.