FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Jackie Bradley Jr. is presenting the Red Sox with the kind of dilemma that they've almost never faced. Almost.
The question of whether or not to commit to a rookie on Opening Day -- with the service time implications that came with such a decision -- is one that hasn't come up for the team for a handful of years. But it has cropped up before.
And so, at a time when Bradley has now made an overpowering case that he has the best chance to impact the Sox as an everyday player while David Ortiz is out (most recently, with a 2-for-2 game that included a pinch-hit single and a triple off a left-hander on Monday against the Orioles), it is worth revisiting some recent instances when the Sox have been presented with a choice between talented youth and long-term contractual control.
Perhaps the most compelling point of comparison (albeit a slightly imperfect one) that the Sox faced about whether or not to call up a player for Opening Day occurred when the team had to decide whether or not to commit to Dustin Pedroia for the start of the 2007 season. The question was one that the team faced in the offseason rather than during spring training, but its decision-making process then has implications for how the Sox might proceed with Bradley now.
With Pedroia in 2007, there were two issues in play.
The first was uncertainty about whether Pedroia would give the team its best chance to win by being an everyday player. He had a minor league track record that had seen him hit for average with good on-base percentages while playing terrific defense at every stage of his development. But in his first big league cameo at the end of 2006, he famously struggled, hitting .191 with a .258 OBP and .303 slugging mark.
And so, the Sox had to decide whether Pedroia represented their best chance to win, particularly given that they had credible alternatives to him at second base. Mark Loretta, an All-Star with the Sox in 2006, was willing to come back on a one-year, $1 million deal. So the team needed to figure out whether or not Pedroia gave the team its best shot of being a playoff team, at a time when his abilities and minor league track record said he could be an impact player but there was no such evidence from the big league regular season to suggest the same.
How did the Sox make the determination regarding ability with Pedroia, particularly given the very real possibility that there would be an additional period of struggle during his acclimation to the big leagues?
"There's really a threshold question," Red Sox GM Ben Cherington explained (in an interview for "Down on the Farm" that will air on Sunday morning on WEEI). "You can never be certain how a guy is going to perform when he's playing every day in the big leagues for the first time, but if we feel that confident that a player has the skills necessary to be a big league player, the mental toughness to get through an adversity period and the survival skills -- what I mean by that is, if you know a guy's going to play good defense, make decisions on the bases, he's not going to swing and miss a ton -- there are things players do to help them survive that period of transition to the big leagues even if they're not hitting right away. Pedroia certainly had those skills.
"We knew that if there was a transition period offensively, he was going to play good defense, he was going to make good decisions on the bases, he was going to make contact and he was going to be mentally tough enough. You layer that on top of the fact that he'd always performed through the minor leagues and then you get to the point where there's real value in committing to a young player if you believe in him. At some point, the best way to build the best teams is to have young impactful players on the roster.
"The only way to do that is, at some point, you've got to commit to them. If you feel confident enough that they have the survival skills to get through that transition period, there's value to committing to them even if you know there might be a transition period in terms of their offensive performance. That was a lot of what we had talked about with Pedroia. Every player is different, so I can't say that applies in the exact same way with other players, other positions, but that was the general conversation back in 2006-07 when we were going through that with Pedroia."
And then, of course, there was the service time question. If the team re-signed Loretta, or if it committed to, say, Alex Cora and a veteran right-handed complement at the start of the season and given Pedroia a bit more time to get off to a strong start to the year in Triple-A, it could have pushed back the 23-year-old's big league service clock. Pedroia spent the last 41 days of the 2006 season in the majors; had he been sent to the minors for the first (roughly) two months of 2007, the team would have been able to gain another season of contractual control over him, meaning that his big league service time would have been delayed to the point where he wouldn't be eligible for free agency until after the 2013 season, as opposed to the 2012 season.
It wouldn't have been an outlandish approach. Again, Pedroia had struggled in 2006, and the team had a credible alternative. There was a very good chance that the value presented by a full season of Pedroia's contractual control in 2013 would outweigh what he might do at the start of 2007.
But there was also a chance that Pedroia represented the team's best option to start 2007 (at least that is how Red Sox front office members felt), and there was value to committing to a player through a period of potential failure and seeing if he could impact the team by becoming the sort of talent whom team officials projected him to be.
And so, it is worth asking again: How did the Red Sox evaluate the decision with management of Pedroia's long-term contractual control at that time?
"There's a lot of factors involved in these decisions," said Cherington. "Certainly service control is one of them -- sometimes -- but I think in Boston, given how meaningful every year is, I think we probably generally keep a simpler standard, and that is: If we feel a player is really ready to help us win and there's an opportunity for them to play everyday then that's going to drive the decision more than anything else. It doesn't mean that the other factors disappear completely, but those things tend to drive the decision more than anything else."
Obviously, the team committed to Pedroia in 2007. He ended up being a player of tremendous significance, struggling desperately in April (even while he displayed the very survival skills that Cherington referenced, playing good defense, making good decisions on the bases, not swinging and missing too much) but then putting together an exceptional May that vaulted him to Rookie of the Year status.
The Sox won the AL East by two games. Had they not had committed to Pedroia at the start of the year, been ever so slightly worse (enough to open the door for the Yankees to win the division) and entered the playoffs as the wild card, had they not been the home team in the seven-game ALCS, would they have advanced to and won the World Series?
Maybe. Maybe not. It's unknowable.
But the Sox made the decision then to go with their best team. It would seem that no one in the organization lost any sleep about it subsequently, unless it was while accidentally rolling over on his or her hand and getting conked in the face by a giant World Series ring. (Eds. note: Probably a mistake to sleep with one of those things on a finger.)
That is the sort of dilemma that the Sox now face with Bradley, who wouldn't require quite as extreme a service-time delay as Pedroia would have in 2007 to set back his free-agent eligibility.
-- If the Sox call up Bradley on Opening Day and never send him back to the minors, he will become eligible for free agency after six seasons in the majors, as a 28-year-old after the 2018 season.
-- If the Sox wait until April 12 to call up Bradley, leaving him off the big league roster for the first nine games of the year, they will have delayed the start of his service time clock enough to guarantee that he would not be eligible for free agency until after the 2019 season, as a 29-year-old.
-- If the Sox call up Bradley on Opening Day and then option him back down to the minors for 20 days at any point in the 2013 season -- a very real possibility if David Ortiz returns and the team has a healthy Jacoby Ellsbury, Shane Victorino and Jonny Gomes and/or Daniel Nava -- he would not be eligible for free agency until after the 2019 season.
Ultimately, Sox decision makers see the very, very obvious truth that starting the year with Bradley as an everyday left fielder, aside Ellsbury and Victorino, gives them their most talented team. Even if he struggles, his impact on defense could be a difference maker for a team that may have to win through run prevention. Because of his outstanding makeup, the team has no concerns that Bradley's long-term development would be jeopardized if he struggles at the start of his career.
Ultimately, what the team must weigh is the risk associated with not calling up Bradley for the first nine games of the year vs. the risk that, if it opens the year with him on the roster, that there will never be a healthy enough combination of regulars (Ortiz, Ellsbury, Victorino and Gomes or Nava) to justify sending him back down.
But for that to happen, Bradley will also have to be performing at a high level. If he does struggle, regardless of the health of Ortiz and the other outfielders, then the Sox almost certainly would send him down for a spell anyway, thus delaying the start of his free agency.
In other words, there's a very reasonable chance that the Sox can have their cake and eat it, too -- that they can have their best team without Ortiz (one that includes Bradley) to start the year, but then delay his service time enough to keep him for an extra year.
And if he's too good for that to happen? Well, the team can live with that when 2019 rolls around. After all, it worked with Pedroia, who not only remained on the roster for all of 2007 but who signed a long-term extension to remain in Boston. For that matter, no one batted an eye about the team's "failure" to manage Jacoby Ellsbury's service time at the start of the 2008 season, even when the team could have made the case that he didn't have a clear everyday role in the big leagues (with Manny Ramirez, Coco Crisp and J.D. Drew on the roster) even after he proved a World Series dynamo.
If the Sox don't open the year with Bradley and miss the playoffs by a game, it would be hard for anyone associated with the team to live with that consequence. If he performs so well that he accelerates his timetable for free agency, that's another matter.
No decision has been announced yet, but increasingly, the team's belief in Bradley seems to align with how it felt about players like Pedroia and Ellsbury in the past. It committed to them in those years, and soon, it seems, there is an excellent chance that it will do the same with Bradley for Opening Day.