NEW YORK -- In retrospect, the idea that the Red Sox had the opportunity to draft Jackie Bradley Jr. in 2011 seems hard to fathom. After all, his ascent to the major leagues has followed a trajectory akin to a human cannonball, a total of 138 games of minor league apprenticeship proving sufficient to make him the first position player from his draft class to reach the big leagues.
The 2011 draft was considered one of the best and deepest in recent years, perhaps one of the best ever. Even so, for Bradley to go from being the best player on the best college team in the country, to status as the No. 40 overall selection that year, to someone who raced past the field and into the majors is little short of remarkable.
Yet in some ways, the Sox are doubly fortunate that Bradley came into their organization. For under a slightly different set of circumstances, Bradley could have found himself -- just as was the case on Monday -- making his big league debut in Yankee Stadium, but wearing the iconic uniform of the home team rather than the Red Sox' visiting grays.
It remains to be seen what Bradley does, either this year or in his career. Even so, the circumstances that led him to the Sox -- rather than to their arch nemesis -- merit reconsideration in light of his dazzlingly rapid ascent to the big leagues. For if his performance on Monday (a run-saving catch, three walks including a critical one against one of the top pitchers in the game, a game-changing hustle play on the bases) is any indication, the Sox landed a player whose precocious feel for the game has a chance to impact them for some time to come.
'IF YOU PUT ON THOSE PINSTRIPES, I'M PROBABLY NOT GOING TO COME SEE YOU PLAY'
In high school, Bradley was not a draft prospect. His game was predicated mostly on intelligence and the repetitions to forge unparalleled instincts, but the raw physical tools that he possessed weren't those of an early-round pick. He was still small, unimposing on the field, and he wasn't a prodigious power hitter or a pitcher who was lighting up the radar gun. He was less interested in single-handedly winning a game than he was in performing within the parameters of successful team baseball.
"Jack didn't hit much over .300 in high school. Most kids that are stars in high school, prospects, superstars, are generally not going to do what the team needs to be done or what the situation calls for," explained Donnie Brittingham, Bradley's assistant coach at Prince George (Va.) High School and the man whom Bradley calls his baseball mentor. "As a junior or senior in high school, if there was a runner on second base and the runner needed to be moved, he would ground out, roll over to get the runner over.
"Most guys are not going to do those things. They're looking to put up big numbers and those are the kids that are drafted. In high school, a superstar is going to hit .400 or .500 with 20 home runs. Jack learned the game and took it to heart almost to a fault.
"Of course, I was always worried that baseball people don't always see the game the same," he continued. "It was important for the coaches to understand who he is and the fact that he was this complete ballplayer. Most people see someone roll over on a pitch on the outer half and think it's terrible. But if you know he understands what he's doing, you gain appreciation for a groundout."
Bradley wasn't highly recruited out of high school (though he did end up getting a scholarship offer from the University of South Carolina), and he was likewise little noticed as a draft prospect. Indeed, Bradley and Brittingham recalled just two teams expressing any interest in him as a high school player. One was the Brewers.
The other? Cue the "Imperial March" from Star Wars.
"Jackie Bradley Jr., as a high school amateur, was a late bloomer as a prospect," Yankees area scout Scott Lovekamp, who caught Bradley playing for an AAU team, wrote in an email. "The one thing he could really do was throw, and his summer coaches raved about his ability to play center field. At the time, he wasn't the runner that he is today. He also improved over time as a hitter. The one resounding impression was that Jackie as a high school player was extremely confident and driven yet also very humble. He was the type of player that you could see play one time and dismiss because of the profile concerns (below average run times for a center fielder and below average power for a corner outfielder), but you would love him if you saw him every day because of his baseball instincts and intangibles.
"Many of the other big schools in the South passed on him, but South Carolina took a chance because one of his summer coaches told the assistant at South Carolina that Jackie was the greatest kid he had ever coached, and also told him not to look at the stopwatch but to watch him play center field," Lovekamp added. "Our impression of him with the Yankees was confirmed one day after his senior year when he showed up at our Northeast Area Code Tryout at his high school field in Virginia. The Area Code Tryouts are for juniors going into their senior year, but Jackie showed up because a bunch of his teammates were there. Matt Hyde, our scout who runs the [Area Code] team, wanted to put him on the club until Jackie informed him that he had already graduated from high school. If that had happened, incidentally, he would have joined an outfield that already had a kid from New Jersey named Mike Trout. The impressions that he made that day were positive -- good energy and enthusiasm, a kid that you could tell really loved the game."
Brittingham, who'd spent most of his life rooting for the Red Sox and loathing everything to do with the Yankees, was horrified.
"Back when the Yankees came down and were looking at him in high school, I told him, 'If you put on those pinstripes, I'm probably not going to come see you play. I'll pull for you everyday to go 4-for-4 and lose 162 games,' " he said. "It would have been hard for me to embrace."
It didn't come to that. The outfielder hadn't dismissed the idea of turning pro coming out of high school, but he and his family placed a considerable emphasis on the value of a college education. It was not going to easy to convince him to forgo the University of South Carolina.
"I was in high school. It was kind of a team workout," said Bradley. "The Yankees were looking at me, and asked me, 'How serious are you about school?' I said, 'Pretty serious.' They said, 'Is there any way you think we can get you out?' I was like, 'Well, unless it's life-changing money, no. I'm going to school.' "
The Yankees didn't take him. Nor did the Brewers, the only other team to work him out as a high school player. And so, there was no money-on-the-table opportunity that Bradley faced, no hard choice. Bradley remained undrafted in 2008, and in many ways, undiscovered. He went to the University of South Carolina to fulfill his scholarship.
LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE: THE DRAFT SLIDE
It took little time for Bradley to garner notice once he started his college career. Whereas high school players typically are appreciated for putting up Nintendo numbers and showing off-the-charts physical tools against far weaker competition, at a prominent college program, players are scouted for their performance in the context of games.
And it was in that regard that Bradley excelled. He hit .349 with a .431 OBP and 11 homers en route to honors as a Freshman All-American while playing excellent defense in right field. In no time, he'd put himself squarely on the radar of scouts, including Red Sox area scout Quincy Boyd.
"During his freshman and sophomore years," Boyd wrote in an e-mail, "it was obviously pretty special."
His freshman year had represented a strong first impression. Yet he was even better as a sophomore. He hit .368, got on base at an obscene .473 clip, launched 13 homers and not only played not merely good but exceptional defense in center field. He embraced the opportunity to play for one of the most prominent programs in the country, showing comfort and confidence in everything he did on the field, regardless of the caliber of competition.
"It was like a roller coaster that never went down. I just kept getting better," said Bradley. "I would say at the end of my sophomore year, that was when I hit my stride."
That was when Bradley took off to national prominence and played his way to College World Series MVP honors, a performance that the Red Sox were certain would render him unavailable to them after his junior season.
The Sox, thanks to the free agent departures of Victor Martinez (Tigers) and Adrian Beltre (Rangers), had four picks in the first round, but while Martinez had netted them the No. 19 overall pick -- the team's highest selection in more than a decade -- the team had little optimism that Bradley would be on the board when it was time to make a pick.
"He'd had a pretty impressive two years and going into his junior year we really didn't expect him to be a factor for us with our initial pick, much less pick No. 40," admitted Boyd, the area scout who had spent the most time watching Bradley at USC.
"We didn't think he'd be at 19. We definitely thought he would be gone before 19, but we also were realistic in our view of the 2011 draft," concurred Red Sox director of amateur scouting Amiel Sawdaye. "There was such depth in college pitching, and you just never know what's going to happen with college pitching."
At a meeting in January to identify the players whom the Sox would prioritize as scouting targets for their first four picks (Nos. 19, 26, 36, 40) in the 2011 draft, Boyd's glowing scouting reports put Bradley firmly on the team's scouting radar, even with the caveat that the likelihood of his landing with the team was low.
As the 2011 season unfolded, two things happened. First, as Sawdaye suggested, a number of top college arms had surpassingly good performances. Advanced pitchers with potentially short paths to big league rotations kept moving up draft boards.
Meanwhile, the opposite transpired with Bradley. His performance (.259 with a .361 OBP and .468 slugging mark in 37 games) was the worst of his college career.
The causes created rampant speculation among scouts. Was he dipping his front shoulder and trying to force power out of his swing instead of sticking with the same confident all-fields approach that characterized his first years? Was he simply struggling with "draft-itis," in which the reality of playing for position in the draft positioned him to struggle?
Still, the Sox weren't going to be deterred. Boyd's conviction in the outfielder -- coupled with a long history of having seen him excel not just at South Carolina but also while playing in the Cape League (2009) and for USA Baseball (2010) -- suggested to the team that it might have an unusual opportunity to select an extremely advanced college position player at a spot where he had no business being available in the draft.
"We stayed on him realizing the history and what he had done before along with the excellent make-up this kid has," he said.
Moreover, Bradley's all-around game continued to make a positive impression on the Red Sox cross-checkers who parachuted in and out of South Carolina. Even though his numbers weren't there, Bradley continued to show a feel for the finer points of the game -- just as he did in helping to change the dynamic of Monday's game despite going 0-for-2 in his big league debut.
"When you watched him, he still did a lot of good things, a lot of things that you could see on Opening Day," noted Sawdaye. "He had great balance at the plate, recognized pitches early. ... You'd still go there and there were things you liked to see. He played defense at a different level. He practiced defense at a different level. He played hard through every game, every slump he was in. He was still running hard down the line, running out pop-ups -- the little things. You knew, even if this guy is going through a slump, we know what we've seen out of the swing and that's what we're going to go with, and the other stuff is still there."
The impact of his struggles on his draft status was compounded in the middle of the year when Bradley suffered a wrist injury while diving for a ball against Vanderbilt. He missed much of the final two months of the regular season -- the period that led up to the draft.
He would not be seen on the field again before the draft. That denied him both the opportunity for a hot streak that might have brought his statistical profile back in line with previous norms and led to uncertainty on the part of teams about his health.
Was there a chance that his swing mechanics could be impacted in a way that would alter his long-term outlook? Might the 2011 season represent evidence that, with the benefit of scouting reports, Bradley wasn't going to hit enough to be more than a fourth outfielder?
Those questions were in play leading up to the draft.
"There was a lot of risk assessment involved," said Sawdaye. "He was up on our board pretty high. We'd always been on him. But it was a significant wrist injury and you didn't know how he was going to come back. Because of that, because you hadn't seen him come back and play before the draft and prove that he was fine, that he has power, that his swing is fine, it's hard to jump up and take that guy with one of your top selections, your first pick, especially when you have guys at the top of your board that you feel good about."
Brittingham fidgeted uncomfortably while watching the draft in South Carolina with Bradley and his family. He could not understand why the Sox -- the team for whom he'd rooted dating back to the Impossible Dream season of 1967 -- were passing on the opportunity to draft a player with tremendously advanced skills.
"I will be honest, when we passed over him at 19 and again at 26, I was upset," said Brittingham. "When the first round ended, I'll be honest -- for one of the first times ever, I was upset with my team."
Of course, the Sox' decision to pass on Bradley did not quite reflect how the organization viewed him. Despite his injury-marred season and his decline in offensive productivity prior to it, the team still considered him a first-round talent.
Indeed, according to one team source, the team had him ranked somewhere around No. 20 on its draft board -- behind Matt Barnes, whom it took with the No. 19 overall pick that year, but ahead of catcher Blake Swihart (No. 26) and left-hander Henry Owens (whom it selected with the No. 36 pick).
But there was strategy in play. Because the Sox anticipated that teams would not be aggressive in selecting a player coming back from injury with its top pick, they felt they could wait and take other players who might not remain on the board by the time subsequent picks arrived.
And so, the team took Barnes -- the player at the top of its board -- with its first pick, a safe bet in terms of performance, stuff and signability. With its next selection, the team made an aggressive play for Swihart, a high schooler with a big ceiling but considerable questions about whether he could be convinced to pass on the opportunity to play at Texas.
Once the No. 36 pick rolled around and Bradley was still on the board, the team's thinking was guided largely by the question of whether the three teams (Rangers, Rays, Phillies) picking before the Sox' next selection at No. 40 were more likely to take Owens, a dominant high school pitcher in Southern California, or Bradley. The team felt that it risked losing Owens if it waited, but did not get the sense that any of those other three teams was likely to take Bradley.
That assessment proved accurate. Bradley remained on the board at the No. 40 pick, well below where he'd been forecast to be selected at the start of his junior year. The Sox were elated.
"When you sit there as a scouting director and you have to make a selection, you make it as an organization, but it gives you a lot more comfort as an area scout like Quincy -- a veteran guy -- with conviction, who didn't run away from him and who really felt like everything we saw was just a byproduct of a bad year," said Sawdaye. "Quincy stuck with him. And I think if it were up to Quincy, we would have taken him with our first pick. That's good. That's what you need. It makes you feel more comfortable when you have an area guy who walks in there and says I'd still love to take this guy with 19."
'EVERYTHING WORKED OUT THE WAY IT WAS SUPPOSED TO'
For his part, Bradley didn't lament the notion that he slid. To the contrary, he and his family (not to mention Brittingham) were likewise thrilled to see where he went.
"If you're drafted in the first round supplemental, not many people can dream about being drafted. So I felt very honored, even with my struggles, to be drafted in the first round," said Bradley. "That kind of tells what kind of impact I had my first two years of college. I was very thankful for the opportunity."
It was a strange and in many respects unlikely process that resulted in Bradley landing with the Red Sox. Plenty of people around the Red Sox are aware that, under slightly altered circumstances, they never would have had the chance to take him with their first pick that year, let alone their fourth.
"You have to be pretty lucky," noted Boyd, "and it turned out we were."
But while members of the organization acknowledge their good fortune at having had the opportunity to take him -- indeed, it was a topic that was mentioned unprompted on Opening Day -- Bradley said that he never has taken the time to play the what-if game, to wonder what it would have been like had he turned pro out of high school or had the junior year struggle not occurred.
And why should he? He is less than 20 months into a pro career that already has him in the big leagues, enjoying the opportunity to play the game he loves on a grand stage. There is no need to wonder what life might have been like with the Yankees, no need to question what might have happened in the absence of his junior year injuries or struggles.
There is only now. For Bradley, that is plenty.
"Everything worked out the way it was supposed to," said Bradley. "I'm glad it did."