A case can be made that Jacoby Ellsbury was the Red Sox’ best player during the regular season in 2013. And so the question must be asked: If, as expected, the center fielder does leave in free agency, is it realistic to think that the Red Sox can contend if they replace him with Jackie Bradley Jr.?
The question revolves largely around what kind of impact the Red Sox might realistically be able to get from Bradley and what they got last year from Ellsbury. But before exploring that question, it’s necessary to note that this isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison.
If the Red Sox let Ellsbury walk and elect to replace him with Bradley in center field, it will have a ripple effect for what the team does at its other unresolved positions. Given that Bradley represents something of an exercise in uncertainty, the team would look to raise the bar in terms of what it does elsewhere on the field -- something that would become easier if the team had an everyday center fielder making $500,000.
So, if Bradley is starting in center, the team likely would have both the motivation and the money to make two significant moves during the offseason -- perhaps something along the lines of signing both Mike Napoli and Brian McCann, perhaps something like signing Carlos Beltran (with a corresponding shift of Daniel Nava and/or Mike Carp to first base) and re-signing Jarrod Saltalamacchia, perhaps a signing of one major free agent and a trade for another impact player who would represent an upgrade somewhere on the field.
The precise dimensions of the corresponding moves are unknown. That said, it’s fair to say that a Bradley-for-Ellsbury passing of the baton would not happen in a vacuum.
Meanwhile, it’s worth asking: What is Ellsbury?
The 30-year-old center fielder is coming off a year that was as good as any in his career aside from his ridiculous Mike Trout-caliber 2011 season. He found a way to impact the game in every way, with a strong year in the batter’s box (.298/.355/.426, with his OBP tied for the second best of his career and his slugging mark and OPS both ranking as the second best of his career), was the biggest game-changer in baseball on the bases (52 steals in 56 attempts) while saving (according to John Dewan’s Fielding Bible) 13 runs with his center field defense, the sixth-best mark in baseball at his position. The composite view of the free agent is of a good/above average (but not great) hitter who helps a team win games in every facet.
But what is Bradley? To what degree does his .189 average, .270 OBP and .337 mark in 107 major league plate appearances represent who he is as a player?
Recent conversations with a dozen talent evaluators across the game offered a fairly consistent picture of Bradley. The 23-year-old is viewed as a very good defensive center fielder -- multiple evaluators believe that his defense is already better than Ellsbury’s, given his unusual ability to run in a straight line (without looking back) to the spot where the ball typically is going to land -- who has a chance to be a Gold Glove-caliber defender at some point.
Offensively, his pitch recognition and understanding of the strike zone suggests a future leadoff or No. 2 hitter who will hit for average, record above-average on-base percentages and hit for a little bit of power, with line-to-line doubles and some pull power that could translate to double-digit home run totals. He cleared the fences 13 times in 2013, though that proved a bit of a mixed blessing, as his pull power (all of those homers were to right field) came at the expense at times of the aforementioned line-to-line success he enjoyed in 2012, meaning he compromised average/OBP for power. Yet he still saw the ball well, and seemed to have a growing sense of which pitches he could drive -- there simply were times when he missed them or became jumpy.
He’s an above-average baserunner as well, though his impact is felt more on balls in play than in stolen bases, and it would be foolish to suggest he could match Ellsbury’s impact on the bases. Still, it would not be a surprise if, eventually, he posts higher OBPs and a higher slugging percentage than Ellsbury, though that may not happen if he’s the Sox’ everyday center fielder in 2014.
Some scouting thoughts:
“He’s a potential leadoff or two-hole hitter with on-base skill and some power. I think he can be better than Michael Bourn.”
“He can hit but he’s not a .320 hitter. He runs OK but he’s not a burner. He’s a good center fielder. That’s a very good player who can help a team in every way.”
“He’s major league-ready as a hitter, but in 2014 he won’t be the guy he’ll be in 2016.”
“Despite a tough debut, an above-average everyday center fielder.”
“The more you watch him, the more you think he’s really good. He can play. I’ll be shocked if he’s not a vital contributor in the big leagues for 10 years.”
Unquestionably, Bradley struggled in his first exposure to the big leagues. But that fact obscures the reality that he was on a very atypical development path -- players aren't supposed to be ready for the big leagues in their second full professional seasons.
Indeed, of the position players selected in the first five rounds of the 2011 draft (considered one of the most stocked ever), just five reached the majors last year:
Anthony Rendon (2B/3B/SS): first round (No. 3) -- 98 games, .265/.329/.396
Kolten Wong (2B): first round (No. 22) -- 32 games, .153/.194/.169
Jackie Bradley Jr. (OF): first round supplemental (No. 40) -- 37 games, .189/.280/.337
Brad Miller (SS/2B/3B): second round -- 76 games, .265/.318/.418
Cody Asche (3B): fourth round -- 50 games, .235/.302/.389
Struggle was the norm for players who were pushed as aggressively as Bradley. Near the end of the year, Bradley was mindful of the rarity of his career path. He understood that it's atypical for a player, one year after opening his first full pro season in High-A, to break camp in a major league Opening Day lineup.
"I think of being up here at this stage, being up here so quickly, it's just a blessing," Bradley said in September. "It's great to know that you did something to get to where you are, or else you wouldn't be here. That's what I'm just thankful for. Hopefully it continues.
"You've got to put it in perspective, go with the punches," he added. "You're going to have some down time, some up time, but overall, know that you're trying to get better every single day and keep working at it because this game is going to humble you for sure. That's the way I just tried to take it -- keep working and it will all pan out."
That points to a longer-term view that seems reasonable. If Bradley won't be in 2014 what he will be in 2016, it is obvious yet important to suggest that what he was in 2013 isn't what he will be in 2016 -- or, in all likelihood, 2014. Why?
The team believes that his struggles were comparable, in some ways, to those of Dustin Pedroia in the second baseman's introduction to the big leagues at the end of 2006 and the start of 2007. In both instances, top college performers from big programs (Bradley from the University of South Carolina, where he won College World Series MVP honors as a sophomore, Pedroia from Arizona State) found the jump to the majors challenging while just two years removed from college.
But Pedroia was able to make sense of those struggles in relatively short order and emerge, by May 2007, as an excellent player. The team is hopeful that, based on some of the adjustments that he showed to what proved a considerable early season vulnerability to fastballs on the hands, Bradley follows a similar pattern, while his secondary skills (defense, baserunning, plate discipline) permit him to have some positive impact when his next major league opportunity arrives.
"I think defensively, he's an everyday major leaguer now," Sox manager John Farrell said earlier this month. "I think we all recognize that the first year for most players, particularly position players, there's a transition he's going to go through, and along the way comes some bumps in the road. I think Jackie went through those. The one thing we did see was, as pitchers attacked him a certain way, it wasn't as evident as it was when he first came up. So, he's a better player today for what he's gone through this year. You know, the overall evaluation of him has not changed from the time he entered the organization. We just know this is kind of a natural progression that he has to go through and feel like he's very capable of being an everyday guy."
That perspective was one that the prospect embraced as well. As much as Bradley struggled in 2013, the center fielder believes that the experience will serve as a platform to better things going forward.
"I wouldn't say it was a bad year," he added. "I just felt like there was a lot I could improve on. I guess I felt like there should be more consistency throughout as opposed to going through the tougher times a lot more often. I've got to minimize those as much as I can. With the whole jumping [levels] thing, I'm not making excuses about that. That's not an excuse. Baseball is baseball. You're going to get better, and the people you play are going to get better. You've got to keep grinding, keep working. You'll get your time. That's the way I look at it. Whenever I get the opportunity, I'll be ready. I'll keep working to do that."
Despite a disjointed minor league season in which he got called up four times, was sent down three times, and landed on the disabled list in Pawtucket twice, he still hit .275/.374/.469 with 10 homers in 80 games in Triple-A. Given that Triple-A represented a level appropriate to someone with his experience, that offensive line probably is a better indicator of where he is in his career. And the fact that his numbers in Pawtucket were consistent with the ones he posted in the second half of 2012 in Double-A Portland (.271/.373/.437 with six homers in 61 games) suggests a decent gauge of the type of performer that the Red Sox hope to have.
After all, if Bradley eventually posts those sorts of lines in the big leagues, that would make him a player with better on-base skills than Ellsbury, more power than Ellsbury (except for the center fielder's 2011 performance, of course) and quite possibly better defense than Ellsbury. A team would trade that package for Ellsbury's superior baserunning ability, particularly given that, for the next few years, Bradley is likely to earn about 2-3 percent of Ellsbury's annual salary.
But in 2014? Yes, the Sox would expect a dropoff from Bradley to Ellsbury. After all, Bradley would be integrated to an everyday job in the big leagues at the bottom of the order.
Still, while the team certainly won't close the door on the possibility of a return by Ellsbury -- something that would give the Sox tremendous outfield depth with Bradley likely back in Triple-A but ready to fill in at any of the three outfield spots in case of injury -- there seems to be an expectation that Bradley can be a good enough player in the big leagues next year that the team could make the necessary moves elsewhere on the team to offset the loss of one of their best players.
Whether or not that actually proves to be the case remains to be seen. There is, naturally, a difference in going from a veteran with a fairly well-established baseline performance level and track record to a prospect who is working toward his eventual big league ceiling. But the Red Sox feel that they know enough about Bradley to treat his potential integration into the lineup as a viable scenario while planning for 2014.