FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Don't worry about Jackie Bradley Jr.
On the verge of his first spring training as the starting center fielder on the defending World Series champions, the 23-year-old outfielder carries himself as a calm, cool and collected player ready to fill the shoes of a highly successful predecessor.
One of the qualities of great athletes is that they remain motivated even when opportunity appears to be a given. Such is the case with the 2011 first-round pick, as he reminded everyone again on Tuesday at JetBlue Park.
Jacoby Ellsbury is gone, taking the free agent route to the Bronx to play for the Yankees in 2014. The job of starting center fielder for the Red Sox appears to have fallen right in Bradley's lap. But he insisted on Tuesday that he is by no means taking that for granted.
"You're always trying to earn your spot and earn your stripes, so I'm constantly in that battle of trying to compete," Bradley said. "I think that's the best way of explaining it, I'm not trying to replace anybody. I'm just trying to be myself, trying to work hard [and] play hard."
Last spring at this time, Bradley was the star of the show, winning a spot on the Opening Day roster at Yankee Stadium. Everyone and their brother said Bradley had done more than enough to prove he belonged in the bigs at 22. After all, he batted .441/.521/.645 in 26 games (14 starts) in spring training. He had two homers and 12 RBIs en route to a 1.165 OPS.
But Bradley struggled. He started the year batting just .097 (2-for-31) with six walks but 12 strikeouts. At the end of April, he was sent to Triple-A, where he would bat .275 with a .374 OBP, 10 homers and 41 walks in 80 games at Pawtucket. He showed a solid approach and good understanding of the strike zone along with the standout defensive abilities that made him the leading candidate to replace Ellsbury in center, with better reads and an arm that is stronger.
"I take a lot of pride in [defense]," Bradley said. "I've always played center field. I feel normal out there, just because it's something that I have worked on for so long. I think of it as fun out there, being able to track down fly balls. I always used to watch the 'Top 10' plays and try to emulate those guys. Instead of doing that one play, I always wanted to make it back-to-back, so that was incorporated into my shagging abilities before games to prepare."
Having received a taste of Boston last year gives Bradley the chance to feel more at ease this year in spring training.
"Yeah, I feel more comfortable, knowing the routines and knowing what you're going to go through," Bradley said. "I feel like I've got that experience a little bit last year, and I'm looking forward to being more comfortable as the year goes on."
Now, there's no hiding and Bradley isn't looking for any cover, either. It's one of the qualities that attracted the Red Sox to him in 2011 when he was at the University of South Carolina, the leader of a team that won back-to-back College World Series titles.
"It's kind of hard to be under the radar when you're in Boston," he said. "Best believe I'm being watched, I know I am. That's a good thing, though. I'm ready to embrace it and move on from it."
There's no question that if Bradley is to be a productive everyday player offensively, he must find ways of making contact, especially in the big leagues. He fanned 75 times in 320 at-bats for the PawSox and 31 times in just 95 at-bats in Boston. What did he learn from last season?
"That you are going to struggle," he said. "But that's good. That way I'll be able to overcome it and gain some confidence from it. I feel like going through those battles and those fights [is] going to only make me better.
"Being more consistent. Taking what the pitchers are giving me and executing."
Then Bradley said what fans in Boston want to hear.
"[I] know the experiences that other players have gone through," Bradley said, showing the perspective that belies his age of 23. "I'm a pretty mentally tough guy. I know I can take my bumps and my bruises. I'll be fine, I promise you. I'm going to get things back on track. I've been able to hit at every single level so I'm ready to prove that I can do it at this level as well."
Fans want to hear that. They know not every center fielder is going to be Fred Lynn right out of the gate. They realize that this is a deep roster that -- even without Ellsbury at the top of the order -- has plenty of pop returning. There's Shane Victorino, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Mike Napoli, Xander Bogaerts and Daniel Nava.
Add in the fact that Bradley won't be taking Ellsbury's spot at the top of the lineup and you understand better why Bradley talks like a man who is confident and relaxed.
After all, there's a recent blueprint for easing the pressure on a young potential Red Sox leadoff batter in what they did with/for Ellsbury when he slumped in 2008 and '09, and Bradley can take his time getting a feel for the right approach and right way to work his way on base as much as possible.
One person who feels very confident Bradley won't get overwhelmed is his manager, John Farrell.
"He's shown throughout his entire minor league career that there's plate discipline there. He ran into pitching that was at the big league level different than what he faced at the minor league level where they're able to command the ball on a certain part of the plate more consistently. I thought he made some adjustments when he came back to us. Nothing abnormal in a normal transition for a young player," Farrell said of Bradley's big league struggles last year. "I can't begin to speculate numbers-wise but I think he's going to put up quality at-bats, he's going to play very good defense and really stabilize the middle of our outfield."
While not nearly as fast as Ellsbury, Bradley also believes that, as a keen observer of the game, he can make an impact on the bases.
"Run your tail off," Bradley said Tuesday. "[Ellsbury] was really fast. He had that God-given ability where he had the strength of speed. I'm more of an instinctual guy, so picking my right times and being able to execute and just knowing pitchers and catchers that you can steal off of and not really forcing the envelope."
In three seasons in Boston's system, he is 31-for-49 in steal attempts, a rate that he realizes leaves room for improvement.
"A great percentage would be 100 percent. How likely that will happen I don't know. I don't know how many bags. You kind of get what you're given. I can run 50 million times, but if I only get five (steals), that ain't too good of a percentage."
In essence, what we learned Tuesday, without Bradley having taken a single swing in a game yet this spring, is that he's wise beyond his years.
"You have to be a student of the game. If you don't, you're not going to learn. And when you do, you're going to figure out, 'Why didn't I learn this a lot sooner?' Well, it's because you weren't listening," said Bradley. "I really pride myself on listening and trying to pick up on the games a lot faster, that way it'll come to me a lot more easier."
After his demotion to Pawtucket in late April, Bradley never stopped learning.
"Progressively I got better," Bradley said. "That adjustment period, you get more confidence knowing that you can accomplish certain goals and execute. You get more accustomed and once you get more comfortable, things start flowing and hopefully I've made that adjustment. We'll find all that out in the upcoming months."