BOSTON (CBS) — With one week to go until the games begin for real, the Jackie Bradley Jr. debate just won’t go away.
The argument on one side is really simple: Let Bradley start the season in the minors for 11 days, and guarantee he’ll be under Red Sox control for an extra season. That is, you can have Jackie Bradley Jr. on the Red Sox for all but 11 days this season, and you will have him for an extra 162 games when he is in the prime of his career. It’s that simple.
Or is it? Despite the fact that common sense would dictate that keeping the kid in the minors for less than two weeks is the right decision, the push from fans continues: Let the kid play.
Many fans, fed up with the direction the franchise has taken in the past couple of years, don’t want to hear about arbitration or contracts or any reason why Bradley shouldn’t be on the field at Yankee Stadium on April 1. They’ve got a case there, too, as Bradley has hit .423 with a 1.123 OPS in 23 spring games this season, including a home run off Cliff Lee on Sunday. With David Ortiz expected to start the season on the disabled list, the potential Red Sox lineup isn’t exactly one that will inspire fans to rush to the ballpark early in the year, so including the most promising outfield prospect the team has seen since Jacoby Ellsbury in 2007 makes sense for a lot of people.
There’s plenty of validity in such a statement, but let’s play out the complete hypothetical of having Bradley on the team or in the minors for the first 11 days (nine games) of the season.
First things first: The Boston Red Sox finished last season with a 69-93 record. They weren’t just run-of-the-mill bad. They were horrible. Only five teams in all of baseball were worse. They finished the season 29 games behind the Washington Nationals, 26 games behind the Yankees in the AL East and 24 games out of a wild-card spot in the American League. Surely, Bobby Valentine was responsible for part of that stench, but a manager doesn’t make a team that bad.
That 69-win team’s major additions this offseason were Ryan Dempster, Joel Hanrahan, Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino and Stephen Drew. Their only real departure was Cody Ross (if you want to consider Adrian Gonzalez a loss from ’12 to ’13, you could make a case). To believe that those additions can turn a 69-win team into a true playoff contender requires a dangerous amount of optimism.
Still, it is still spring training, where optimism knows no bounds, and the argument has been made that Bradley’s presence very well could be the difference between missing the playoffs for the fourth straight year and earning a trip to October baseball.
So how will he do that?
The season gets started with three games in four days against the Yankees. With the Yankees in a bit of a state of disarray at the moment, tossing millions at Vernon Wells and dealing with the fact that Derek Jeter won’t be ready for Opening Day and looking very un-Yankee-like with a week left before the season begins, the Red Sox are heading to the Bronx seemingly at a pretty good time.
The Red Sox then head to Toronto to face the revamped Blue Jays for a weekend series. The Red Sox will likely send Felix Doubront and John Lackey to the mound in two of those games. Boston then heads home to face Baltimore for games on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, after which Bradley would be free to come up to join the Red Sox, who would know that by waiting 11 days and nine whole games, they will have guaranteed Bradley remaining in a Red Sox uniform through the age of 29, rather than seeing him become a free agent after his 2018 season.
But let’s, for the sake of argument, insert Bradley into the lineup instead of Daniel Nava, who would likely be the one getting playing time in lieu of Ortiz. Gomes would likely play some games as the DH. Also remember that Drew is unlikely to be ready to start the season, meaning Jose Iglesias and his .135 career average will be the starting shortstop.
Adding Bradley to that mix instead of Nava, who at least has proven to be at least average in a decent amount of big league experience, doesn’t exactly make the Red Sox lineup a modern-day Murderers’ Row. Here’s what it could look like:
1. Jacoby Ellsbury
2. Shane Victorino
3. Dustin Pedroia
4. Mike Napoli
5. Will Middlebrooks
6. Jonny Gomes
7. Jackie Bradley Jr./Daniel Nava
8. Jarrod Saltalamacchia
9. Jose Iglesias
Bradley or no Bradley, that’s not a lineup that’s going to score 45 runs in the first nine games of the season.
But let’s say Bradley does start the year in the majors, and let’s say he maintains his torrid pace at the plate. Let’s take his .423 spring batting average, four doubles, two homers, eight walks and nine RBIs in 23 games, and break it down to the nine games that could purportedly save the season. That would be about 15 hits — two doubles, maybe one home run, and 12 singles — to go with three walks and four RBIs.
It’s ridiculous to think that 15 hits in the first week and a half of the season is going to affect much in terms of the 162-game schedule, but let’s keep it going.
Daniel Nava is a career .243 hitter with a .352 on-base percentage and .731 OPS. He hit six home runs in 88 games last season. Babe Ruth he is not, but let’s apply his career numbers to the first nine games of the season: nine hits (two doubles), three walks and three RBIs.
So the difference from Bradley to Nava, even if Bradley stays as hot as he as all spring, comes out to about six singles spread out over nine games.
If you’re the Red Sox, would you rather have six hits in April 2013 or a 29-year-old star outfielder for an entire season in 2019?
There’s no question as to what the right answer is.
Still — still! — the argument for Bradley making the Opening Day roster exists. One camp says that the 2019 season doesn’t matter, that the Red Sox should be able to lock up Bradley to a long-term deal before it gets to that, just like they did with Dustin Pedroia or Jon Lester. To make that argument is to blatantly overlook the fact that Bradley’s agent is none other than Scott Boras. If you think Boras will ever let a client take less money than he’d make on the open market, then you’re likely optimistic enough to believe a 69-93 team can become a playoff team in a matter of nine games. You’re also choosing to ignore the current center fielder who is also a Boras client and who will be heading to free agency after this season. The Red Sox will, if they’re not in the playoff race in July, essentially be forced to trade away Ellsbury because Boras never made it possible for the team to sign his client to a long-term deal.
The other argument for starting Bradley in the bigs is that once Ortiz returns, the Red Sox can send him down to the minors for 20 consecutive days, and that 2019 season of team control will be preserved. There are big problems there, too. First and foremost, and this is only slightly exaggerating, is that there’s nobody on earth who knows when David Ortiz will return to baseball. It’s a problem when a big man who is 37 years old cannot run without experiencing pain, so counting on Ortiz playing early in the season might not be the best course of action.
Second, there is the issue of appearances. If Bradley does start the year with the Red Sox and does hit .400 for a month and does play electrifying defense out in right field, how could the team possibly send him down to the minors and keep a straight face? It would be a nightmare, and it would reek of manipulation in order to keep that year of team control. Boras would take notice, the MLBPA would take notice, and the Red Sox would be facing a PR nightmare. They absolutely can’t afford that.
So really, if he started the season with the big club, the team would almost have to be rooting for him to struggle out of the gate so that they could justify sending him to the minors, which really kind of goes against the whole point of starting him in the majors to begin with.
Bradley may be ready for the major leagues, but remember, he has never taken an at-bat at the Triple-A level. The Red Sox aren’t going anywhere and they’ll still be a Major League Baseball team on April 12. There’s literally nothing Bradley could do in the 11 days prior to justify losing an entire year of his contributions.