Welcome to July. The competitive portion of the Red Sox season is now over. That is a theme in recent years. The balance of the remaining games this season will be spent working to make sure future Julys aren’t spent working to make sure future Julys aren’t spent in a similar fashion. This means evaluating talent on hand and preparing for the off-season when much of the team building/destroying will take place. Last week I wrote about the Red Sox rotation and the necessary upgrades that need to take place there if the team hopes to improve next season. Another way the team will seek to improve is in the outfield, though in contrast to the rotation, much of the talent for that improvement is already on hand. Enter Jackie Bradley, Jr.
Going into this season the Red Sox were due to spend $22 million on new left fielder Hanley Ramirez, $13 million for Shane Victorino, $10.5 million for Rusney Castillo, $5.5 million for Allen Craig and $1.85 million for Daniel Nava. During the season they also brought in Alejandro De Aza and the remainder of his $5.5 million contract. Those five guys will cost Boston $52.85 million this season alone. Of the possible 309 games started, those players have started not nearly enough. Victorino was traded to Anaheim with the vast majority of his remaining contract Boston’s responsibility. Nava is now DFA’d and it looks like a similar story may take place there as well. Castillo and Craig spent the majority of the season as the most expensive duo in International League history or, if not (because I’m not researching that), then darn close. The upshot is that, despite the money, next year’s Red Sox outfield will likely be much different than this year’s version. There may even be room for Jackie Bradley!
Two paragraphs in now and I haven’t mentioned Bradley until the last sentence, but as you are now seeing, that trend is over! Bradley, the former first-round pick and forgotten member of the 2013 team is up and contributing, or at least playing. He even had a hit yesterday in the Red Sox’s bizarre route of Chris Sale and the White Sox. Bradley, a left-handed hitter, even even had a hit off of Chris Sale on an 0-2 count. In his career Sale has allowed a line of .151/.177/.201 after falling behind 0-2, while lefties have a .510 OPS against him. Bradley is hitting .121/.211/.212 this season, so he fits right in. The hit itself wasn’t a wonder or anything. Sale threw him a crappy slider that spun weakly across the center of the plate. He’s lucky he wasn’t facing David Ortiz when he threw that pitch or it would have ended up over the Monster and four runs would have scored instead of landing relatively harmlessly in front of the center fielder for an RBI single. That’s not to take anything away from Bradley. He’s not Ortiz and he shouldn’t try to be. He got a bad pitch and even on an 0-2 count when he was likely looking to be defensive he was able to deal with the change of speeds and line it back up the middle. That’s good!
It also illustrates the great thing about Bradley. To be effective, he doesn’t have to crush the ball like Ortiz, or Ramirez, or anyone else who crushes the ball. In fact, if he crushes the ball like Ryan Hanigan, he’ll be a perfectly good starting center fielder. His otherworldly defense at a premium position sees to that. Forget .500: Bradley doesn’t have to slug .400 or get on base at a .370 clip to be a worthwhile player. It wouldn’t hurt, but his bar is set lower. That’s partially why his inability to hit even remotely well in the majors has been so disappointing. It’s not like he had to hit well, he just had to not hit putridly.
Bradley just turned 25 years old. He’s still young. He’s still improving and he still has skills both in the field and at the plate.
Which brings us to today, right now. The Red Sox now have almost 60 games to spend on knowledge. They have almost 60 games wherein the outcome does not matter at all beyond individual performance in so far as it sets up the team for success next season. If Rick Porcello can find his sinker and Rusney Castillo can find some power and Hanley Ramirez can find the ball (he knows he had it here somewhere!) the 2016 Red Sox will be better off for it. While the team’s outfield depth was a pronounced failure this season, that doesn’t mean they won’t try to assemble similar outfield depth for 2016. A part of that depth will likely be Bradley, and this is why a simple line drive off the bat of the ninth place hitter brings me to my feet in a late July game weeks after the season was lost. The Red Sox’s best defensive alignment certainly does not include Hanley Ramirez, no matter what strides he makes over the next two plus months. Next season he may find himself at first, at DH, or still in left field, but don’t think for a second the Red Sox aren’t aware that their lineup problems are significantly lessened if Ramirez is not a part of the outfield.
An outfield without Hanley Ramirez opens up a spot though, right? Victorino and Nava are gone. Craig is off the 40 man roster and his power stroke is as off the roster as Victorino and Nava. That leaves Mookie Betts, who will have a spot somewhere. It leaves Castillo, who we will presumably learn more about over the next two months, but who looks like a candidate to play somewhere in the outfield come 2016. And it leaves … Jackie Bradley Jr.
The Red Sox minor league system may be highly rated, but one thing it does not offer is major league-ready outfielders. Bryce Brentz might carve out a major league career for himself, but it won’t likely be as a full-time starter. Manuel Margo is 20 years old, Andrew Benintendi is in Lowell, and that rounds out the outfielders among the Sox Prospects top 20. Some believe Garin Cecchini may yet hit, but even if so he’s hardly a strong prospect to start in the outfield. After that there is no Dana, only Zuul.
Bradley brings world-class defense to the table, something no other Red Sox prospect can offer, and he brings (still) a strong minor league track record. As recently as a few days ago, Bradley was hitting .305/.382/.472 in Triple-A. Pawtucket isn’t Boston but it’s also not meaningless. Bradley just turned 25 years old. He’s still young. He’s still improving and he still has skills both in the field and at the plate. Ramirez can’t field, Castillo might not be able to hit, and the rest of the cast has left the stage never to return. There might be a place on the Red Sox for Jackie Bradley after all.
That might not be such a bad thing, either. Bradley has certainly given new meaning to the term “struggling” in his time with Boston, but the fact that he’s succeeded in Pawtucket (he has an .816 OPS over parts of three season there) and everywhere else he’s played in the minors means he very likely has the skills to hit enough in Boston. Remember how he struggled in Triple-A after his long and failed stint as the starting center fielder last season? He turned that around this season and crushed Triple-A pitching.
Bradley doesn’t have to OPS .900 to succeed in Boston. His defense is good enough that an OPS in the low 700s will do the trick. The fact that he’s getting another opportunity to play in Boston this season may turn out to be a silver lining in the dark cloud that has been 2015. The Red Sox might have an opening in their major league outfield next season and they’ll be much better off both financially and defensively if that opening can be filled by Jackie Bradley. Shockingly, there’s a chance it might, which is more of a chance than just about anyone though possible in March. So I guess toss that on the top of the pile of weirdness that is the 2015 Red Sox season.
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