Five weeks after winning the 2013 World Series, the Boston Red Sox declined to enter a bidding war against the rival New York Yankees to retain the services of fleet center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury.
The Red Sox didn’t want to spend close to the $153 million that Ellsbury received, but team officials also knew they had a young center fielder waiting in the wings – a guy by the name of Jackie Bradley.
“We’re very lucky to have Jackie in the organization. He’s going to be a very good major league player for the Red Sox for what we think is a very long time,” Boston general manager Ben Cherington said.
Speaking at this past week’s hot-stove event in Greenville, where Boston’s Class A affiliate plays at Fluor Field, Cherington took note of the former South Carolina standout’s play last season, when he started Opening Day before splitting time between Boston (37 games) and Triple-A Pawtucket, R.I. (80 games) the rest of the season.
“He kind of forced his way onto the team last spring. And he’s got an opportunity again this spring to force his way into the picture,” Cherington said. “If he’s doing what he’s capable of doing, he can be as good as anybody at that position in the big leagues.”
That kind of talk further motivates Bradley, who’s proud of his rapid ascent through the Boston organization that led him to Fenway Park after being selected as the 40th overall pick in the 2011 MLB draft.
“It was unbelievable, especially for a guy who wasn’t on the 40-man roster, hadn’t played above Double-A, and had just one full season in the minor leagues,” Bradley said. “To get that call to play in the big leagues, you marvel at it. But I played well enough to show that I could hang with the big guys.
“I was trying to do what I’ve done since I began to play baseball, and that’s just enjoy the game and learn as much as I can as fast as I can.”
Bradley, who was here Friday for the reunion of the program’s pro players, did his best not to be overwhelmed by last season’s experience. He displayed the same vibrant spirit and non-stop work ethic that marked his three seasons with the Gamecocks, who won two national championships with him in center field.
“I was trying to do what I’ve done ever since I began to play baseball, and that’s just enjoy the game and learn as much as I can as fast as I can,” he said.
Now carrying a solid 195 pounds over his 5-foot-10 frame, Bradley said he understands the importance of having people such as Cherington show confidence in him.
But, he says, “if you don’t believe in yourself, it doesn’t matter how many people believe in you. You’ve got to be the one to go out there and do what you have to do.”
In pursuit of that goal, he left a couple of days after Christmas for Boston’s spring training home of Fort Myers, Fla., where he has worked out in preparation for the season. He’s consumed by getting better and getting stronger. Last season he got a handle on what it takes to be a professional at the major league level in terms of navigating the up-and-down nature of a long season.
His 2013 season opened with a strong performance in spring training, where he hit .419 with a .507 on-base percentage, two homers and 12 RBIs in 62 at-bats. Because of injuries to David Ortiz and Stephen Drew, the Red Sox scrambled to fill one of those roster spots by keeping Bradley. He found himself in the Opening Day lineup at Yankee Stadium hitting against New York’s All-Star left-hander, CC Sabathia.
He said he was nervous about asking too many questions that day, but he had a lot on his mind, from making sure his family got in to see him play to getting ready to compete .
“It was just a day of adjustments,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to take that responsibility and run with it.”
Starting in left field, Bradley became the focal point of ESPN’s national telecast of the game, as play-by-man Dave O’Brien and analysts Rick Sutcliffe and Aaron Boone, both former major leaguers, discussed Bradley’s emergence and spent nine innings extolling his virtues, from his ability to his maturity to his personality. His day included a pair of walks, a strikeout and an RBI groundout along with a nice running catch on a ball hit over his head in Boston’s 8-2 win.
That great opener soon gave way to struggles more typical for a rookie. He went 3-for-31 for a .097 average in April before being shipped to Pawtucket. As he bounced up and down during the season, he settled in and got more comfortable. He pulled his average up to .189 in Boston to go with three homers and 10 RBIs in 95 at-bats. He also took advantage of playing every day while in Pawtucket to bat .285 with 10 homers and 35 RBIs.
“He went through what just about every good major league player goes through in their first taste of the big leagues. There’s a little bit of a transition and adjustments that he learned he needed to make,” Cherington said. “Last year’s experience in the big leagues will only make him a better player. He’s that much closer to being a good major leaguer because of it.”
Ray Tanner, South Carolina’s baseball coach from 1997 to 2012 before becoming athletics director, said he wasn’t surprised by Bradley’s rocket ride through the Red Sox system. He watched a young freshman from Prince George, Va., vault himself into the starting lineup in 2009 on the way to a sterling career that included a .336 average, 30 homers and 132 RBIs in 167 USC games as well as the Most Outstanding Player award in the 2010 College World Series.
“He’s a very mature athlete beyond his years,” Tanner said. “He understands you need perspective, he understands work ethic, he understands taking care of himself, and he understands the highs and lows of baseball. He was always able to handle adversity and grow from it.”
Cherington cited Bradley’s experience playing so well at the highest level of the collegiate game as a positive. And he noted the Red Sox landed Bradley in part due to a wrist injury and some offensive struggles in his junior season that dropped him further down in the draft than expected.
“What we got coming into the organization was a young player who was really ahead of his years in terms of his knowledge of the game, his instincts, and the way he played the game,” Cherington said. “It’s a credit to him and also the program at the University of South Carolina. Since we have had him, he has done nothing but perform.”
Every conversation about Bradley quickly turns to his stellar defense, especially his great jumps and ability to track down fly balls despite a lack of blazing speed. His ability to work counts and get on base always comes up, too.
Former USC closer Matt Price, who’s now pitching in the Baltimore Orioles organization, used to try to get opposing hitters to hit balls Bradley’s way -- knowing that his teammate would run them down. But Price, who roomed with Bradley during their college years, prefers to speak to the type of person his best friend is.
“He’s the best guy, the most humble, kind, generous guy I know,” Price said. “For what has happened to him in the past year, he has handled it with so much grace. It’s been a pleasure to watch him off and on the field. The things he does inspire me.”
Bradley, 23, credits his maturation process to his days on the USC campus, where he worked toward a retail management degree and captivated Gamecock fans with his effervescent personality. He recently married a former high school classmate, Erin Helring, to cap a whirlwind time in his life.
“The last few years have been pretty exciting. Hopefully, things will keep getting more exciting,” he said. “I’m loving life, enjoying myself, me and my wife. We’re really looking forward to the opportunities ahead of us this year.”
Bradley begins the 2014 season still qualifying as a rookie since he had less than 130 at-bats last year. But that rookie nervousness is gone. As a potential starter on the defending world champions, he’s ready to make his mark with a fresh start and no Jacoby Ellsbury standing in his way.
Tanner is convinced Bradley is ready to break out in Boston just as he did in Columbia.
“Jackie is very humble, but he’s very confident that he can play at that level. I believe he can, too,” Tanner said.
Put Cherington in that camp as well.
“The arrow is moving in the right direction for Jackie Bradley,” he said.