Easily the most talked about player in spring training for the Rays this year was outfielder Wil Myers, the high-profile acquisition from the Kansas City Royals in the James Shields trade. Myers was coming off a season that saw him hit 37 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A and elicited comparisons to Dale Murphy, so the expectations were high quite. As it turned out, Myers played well, hitting .286 with 3 doubles and a triple in 35 spring at-bats, but then the Rays sent him down to minor league camp, ending his bid for their MLB roster without much fanfare. After all, it seemed like it was inevitable- the Rays had to keep Myers in the minor leagues to start the year to keep him under team control for an additional year and prevent him from being Super Two eligible, and in any event, the Rays conducted the rest of their offseason as if Myers would be a non-factor at least to begin the year, signing Kelly Johnson to split time with Ben Zobrist between second base and the outfield. But the Rays were far from the only major league team with a top outfield prospect looking to impress enough to get a big league job, and when confronted with a similar situation, the Rays’ rival Boston Red Sox have conducted themselves quite differently.
Red Sox top prospect Jackie Bradley Jr. has been huge this spring, managing a .444/.545/.578 line with 3 doubles, a homer, and 8 walks against just 5 strikeouts in 55 plate appearances. Looking for a spark, especially with DH David Ortiz out, the chances of Bradley breaking camp with the Red Sox are now 50-50 according to a source within the organization. Comparing the Red Sox’ situation with Bradley with the Rays’ decision-making process with Myers, Buster Olney of ESPN had this to say in an Insider-only story.
If Bradley played for the Tampa Bay Rays, who are the most disciplined organization in baseball in the way they try to maximize the value of their player development products, it would be a no-brainer: He would go back to the minor leagues until they were certain he had been given the best chance to hit the ground running at the major league level — and to not start his service-time clock until the most advantageous time for them.
But these are the Boston Red Sox, with a budget more than twice the size of the Rays’, with a lot more margin for error financially and a fan base with a much higher level of expectation. And there is this, which cannot be emphasized enough: They haven’t made the playoffs the past three seasons, and they are coming off the disastrous Bobby V season in which they went 69-93 and were widely regarded as unlikable and unwatchable in New England.
But while the Red Sox’ larger budget and need to win are compelling, there are a couple big problems with the Red Sox expecting Bradley to arrive in the major leagues and immediately help the Red Sox. First off, how much do you want to bank on 55 plate appearances, in spring training no less, especially when his level of competition has been decidedly closer to Triple-A than major league-quality? Baseball-Reference has Bradley’s Opponent Quality at 8.0, meaning the average pitcher he faced played last season primarily at Triple-A (10.0 is MLB quality). While Bradley playing great against Triple-A pitching is definitely a positive, it’s quite a jump to go from there to saying that Bradley is ready to be an impact major league player.
More important than looking at the spring numbers, though, is that Bradley has a grand total of 271 plate appearances above A-ball, and not a single one at Triple-A. He clearly seems far from big league-ready. But on the other hand, Bradley has shown an extremely disciplined approach, walking 8 times versus 5 walks this spring and 87 times against 89 K’s in 2012. Overall in 2012, Bradley was incredible, managing a .315/.430/.482 line with 42 doubles, 9 homers, 63 RBI, 24 stolen bases, and that aforementioned 89-87 strikeout to walk ratio in 575 plate appearances between High-A Salem and Double-A Portland. At Double-A, Bradley was decidedly worse, managing a .271/.373/.437 line with his strikeout to walk ratio dropping to 49-35. But nevertheless, those numbers are still very good and Bradley has shown an advanced approach the whole way through! Who says that Bradley can’t come to the major leagues and be a productive player?
The Red Sox aren’t expecting Bradley to come up and hit .360 like he did in High-A in 2012, and if he came close to repeating those Double-A numbers in the majors this year, that would be a huge lift to Boston’s chances. The big reason that Rays absolutely had to send Myers down was that he struck out 140 times versus just 61 walks in 2012 and cutting down on the strikeouts will be critical before he breaks into the major leagues. That’s not the case at all with Bradley, and while his upside may not be as high because he has much less power, doesn’t he look like a better candidate to contribute right now because of his plate discipline, especially after how great he has been this spring?
The thing that we’re ignoring here is that plate discipline at lower levels is not always indicative of plate discipline the farther you get up the professional later, let alone the major leagues. For an example, look no further than Myers. Myers had an outstanding 94-82 strikeout to walk ratio between Low-A and High in 2010 and was still a strong 87-52 at Double-A in 2011. And even after that history of excellent plate discipline, Myers slipped all the way to a 140-61 mark in 2012. For Myers, there were other circumstances involved- he was making a conscious effort to be more aggressive at the plate and hit for more power- but even if the drop-off for other players would not be as extreme, it’s still something to consider. At A-ball and even at Double-A, pitchers’ breaking balls will not be too refined and laying off of them is simply a matter of discipline. Once you get to Triple-A, you find more of the wily veterans who are able to make their breaking balls look much better even if they’re out of zone, putting hitters’ pitch recognition to the test. And then in the major leagues, pitchers are able to command them much better and you have to actually learn to hit them knowing that pitchers will be able to locate them in the strike zone much more often. Is sending Bradley right from facing pitchers often unable to make their breaking pitches look anything like strikes to going up against major leaguers who can place them where they want on either side of the plate really the best idea for the Red Sox? It’s clear that Bradley has great patience and pitch recognition, but it is really worth it for the Red Sox to make him go 0 to 60 instead of taking his time and making sure he’ll be ready for the major leagues when he arrives?
The only way to know for sure how Jackie Bradley will do in the major leagues is to put him out there and see how he does. Maybe he’s good enough that the transition from Double-A to the major leagues will be fine and he’ll be an impact player for the Red Sox from the start. However, if the Red Sox start Bradley in the major leagues, the primary reasoning behind out will be more about the Red Sox’ desperation to win as opposed to doing the best thing for Bradley’s future. When money isn’t an object and a top prospect has the ability to help your team now, why should you hold him back from the major leagues? Asking that question, though, is making the assumption that Bradley is ready for the major leagues, and that’s far from a certainty. With the additional money in their pockets and added incentive to win because of their fanbase, the Red Sox don’t have to conduct themselves like the Rays and be overcautious with their top prospects. But telling a player to jump from a half-season at Double-A to the major leagues is misguided even given that reality, and if the Red Sox are willing to jeopardize the future of their franchise just to win maybe a couple more games now, they’re in bigger trouble than we thought.