FORT MYERS, Fla. – Look at the mess Jackie Bradley Jr. created.
If everything went according to plan, Bradley would have returned to minor league camp by now, possibly back to the Portland Sea Dogs.
But no. Bradley entered the Boston Red Sox major league camp this spring and did what he’s done everywhere he goes: impress the bejesus out of everyone.
In Portland last year, Bradley created a jaw-dropping buzz at Hadlock Field with the way he roamed center field, ran the bases without fear and stepped to the plate with a know-how beyond his 22 years.
And he’s doing it again in spring training. Through Friday, Bradley was batting .429 while effortlessly tracking down balls in the outfield.
“He’s more polished than I first anticipated,” Manager John Farrell said. “For a guy who has got just one full year in the minor leagues, his decision-making on the field, his approach at the plate is very consistent.
“And his reads and routes in center field are on the spot.”
So instead of the Red Sox figuring out whether Bradley should go to Double-A Portland or Triple-A Pawtucket, they have to decide if Bradley will join the Red Sox in Yankee Stadium for the April 1 opener.
“It’s hard to ignore what he’s done this spring,” General Manager Ben Cherington said.
Bradley was drafted out of the University of South Carolina in 2011. He played all of 10 minor league games with the Red Sox that year until splitting last season between advanced Class A Salem and Portland.
Other prospects have reached the majors in their second full pro season — namely Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia — but not at the start of the year.
In 2006, Ellsbury split time between advanced Class A and Portland. In 2007, the Red Sox sent Ellsbury back to Portland. He reached Boston that season and was almost a World Series MVP (7 for 16, four doubles).
Bradley came into this camp not knowing what to expect. He only wanted to play hard.
“Everyone comes into spring training looking to compete, no matter where you want to go,” Bradley said. “And if it’s up in the air, you want to push the envelope and try to get them to make a decision.
“That’s pretty much what I came here wanting to do, show them that I have gotten better in the offseason. I came back more mature and ready to play.”
POTENTIAL IN PORTLAND
When Bradley got to Portland on June 21, he got hot quickly, batting .327 through July 16. He eventually cooled to finish at .271 (though with a .373 on-base percentage and .437 slugging percentage).
“Just fatigue,” Bradley said. “It was my first full season and I didn’t know what to expect toward the end. It just wears on you. This year I’ll have a better understanding how to treat my body and how to go about things.”
So far, so good. The left-handed hitting Bradley is not only batting well, he’s doing it against anyone — .433 (13 for 30) vs. right-handers, and .421 (8 for 19) vs. lefties.
Initially it looked like there was no room for Bradley, no matter how well he played. Boston has Ellsbury in center field, Johnny Gomes in left and Shane Victorino in right.
“It doesn’t make too much sense to be on the team if it’s not an everyday or close-to-an-everyday role,” Cherington said.
But then designated hitter David Ortiz’s recovery from an Achilles tendon injury has taken longer than expected. Ortiz will almost certainly begin this season on the disabled list.
Suddenly there’s an opening. Gomes, not the most gifted fielder, could move to DH and Bradley could grab a glove.
Farrell initially said he doesn’t foresee Bradley in left field. But on Friday against the Blue Jays, Farrell shifted Bradley from center to left.
There are other issues, such as adding Bradley to the 40-man roster, which means taking someone off it and risk losing them to another team.
There’s the issue of free agency. Bradley could become a free agent sooner (by 2019) if he played too well in the majors and stayed with Boston, which is what Will Middlebrooks did last year.
But if Bradley plays too well, isn’t that a good thing?
THE DECIDING FACTORS
Cherington said roster moves are a factor, as well as making too much of spring statistics.
What it comes down to, Cherington said, are three factors:
• Is there an everyday role?
• Is the player really ready for it?
• What’s our best team?
“We’ll use (these questions) to guide us,” he said.
The answer to the first question appears yes, as long as Ortiz is out. When Ortiz comes back — and there’s no timetable for his return — then Cherington can figure it out.
The answer to the second question appears obvious. As Bradley faces major league pitchers for more at-bats this spring, he’s still producing. And his defense offers such an upside, especially compared to Gomes.
The third answer also appears to be a yes. Bradley brings the kind of energy and talent that can ignite a team. And Boston could use a rare good start to the season. Remember 2012 (4-10 start), 2011 (5-11) and 2010 (6-10)?
I might add a fourth factor. With Ellsbury becoming a free agent after the season, and with agent Scott Boras to guide him, Bradley likely will be Boston’s starting center fielder in 2014. Throwing Bradley into the major league fires this year sounds like a good idea.
And how is Bradley handling all this hype? The same way he did in Portland: with humility and common sense.
“I kind of brush it off,” Bradley said. “Keep playing and stay focused. And stay humble. That will keep you even keel.
“I think that’s the kind of guy I am, whether I’m going through the goods or the bads, I try to be the same exact person. Just keep putting in hard work.
“I can only control one thing — play ball.”
Bradley is doing his part. Now the decision is up to Boston.
Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or: