Bradley drawing rave reviews in first camp
Highly touted prospect constantly working at improving defense, offense
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Watch the Red Sox take batting practice on any given morning during Spring Training and you will notice the usual clusters of players gathered in the outfield, making small talk and occasionally throwing their glove toward a lazy fly ball.
Then there is Jackie Bradley, who is standing by himself in center field, playing a little game within the game. Bradley is measuring the angles, lining up where the ball is going to be and making sure he's there before it lands.
"It definitely helps," said Bradley, who is ranked the Red Sox's No. 2 prospect by MLB.com. "I'm constantly working at it. I just don't do it for fun. I'm actually working on something while I'm doing it. I'm just trying to get better in any different facet of the game. That's part of my routine. Just like you have a hitting routine, I have a defensive routine. That's what I do."
Selected by the Red Sox with the 40th overall pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, Bradley, who played his college years at the University of South Carolina, is in Major League camp for the first time. He seems primed to roar through the farm system and could have a full-time job in Boston by next season, particularly if Jacoby Ellsbury leaves as a free agent.
In the confines of the clubhouse, Bradley is located in nearly the exact same spot as Will Middlebrooks was last year. Bradley is in the far back corner, where he knows his job is to be seen and not heard.
Middlebrooks is now entrenched as the starting third baseman in the position to appreciate the way the 22-year-old Bradley is handling himself in his first camp.
"He listens," Middlebrooks said. "I think that's one of the most important things to do when you're here and it's your first year. Just open your eyes and your ears and watch what everyone else does."
In the quiet of the morning, Bradley has eagle eyes as players like Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia go through their morning routines.
"I'm picking up a lot of things, certain routines, even starting from in the cages in the morning," Bradley said. "I watch guys' work ethic in the weight room. It's just something that you can always pick up and learn. You don't even have to have much conversation or dialogue, but just by watching and seeing what certain players do, because, like I said, they've been in this league for a long time, so they know the ropes and the tricks and the trades to how to do it the right way."
Bradley seems to grasp the balancing act of toning down his typically outgoing personality but still interacting when he needs to.
"I don't think I completely suppress it. I feel like I'm still an outgoing guy," Bradley said. "I'll still ask questions. If you don't know, it's better to ask questions to people who do know so that way you won't make a mistake or something like that. The thing is, you don't want to run over anybody's toes.
"You try to get in here early and stay out of their way, because they have their routines as well. We develop our routines, and once we become the veteran guys that they are, then we can have that little bit of leeway of when we can do stuff when we want."
Every time Bradley gets on the field in a game -- which has been quite a bit so far -- he makes something happen and makes someone take notice.
"Every time he's stepped on the field, he's done something very positive. For a young player, he's sound fundamentally," said manager John Farrell. "Defensively he takes outstanding routes to some difficult plays in the outfield, even in the early going here. And he's hit both left-handed and right-handed pitching. As we said yesterday, for a young player to make a positive impression in camp, he's gotten off to a very good start."
Watching Bradley play the outfield, sometimes it seems as if he has a tracking device attached to the bill of his cap.
"We talk about it in the staff room -- you'd think he's been working at this a long time, because your eyes are trained to follow the pitch and then you see contact, and it almost seems like before contact is made, he's already on the move," Farrell said. "It's been impressive to see that. If you just time the sheer foot speed, it's not like he's a world class sprinter where he's going to outrun the baseball. His instincts and his routes are exceptional."
For all the talk about his defense, Bradley can hit. He projects as a top-of-the-order type of left-handed hitter with the ability to wear out the gaps and hit the midteens in home runs.
Entering Wednesday's game against the Pirates, Bradley was 8-for-17 with five runs scored.
As the farm director with the Indians, Farrell witnessed the first professional steps of center fielder Grady Sizemore, who emerged into a superstar before injuries started to derail his career.
"Similar temperament. Nothing was ever taken for granted," said Farrell. "They hustled every play, turn down the baseline every chance at the plate. Everything they had was all out. We've seen that from Jackie. Both had good defensive capabilities. Jackie's got a better throwing arm. The one thing that came late with Grady was his power. He didn't hit for much power in the Minor Leagues, but that blossomed later on."
Part of the rite of passage for any prospect is being compared to someone else, but Bradley won't worry about any of that stuff.
What fulfills him is being on the field.
"I love it. I really enjoy it," Bradley said. "Playing on the field itself, I enjoy the game as a whole and being able to do the offensive and defensive side of the game, it elates me."
Bradley has made an impression on pretty much everyone who has watched him.
"Very impressed," Middlebrooks said. "He looks really comfortable out there. A lot of guys are pretty nervous their first camp, and he really looks really comfortable."
Spend even 30 seconds talking to Bradley and you get the impression that nervous isn't an emotion he's all that familiar with.
"I've never really been the type of person to ever get nervous or shy away from anything," Bradley said. "I know I can play the game. I know I can play it at a high level. Playing up here, usually when you play at a higher level, you try to step up your level of competition and your competitiveness. That's what I've been able to do, being able to compete at the highest level so far."
As for when Bradley will get to compete at the highest level on a full-time basis, nobody really knows.
What was Middlebrooks thinking at this time last year?
"I was thinking later in the year," said Middlebrooks, who was in Boston before April was finished. "You never know. Be ready."