The Red Sox may insist their white flag is tucked away, still gathering dust since 2012 -- perhaps in A.J. Pierzynski’s now-vacant locker -- but the signs are all around. Mookie Betts is up. Christian Vazquez is up. Space in the rotation could soon open up for both Brandon Workman and Rubby De La Rosa. The rest of this season will be spent developing young prospects at the game’s highest level so that, even if they make a miraculous climb back from 9 1/2 games out of first place in the A.L. East, the core of the next great Red Sox team will have accumulated valuable big-league innings.
“We are where we are,” said Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington. “If the standings were turned upside down, if our positioning was different, maybe that wouldn't be happening. But we are where we are, so we gotta find out about guys. We've gotta see what opportunities come our way. At the same time, we're trying to get better as quickly as we can in ways that make sense.”
Already, several young players have seen significant MLB action in 2014. At times they’ve flashed the skills that have had them earmarked as young organizational thoroughbreds. At times -- more often that not for some -- they’ve struggled badly. Luckily for the Red Sox, their system is deep with ready-made Major League talent. It's on the backs of those players that the oft-mentioned “bridge” will be built, and the construction is underway.
After hearing from members of the organization and players as well as MLB scouts, we look at six Red Sox up-and-comers who will help determine the team's direction for years to come. Here's one:
JACKIE BRADLEY JR.
Where does he stand?
Even as Jackie Bradley Jr., tore through Single-A Salem with an OPS of 1.006 to kick off his first full season as a pro in 2012, the Red Sox knew it would likely be his defense that would one day be turning heads at Fenway Park.
"That certainly was the thing that really stood out," said Ben Crockett, the Red Sox' director of player development. "Despite the impressive offensive performance, I think the defense was something that everybody who saw him felt pretty strongly about since he first came through our system. It’s something he’s worked really hard on and really prided himself on."
Bradley Jr. has continued on that path and proven himself to be one of the top defensive outfielders in baseball through the first half of 2014.
And while his batting average dipped to .202 on June 18, he has strung together more consistent at-bats over the course of the last month and raised his average to .227.
Where do the Red Sox hope he’ll be, eventually?
Defensively he’s been all the team could ask for. Given the work ethic he’s shown -- especially in developing the strength of his arm, with which he’s already accumulated 10 assists -- it stands to reason that he may even add some polish to his already sparkling ability.
“You can have a great arm, but it doesn't do you any good if you can't throw anybody out and put it on the base,” said Sox outfield coach Arnie Beyeler. “He's doing a real good job of coming out here with early work and throwing the ball around and getting his work in to stay accurate. He's throwing a lot better than he threw last year when he was up here. We've seen him in the past, and I've seen more in the arm than we saw last year.”
At the plate, Bradley Jr.'s finally started to show signs of becoming the hitter he was through the minors. He’s opened his stance -- something he did in college and through the lower levels of pro ball -- which has allowed him to see pitches better and react more quickly to the offerings of big-league arms.
One scout believes that while Bradley Jr.’s defense is good enough that he would carry great value to a club even as a No. 9 hitter, he could someday be a top-of-the-order bat.
“I think Jackie’s a pro,” he said. “He handles things well. He’s had success. He’s hit wherever he’s been. He has good plate discipline. He’s got a little power. I don’t think that’s changed. I think sometimes confidence changes a little bit. I think he can hit. I don’t know if he’s a three-hole hitter, but he could hit second.”
What does he have to do to get there?
Though the team optioned Bradley Jr. to Pawtucket last year after he scuffled at the plate early in the season, they’ve allowed him to work things out in the majors this year and he’s rewarded them with stellar defense and a bat that’s been one of the hottest on the team of late.
“What you've seen of me is pretty much just glimpses,” Bradley said recently. “I guess you've seen some good, seen a lot of bad. I feel like the best is yet to come. You're gonna go through those struggles, especially as a rookie. You're gonna go through those struggles as you're playing this game for a long time. But just know that the better times are yet to come. If you consistently work hard and continue to compete, good things are gonna happen for you.”
In this case, both the team and Bradley Jr.’s patience has appeared to pay off.
“It won't stop us from giving young guys a shot,” general manager Ben Cherington said recently when asked about the struggles of his younger players in the big leagues. “We have to do that. Young players we believe in need to be given an opportunity.”
Trade him or keep him?
There’s no telling what kinds of scenarios will pop up at future trade deadlines -- altogether now: Is Giancarlo Stanton available?!? -- but the Red Sox shouldn’t be actively seeking a deal involving Bradley Jr. He is in the Gold Glove conversation already, and if his recent results at the plate are any indication of his beginning to figure out MLB pitching, he could be turning into the building-block type the Red Sox hoped they were getting when he was taken late in the first round in 2011.