UPDATE: As soon as this posted, the Red Sox cut Ryan Sweeney, meaning, barring an out-of-nowhere trade, Jackie Bradley will start the season with the big-league club. More importantly, the joke I make below about the Red Sox not listening to me isn’t a joke anymore. They really don’t listen to me. There is still time for the Red Sox to gain the extra year of service time, but now when they send Bradley to the minors it must be for 20 days instead of 11. As for what this says about the Red Sox front office, they can still make the most of the situation. We’ll have to see if Bradley spends his 20 days down on the farm this season. If not, well, read on.
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Centerfield prospect Jackie Bradley, only 22 years old and having played just 61 games above Single-A, may have pushed his way into the Red Sox Opening Day lineup. Hitting .431 in 67 plate appearances this spring (through Wednesday’s games) in addition to playing excellent major-league ready defense can do that sometimes. More, Bradley plays the outfield, a position where the Red Sox find themselves in need. It’s a perfect storm of circumstances, swirling, spinning, and combining together to push Bradley past Triple-A and into the major leagues. Except for just one problem.
Still, it’s only one problem, and Bradley’s presence with Boston solves many problems. Bradley should improve the Red Sox both in the field and at the plate. He’s young, talented, cheap, and by all accounts good in the clubhouse, so there are many reasons Bradley should start the year in Boston and really only one reason he shouldn’t. So why would anyone want to send him to the minors?
Well, imagine you run a car dealership. Imagine I run the car manufacturer. I’ll give you a free new car you can sell right now or I’ll give you 100 free cars in six years. Which one do you take? Which one should you take? That battle of small payoff now versus large future payoff is the essence of the conundrum the Red Sox now face. The implications of their decision could reverberate through Fenway Park for years to come.
By MLB’s rules, if the Red Sox send Bradley down to start the year and then bring him up in 11 days (not games, days), they’ll delay his free agency by a year. In other words, for denying themselves the wonder that is Bradley for 11 days now, the Red Sox get the wonder that is Bradley for a full year in 2019.
Should the Red Sox decide to break camp with Bradley, sending him down for 20 days would have the same effect — Bradley gains free agency after 2019 instead of after 2018.
Of course 20 days is nine days longer than 11 (math!), so the team would be without Bradley for almost twice as long. The simplest solution is to congratulate Bradley on his spring, tell him his time is soon, give him a pat on the backside (optional), send him down to Triple-A, and re-evaluate in 11 days.
If media reports are to be believed, the Red Sox are leaning towards not listening to me (my family and the Red Sox are apparently twins). It looks more and more like Bradley will start in left field for the Red Sox on Opening Day, meaning they’re not going to go the 11-day route. They’ll still have the 20-day route open to them throughout the season, but if Bradley plays well, it’ll be difficult to justify sending him down. In a sense that’s a nice problem to have, but one that could be easily avoided by sending him down to begin with.
Keeping him up for now does make some sense. The Red Sox believe they will be in the race to win the American League East, so each win will be important. A win in April is just as valuable as a … well, you’ve heard this line before. The problem is we’re talking about 11 days. That’s shorter than a 15-day disabled list stint. There are few players in baseball that can make such an impact that their team can’t live without them for 11 days. What’s more, the degree of variability in performance over so small a time period is high. If Daniel Nava goes off for a week and a half none of this matters; if Clay Buchholz can’t find his change-up in his first two starts, it’s a much bigger impact.
This isn’t to say the Red Sox shouldn’t pursue improvement. They absolutely should. Just that improvement over such a small period of time as 11 days is highly variable. Also, given the 11 days come at the very beginning of the season, the Red Sox will have the entire rest of the season to adjust to the outcome of those few games.
While there are good and logical reasons to keep him on the roster now, I can’t shake the thought that this is a litmus test of sorts. Keeping Bradley up now isn’t how smart teams operate. Smart teams see the trade-off for what it is, a small cost now for a large payoff later. Smart teams make smart decisions that help them keep talented players in the organization longer which improves their chances of winning more games. If Jackie Bradley is so good now, that’s an argument for sending him to Triple-A — because if he’s that good now, wouldn’t you rather have his entire age-29 season over 11 days of his rookie campaign? I would. We’ll have to see if the Red Sox agree or not.