Let the youngsters play
I’m rooting for Red Sox left fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. to get off to a hot start, just like I’m rooting for Marlins right-hander Jose Fernandez and Twins center fielder Aaron Hicks to do the same.
All three are rookies, and all three could (gasp!) qualify for an extra year of arbitration and (gulp!) reach free agency a year earlier all because they made their respective clubs’ Opening Day rosters.
Remember the concept, best players play? Most teams above the Little League level operate under that principle. But major league teams don’t always go by merit, not with rookies, not right away.
No, the promotions of even the top rookies often are delayed until after April 20 to prevent them from reaching free agency a year early, or until June to prevent them from gaining an extra year of arbitration.
I’m sick of it. And watching Bradley’s brilliant debut at Yankee Stadium on Monday — three walks, a terrific catch, a pivotal base-running play, an RBI groundout — I kept thinking, fans should be sick of it, too.
The game is so flush with cash, teams are awarding hundred-million dollar extensions like Halloween candy. I’ll grant that certain low-revenue clubs need to watch their money more carefully than others. The rest of ‘em, no way.
Oh, I remember what happened to the Giants after they promoted right-hander Tim Lincecum in May of 2007 — they cost themselves millions when he qualified for arbitration after ’09 as a Super Two player. If the Giants had waited, perhaps they could have redirected their savings toward another player. But somehow, they managed to win the World Series in 2010 and ’12, didn’t they?
The Red Sox were never worried about going to arbitration with Bradley early; they can afford the extra payout. To prevent him from becoming a free agent in 2019 rather than ’18, all they must do is send him to the minors for 20 days at some point in the future. If they find that difficult to do, guess what? It means they’ve got a really good player.
As Sox manager John Farrell said earlier this spring, “We can’t control tomorrow, let alone six years from now.” So, here’s a novel concept for the Sox and other clubs to consider: Worry about today.
As it turns out, injuries to Sox designated hitter David Ortiz and shortstop Stephen Drew created the need for a left-handed hitter, and Bradley outperformed Ryan Sweeney in spring training, hitting .419 with a 1.120 OPS.
Fernandez, one of the game’s top pitching prospects, also is getting his chance due to injuries, but the Marlins say they plan to keep him in the majors even after right-handers Nate Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez return.
The Twins, meanwhile, said they did not even concern themselves with Hicks’ service-time considerations, a stance for which GM Terry Ryan likely will draw ridicule from the bean counters who monitor the sport.
“The guy has earned it,” Ryan told Twins beat writers. “I find it almost humorous that people are talking about service time, starting the clock. We didn’t trade (Denard) Span and (Ben) Revere to stall the next guy.”
Listen, it’s possible that Hicks, Fernandez and Bradley all might need to return to the minors this season. But Bradley, at least, helped his team win a game Monday. And maybe that game, an 8-2 victory over the Yankees, proves the difference in the Red Sox securing a playoff berth.
Bradley, 22, became the first player to draw three walks in his major league debut since Danny Ardoin did it for the Twins in 2000, and the first to draw three walks, drive in a run and score a run in his debut since the RBI became an official stat in 1920.
The best part is, Bradley actually was more impressive than his numbers. In his first at-bat, he fell behind 0-2 against ace lefty CC Sabathia, then told himself, “See a pitch up. Don’t swing at a putaway pitch.” He didn’t, and his walk loaded the bases with one out, helping trigger a four-run inning.
“He’s got a very good awareness of the strike zone,” Farrell said. “I think he saw some things today from a left-hander starter who can sink the ball in on him that he might not have seen in Portland (at Double A) last year. … He understands where the strike zone ends ‘in.’ That will be a huge benefit for his continued maturity as a hitter.”
But Bradley was just getting started.
The next batter, Jose Iglesias, hit a sharp grounder to the third-base hole, and Bradley beat shortstop Eduardo Nunez’s throw to second – the key to the inning, in Farrell’s opinion. In the bottom of the third Bradley was at it again, delivering a huge defensive play in left field, at a position he began playing only toward the end of spring training.
With a runner on second, Robinson Cano hit a shot directly over Bradley’s head. Bradley, normally a center fielder, sprinted back toward the wall and made a difficult, athletic catch.
“It was one of those balls where you run back, pick a spot where you think it’s going to land,” Bradley said. “I work on that quite a bit. I happened to look back up at the right time and there it was, coming right back at me.”
Red Sox first-base coach Arnie Beyeler, who helps instruct the team’s outfielders, said he actually hasn’t done much to help Bradley transition to left field.
“There’s not a lot of work with Jackie – he’s been taught very well,” Beyeler said. “You just kind of stay out of his way and let him play.
“He reads swings very well. For a young player, he’s very polished at what he does. Especially on a day like today, I didn’t want to put a bunch of stuff in his head. Just let him play.”
It worked out. The entire day worked out.
Usually does, when the best players play.