PAWTUCKET — Jackie Bradley Jr. is a 22-year-old center fielder so polished and poised that your first inclination is to check his driver’s license just to verify his age.
Currently touted as one of the top prospects in the Red Sox farm system, he said playing under the spotlight of the College World Series helped him prepare for the attention he’ll soon be receiving as a professional. “(Helping the University of South Carolina win back-to-back titles in 2010-11), there was a lot of media attention,” Bradley replied Friday afternoon at McCoy Stadium, at the media portion of the 36th annual PawSox Hot Stove fete.
The next part of Bradley’s response was a breath of fresh air for those in the quote-gathering business, one he attributes to the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference he toiled in during his Gamecock days.
“Getting the exposure we did [at South Carolina], you learn how to talk and relate to the media, knowing that they’re not there to harm you,” Bradley said. “You can influence how things are portrayed by your answers.”
As a college sophomore, Bradley was named the Most Outstanding Player of the College World Series. A wrist injury slowed him during his junior year, but he was able to return in time to guide the Gamecocks to the top of the college baseball landscape a second time.
So in baseball circles, Bradley was already well known by the time he arrived in the Red Sox organization late in the summer of 2011 thanks to his feats at South Carolina. That experience gave him a baptism that has helped ease his transition to the next frontier on the baseball landscape.
If there’s ever a promising 20-something that can handle the acclaim that comes with Baseball America, the Bible of minor-league baseball, naming you the No. 2 prospect in the entire Red Sox farm chain, look no further than Bradley.
“South Carolina helped set a foundation for me to be able to build on,” Bradley expressed. “From the first day [of becoming a professional ballplayer], I’ve set out to learn as much as I can and quickly too so that I’m able to keep moving and get to the next level.”
Added Red Sox farm director Ben Crockett, “When he came here, Jackie had already experienced a lot of the same challenges with regard to dealing with the media and pressure. Obviously he’s been the center of attention for a while and he handles it well. Certainly it’s a huge asset to his ability to perform at the upper levels.”
By the time Bradley docked in Double-A Portland last summer, he was a frequent topic of conversation among those with Red Sox prospect fever. When he made his Sea Dogs’ debut at the same time Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury were rehabbing with the ball club, that conjured up chatter about whether Bradley would be stationed alongside Crawford in Boston’s outfield beginning in 2014.
Of course, now Bradley won’t ever play next to Crawford, since the latter was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Ellsbury is heading into the last year of his contract, while Bradley figures to land in Pawtucket at some point this season. As such, speculation about when Bradley will inherit a Fenway outfield post only figures to intensify in the coming months.
The 2012 season was Bradley’s first full season as a pro and provided tantalizing numbers – .315 batting average with 90 runs scored and a organization-best .430 on-base percentage between 128 games with Single-A Salem and Portland – to go along with sparkling praise for his intangibles.
“Bottom line, he’s a great person and a fantastic individual,” said Dave Joppie, Pawtucket’s new hitting coach, who caught a glimpse of Bradley while holding the same title in Portland. “Very sincere and someone who takes instruction very well. Here’s a guy who’s had success at the major college level and can handle that big stage because he’s been on it.
“(Bradley’s South Carolina days) have done nothing but prepare him well to handle what it is that he has in store for him as he moves up the ladder,” Joppie added. “Now he’s getting in the middle of what would be Red Sox Nation with our minor-league affiliates, which he’s prepared for.”
Sitting at a round table inside Pawtucket’s clubhouse, Bradley talked about staying hungry as far as baseball goes. “It’s great to know that there are opportunities ahead, but I once heard from a guy that playing baseball at the major-league level … it’s something that I always wanted to do, but I’m not going to say that I made it because I haven’t. In my eyes, it’s just beginning.”
In other words, Jackie Bradley Jr. is as seasoned as it gets for someone with his current status.