TRENTON, N.J. -- Of all the major league talent that has shared the cramped quarters of minor league clubhouses with Portland center fielder Jackie Bradley, Jr. this year, one player’s words have stuck with the young center fielder more than anyone else’s.
The message did not come from Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford or Ryan Sweeney, who all passed through Portland on rehab assignments last week, nor from Ryan Kalish, who began his rehab assignment with High-A Salem while Bradley was in the Carolina League. The speaker was Rich Hill, the veteran reliever who was in Salem on his way back from Tommy John surgery early this year.
“Honestly, guys, you’re not as far (away) as you think you are,” Bradley recalled the veteran left-hander telling him and his teammates. “You might not be as close as you think you are, but it can all happen just like that.”
Bradley, 22, has moved about as fast as could be expected in this, his full-season debut. Bradley’s .359 batting average, .480 on-base percentage and 1.006 OPS all led the Carolina League when he was promoted after the All-Star break, and through 20 games in Double-A -- a level considered a true indicator of talent in baseball circles -- Bradley’s .350/.424/.463 batting line would place him atop the Eastern League leaderboard for batting average and on-base percentage if he qualified.
“I’m going about it the same way I was in Salem,” Bradley said. “No matter what the level is, you’ve still got to do the same things. You’ve just got to make adjustments. Certain pitchers are better, and sometimes, guys step up once they’re playing someone a little tougher. Usually when it’s somebody who’s a lot tougher on the mound, you’re going to be zoned in a little more. That’s what I tried to do in college, and that’s what I’m trying to do here.”
On Saturday, Bradley served as the designated hitter in the first of a three-game set in Trenton, home to the Yankees’ Double-A affiliate. For the dozen scouts on hand, all of whom already knew about Bradley’s superlative defense, the game was a showcase of Bradley at his most locked-in offensively.
After getting busted inside and grounding out in the first inning, Bradley stayed on a low fastball in the third and drove it off the top of the wall just to the right of dead center for a double, nearly missing his first Double-A home run. In the fifth, Bradley stayed up the middle to sting a fastball past the pitcher, but struck out on a slider in the dirt in the seventh. Following the night’s second rain delay, Bradley collected his second double of the night on another low fastball that he drove to the gap in right.
But the next morning, Portland manager Kevin Boles cautioned that, despite the unrelenting hype surrounding Bradley, there are a handful of rough spots to his otherwise polished game.
Yes, Boles said before the game, Bradley has a “quality arm, and he wants to show it off, but you also don’t want to eat a bunch of errors.”
Sure enough, in the opening frame Sunday, Bradley -- whose defensive instincts and closing speed in center are nearly unparalleled -- airmailed a throw to third that nearly hit Boles at his perch atop the dugout steps.
Yes, his approach is impressive, Boles said, but his splits -- however small the sample might be -- indicate he struggles against lefties.
In 28 at-bats, Bradley is batting .250 against left-handers, though he’s hitting .404 in 52 at bats against righties. He hit .321 in 56 at bats against left-handers for Salem, a number that jumped to .371 against right-handers.
With Trenton southpaw Schaeffer Hall on the hill Sunday, Bradley looked tentative, much more so than he has against right-handers, when Bradley has shown outstanding knowledge of the strike zone and an evident plan in each at-bat.
Against Hall, Bradley fanned on an 0-2 slider at the knees for strike three to lead the game off. Two innings later, he was plunked in the ribs, and in the next frame, Bradley rolled over a breaking ball for a groundout to second. He did well to fight off an inside breaking ball in the seventh against another left-hander, and was awarded an infield single during the game only to have it changed to an error afterwards.
But in the ninth, with a right-hander on the hill, it was back to the Bradley that makes even Boles gush. Bradley looked at two borderline pitches -- both called balls -- and grinded out an eight-pitch walk.
“It’s such a fluid approach,” Boles said. “It’s balance, it’s strike zone management, and you talk about being advanced for his age, he really is.”
No player is immune to struggles, and try as they might, few players can rise to the major leagues without hitting a few bumps in the road. Bradley said his struggles as a junior at South Carolina, when he battled injuries and inconsistency and fell from being a consensus top pick to Boston at No. 40 of the 2011 draft, “was the best thing that ever happened” to him.
“It made me want to work even harder to show that once I am healthy, I can play the game at a very high level,” he said. “My confidence was the same, even with that.”
Boles said Bradley’s confidence is an asset that’s only found in the game’s best. When those bumps come -- and Boles, who has managed for 10 years in the minors, has seen them come with everyone -- he believes the young center fielder will be able to handle it.
“I’m sure with his character and work ethic, he’ll be just fine,” Boles said.