Red Sox trading Bradley far from a given

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- With the Red Sox outfield so crowded with candidates, there is a presumption that a trade is in the offing for Jackie Bradley Jr., who was the team’s everyday center fielder as a rookie last season but batted .198 and ultimately was displaced by another rookie, Mookie Betts, and a Cuban free agent, Rusney Castillo.

But that should not be considered a given. There was a recent report, for example, that the Atlanta Braves were interested in Bradley. Early in the offseason, the Braves approached the Sox about a possible Bradley deal but were unable to find a match acceptable to Boston, according to a league source, who conveyed that the Red Sox still hold Bradley in high regard. The sides have not spoken about Bradley in weeks, the source said, and it would seem unlikely that talks will intensify again.

The Braves still are on the hook for three years and $46.3 million for center fielder B.J. Upton. After trading Justin Heyward to the Cardinals, the Braves signed two free agents, Nick Markakis and Jonny Gomes to play the corners, and this winter have added switch-hitting Eric Young and Zoilo Almonte as backups, suggesting they’ve moved on.

Bradley, who played just 141 games above high-A ball in the minors before 2014, likely is bound for Triple-A Pawtucket, where he should benefit from playing every day, especially offensively. The Sox appear committed to an outfield in which Castillo will play center, flanked by Hanley Ramirez in left and Shane Victorino (if healthy) in right, with Betts clamoring for regular playing time, along with veterans Daniel Nava and Allen Craig.

But among Sox outfielders, Bradley is without peer defensively. Castillo profiles as a plus defender, but Bradley arguably was the best defensive center fielder Boston has had in the last 40 years, which in no way should be taken as a knock on the skills of Jacoby Ellsbury, Coco Crisp or Darren Lewis, all of whom were outstanding glove men.

And while a big league job for Bradley this season does not appear to be in the offing, the Sox roster will be in a state of flux by the end of the season. Victorino is in the last year of his three-year, $39 million contract. First baseman Mike Napoli is in the last year of his two-year, $32 million deal, while designated hitter David Ortiz, who turns 40 in November, is in the last year of his deal, though he has two option years at $10 million apiece with easily reached vesting triggers (425 plate appearances this season will guarantee his 2016 contract, with an additional 425 PAs in 2016 doing the same for 2017).

It's conceivable that the Sox will have two outfield positions open next season, if Ramirez, a novice outfielder, is moved to either first base or DH. Given the premium placed on run prevention because scoring is down significantly throughout baseball, Bradley, who turns just 25 in April, may yet prove to be a valuable asset.