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Jackie Bradley Jr. quietly having a strong spring

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Good morning from the Fort, where the Boston Red Sox have a scheduled day off and we start your day off with a question:

Of Sox players with more than 10 at-bats this spring, who ranks second to spring sensation Mookie Betts in batting average?

The answer, after his three hits in Tuesday’s 9-4 loss to the Miami Marlins in Jupiter, is 2013’s spring sensation, Jackie Bradley Jr.

Betts is batting .471 (16-for-34). Bradley is second with a .382 average (13-for-34).

The difference? Because Betts has had success at the big-league level, batting .291 with 18 extra-base hits in 52 games last season, his performance this spring is regarded as more evidence that he is ready to emerge as a prime-time player. He is a lock to open the season in center field for the Sox.

Because Bradley is batting .196 in 164 big-league games over two seasons, his performance this spring is regarded as a step in the right direction, but hasn’t dissuaded anyone from believing it’s best that he open the 2015 season playing center field for Triple-A Pawtucket.

Skeptics still abound. Scouts are divided on whether he’ll ever hit enough to warrant a full-time job in the majors, even though he plays peerless defense in center field.

Bradley’s spring doesn’t compare to his 2013 spring. Even Betts' spring falls short by comparison. Bradley had 26 hits while batting .419, with four doubles, a triple and two home runs. Even with the caveat that it was only spring training, it was impossible not to be impressed by a guy who seemed to hit everything hard, and on a line.

He became just the second Sox player since 1981 to break camp with the big-league club without the benefit of a single game of Triple-A experience (Shea Hillenbrand was the other). And, at 22, he was the youngest Sox left-fielder to start on Opening Day since Carl Yastrzemski in 1962, when Yaz was already beginning his second season.

Bradley’s debut was a successful one -- he walked three times and scored two runs -- but he quickly proved overmatched. He batted just .097 (3-for-31) with 12 strikeouts in 12 games, and was returned to Pawtucket. There would be two more call-ups that season, and a promotion when rosters expanded in September, but his was a clear case of being rushed to the big leagues: Bradley not only had no Triple-A experience before 2013, he’d only played half a season in Double A.

Bradley’s 2014 was as much a failure by the organization as the player. In assembling his roster, GM Ben Cherington not only gambled that Bradley would be ready to play, but gambled on his Plan B: Grady Sizemore, who hadn’t played in the big leagues since 2011 because of debilitating injuries. And right-fielder Shane Victorino, while having a terrific season in 2013, had battled leg issues all season.

So when Victorino strained a hamstring in the team’s last exhibition, the Sox had little choice but to begin the season with Bradley in the majors, even though he had had an awful spring, batting .158 with almost twice as many strikeouts (17) as hits (9).

And it never got any better, a season-long struggle ending with a demotion to the minors that was puzzling only in its timing: There were only a couple of weeks left in Pawtucket’s season when he was sent down, and it came after a stretch in which Bradley had five hits in five games.

Cherington denied reports at the time that Bradley’s demotion was the result of his resistance to suggested changes in his swing.

“There’s never been an issue from the Red Sox’s perspective of whether he’s willing to work or whether he cares, anything like that. We’re trying to find the right way to reach every player, including Jackie, and then the player has to have a responsibility then, too," Cherington said. “That’s a relationship that we strive to reach. We want to build a good, functional relationship with any player. And if one is struggling it means we still have to work on that, but it had nothing to do with sending him down to Pawtucket.”

If the time in Pawtucket served its purpose, it was not apparent when Bradley returned in September. He was awful, with just one hit in his last 36 at-bats, an .028 average that dropped his season average below the Mendoza line (.198).

The Sox, determined not to be caught short again, converted Betts into an outfielder from second base, signed Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo, and signed free agent Hanley Ramirez. When camp opened, manager John Farrell called Bradley the best center fielder in baseball and listed him among the candidates for the job, but that talk has ceased.

For his part, Bradley said he wasn’t focused on how the outfield shakes out, only on his own game.

“Confidence level has never been an issue for me,” he said this spring. “Even on my toughest days, my confidence will never waver. Nothing but focus and determination from me. I just have to continue to do what I normally do. Head down and getting at it.”

The Sox have a new hitting coach, Chili Davis, who sounded aware that there may have been issues in the past, but insisted Bradley was working with a clean slate.

“If Jackie works consistently, he can do whatever he wants," Davis said. “You see it now. He comes in every day, he does his work, he works right and it’s showing up on the field.

“He’s a good player. He just has to come in and put the time in. Defensively, he works very hard, and he has to do the same thing offensively. This spring he has been.

“I don’t know what went on before I got here. I don’t tend to go on the past with people. I’m going to sum things up based on my relationship with him, and right now we have a pretty good relationship."