TAMPA, Fla. -- There's a good reason why Jonny Gomes hasn't added his voice to the praise choir for Jackie Bradley Jr. It has nothing to do with potentially losing any playing time to the precocious Boston Red Sox rookie, who is making a powerful bid to make the big club, only a year after starting at Class A Salem, Va.
"People have been asking me about him," Gomes said the other day in Fort Myers, "but to be completely honest, I haven't played with the dude. When he's in the game, I'm out. If he goes on the road, I stay. We're on a different program."
Not entirely, but close. So far this spring, Gomes and Bradley have been in the lineup together for more than an inning just twice.
The first time was on March 6 against the Pittsburgh Pirates in JetBlue Park, when both players started, Gomes in left and Bradley in center. Gomes played five innings, Bradley six, and the rookie did not have a hit. Three days later, against the Baltimore Orioles in The Jet, Gomes again started in left and Bradley in center, with Gomes departing after five innings and Bradley going nine, with a single in three trips.
Otherwise, it has been mostly a case of Bradley coming off the bench at home games after Gomes has come out, or the two making different trips, including Thursday's jaunt to Tampa to play the New York Yankees, a 4-0 loss in which Bradley lined an opposite-field double to left and singled in the ninth, raising his spring average to .444. Gomes, meanwhile, remained back in Fort Myers to work out.
So Gomes is hearing more about Bradley's exploits than witnessing them, perhaps one reason he sounded a cautionary note to the groundswell of enthusiasm building for the rookie outfielder, who turns 23 on April 19. The game is littered with players who look Cooperstown-bound in March and two months later can't buy their way into the lineup.
"These guys come up, they do well in spring, they're hitting pitchers here and they're accustomed to hitting .400," Gomes said. "You're never going to hit .400. The season starts, and they're hitting .310, and they think they're grinding. No, no, no, no.
"It's such a huge growing process, and it starts on Opening Day, not here. Because, unfortunately, on Opening Day everybody is hitting zero. You don't get a jump start because you're having a good spring.
"Just about every vet hits about .110 in the spring and goes off in the season. I've seen tons of dudes who've had lights-out springs and then it's this and it's that. Sometimes it's vice versa, they have a lights-out spring, the season starts, and they keep running."
The people entrusted with making the decision on where Bradley's season starts -- general manager Ben Cherington and his baseball operations staff, manager John Farrell and his coaches -- all are well-acquainted with spring phenoms. But Bradley appears to be a breed apart, his plate discipline, defensive instincts, maturity, understanding of the game, and approach to the profession marking him as someone who will succeed over the long haul.
No one can be certain, of course, not in a business that requires constant adjustments, but that is why Farrell feels free to praise Bradley to the degree that he does; baseball people, far more than the media and fans who can get caught up in the feats of the day, usually know which players pass the smell test.
If David Ortiz wasn't going to start the season on the disabled list, Bradley wouldn't even be in the conversation to be in New York on April 1. In the early part of camp, all of Cherington's and Farrell's comments reinforced the team's determination to bring along Bradley at a more measured pace.
But with Ortiz now dealing with sore heels on both feet, a byproduct of his efforts this spring to return from last July's Achilles tendon injury, the Sox are dealing with how best to weather the big man's absence, perhaps for an extended period of time. Bradley poses a tempting scenario of a young player unexpectedly making the leap quicker than anticipated and immediately impacting the club.
The team doesn't have to look far for a recent precedent. No one was talking about Will Middlebrooks as a candidate to make the club when spring training began a year ago, and yet within weeks he had dislodged third baseman Kevin Youkilis, a foundational piece of the team.
The assumption at the start of spring was that Bradley would begin the season in Triple-A Pawtucket. It wasn't even out of the question that he would open back in Double-A Portland, given that he had played just 61 games there after his promotion from Salem. Daniel Nava was the most obvious choice to win a job as Gomes's platoon partner in left, while the Sox invited other outfielders with big-league experience to camp, including Ryan Sweeney and Mitch Maier.
Nava still figures to make the club, as an extra outfielder and possible backup first baseman. But with Ortiz out, the Sox need a DH. There are various options they can try, but none offer the lightning-in-a-bottle potential of promoting Bradley, letting him play every day, and using Gomes (and possibly Nava or Mike Carp) as DH until Ortiz returns.
Farrell said Thursday he does not see Bradley playing left field, which means if he sticks, the Red Sox would have to be prepared to shift Shane Victorino from right to left, a position he played last season for the Los Angeles Dodgers but had not been ticketed to play for the Sox, especially in Fenway Park.
That makes for a lot of moving pieces, but one thing Farrell doesn't have to worry about is Gomes's willingness to DH, if it comes to that.
"I DH'd all last year," said Gomes, who made 46 of his 74 starts for Oakland at DH, most on the team. "I have 300-something career games as a DH."
Make that 316, or four more than he has played in left field.
"In the past," Gomes said, referring to when he broke in with the Tampa Bay Rays, "I kind of got labeled as a DH. In reality, a lot of guys don't like to DH. Me? Like, I'll do it. Last year, Seth Smith came over [to Oakland] from Colorado. National League. Couldn't do it. I'm like, 'I'll do it. You want to move some stuff around, I'll do it."'
For Gomes, serving as DH doesn't require following a prescribed routine. Quite the contrary.
"First of all, whether you come in and bike, whether you watch video, whether you hit in the cage, do this, do that, there's no right, no wrong," he said. "There are guys who take 50 hacks between at-bats; there are guys who take none. There are guys who watch video. I've heard of guys who do stuff that has nothing to do with baseball. They read or just freaking play a video game real quick. Something to get your mind off baseball. There's not a right, not a wrong.
"The one thing I try to do is stay in the game. Believe it or not, I don't take a lot of swings in between at-bats. Position players don't. I may play left field one day, the following day I'm DHing. I'm not going to take 20 swings. My body is not accustomed to that. There's not a method to the madness."
There is, however, Gomes stresses, a preferred solution to Boston's lineup issues that transcends whether Jackie Bradley Jr. begins his big-league career on April 1, later in the season, or a year from now.
That is the return of Ortiz, who is making cautious progress -- two days of hitting in the cage -- after shutting down all activity for close to 10 days because of the pain he was experiencing in both heels. The enforced idleness -- Ortiz has played in one game since straining his right Achilles in mid-July -- is killing him, Gomes agrees.
"He's definitely the leader of the pack and front-runner for wanting to turn this thing around," Gomes said. "He wants to drive the bus on that. The day he had that press conference about his setback, he was launching stuff in BP.
"He can rake. There's nothing wrong with his swing, nothing holding back his swing. Let it be like Babe Ruth, hit a home run, someone runs for you. When he does come back, he'll be banging."