baseball

Bradley having fun, turning heads

Former USC standout outfielder a rising star in Red Sox organization

nwhite@thestate.comJanuary 29, 2013 

— Jackie Bradley knows how to make a splash.

The center fielder did it when he arrived at Carolina Stadium for the South Carolina baseball program four years ago. Now he’s doing the same thing in the Boston Red Sox organization.

Tuesday night, the Virginia native was a featured guest in his adopted home state at the annual hot-stove dinner hosted by the Greenville Drive, Boston’s Class A affiliate in the South Atlantic League.

After helping lead the Gamecocks to a pair of national championships in his three seasons on campus — winning the College World Series MVP award in 2010 — he was drafted by the Red Sox with the 40th selection in the 2011 MLB draft. He might have been drafted higher in the first round if he hadn’t struggled offensively and suffered a wrist injury as a junior, but he was determined to show Red Sox officials that their faith in him was justified.

Did he ever.

In his first full season of professional baseball, Bradley posted a combined line at Single-A Salem, Va., and Double-A Portland, Me., of a .315 batting average with 42 doubles, nine homers, 63 RBIs, 90 runs scored and 24 stolen bases while playing his usual stellar defense. For his play, he was named the second-best prospect in the Red Sox organization by Baseball America while also earning best batting prospect and best defensive outfielder nods.

“I knew what kind of ballplayer I was capable of being, and I did not want that one down year to define what kind of player I was,” Bradley said. “I knew from the previous two years (at USC) that I had what it took. I just had to keep playing and keep improving to play at the next level. I went into the year with a clear mindset. There was an opportunity in front of me, and I was going to take full advantage of it.”

Opposing managers also named him the No. 5 prospect in the Double-A Eastern League and the No. 4 prospect in the Single-A Carolina League, where he was tabbed the best batting prospect, fastest base-runner, best defensive outfielder, best outfield arm and most exciting player.

He also learned to handle the mental and physical grind of playing 128 games in a five-month pro season, and he was able to get through it injury-free for the most part.

Ben Crockett, Boston’s director of player development who attended the Drive’s event, noted that the Red Sox weren’t surprised by Bradley’s adjustment to swinging a wood bat and performing against a higher level of competition. He pointed to Bradley’s standout play on the biggest stages of the college game.

“Anytime a player can come into his first full season and make the kind of impact that Jackie did immediately is a pretty impressive thing. Obviously, we had high hopes and expectations for Jackie in drafting him,” Crockett said. “We had a lot of confidence in his ability to hit and really be a well-rounded player, defensively, at the plate and on the bases. That’s something we’re happy with and excited to see the way it played out.”

Bradley pointed to his experience playing in the SEC as good preparation for his career. He heads to spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., uncertain about where he will start this season, whether he’s back in Portland or perhaps with Triple-A Pawtucket, R.I.

“We take the previous season into account when we’re making those types of decisions. They’re not solely based on spring training by any means. For a guy who spent only half a season in Double-A, at his age and experience level, he’ll still need to continue to come on and perform, work hard like we know he will, and show us where he’s ready to go,” Crockett said. “At this point, once you get to the upper levels of Double-A, you’re pretty close. The need to rush isn’t necessarily there.”

Bradley isn’t too concerned about his next assignment. He wants keep pushing forward, even as he begins to understand his high profile, exciting play and ebullient personality already are creating a buzz among Red Sox fans, who view him as the heir apparent to center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury.

“I’m just trying to play at a very, very high level and compete. I’ll try to help out any team I can as I’m moving up the levels,” Bradley said. “Naturally, I want to get to the big club and help out with them as well. It’s always nice to get recognized and noticed, but that’s not necessarily why I’m there. I’m enjoying the game and having fun, doing what I always do.”

He’s taking the same approach off the field, where things also are going well. He returned to Columbia last fall to continue his education at USC. He’s nine classes away from his retail management degree. And he’s engaged to Erin Helring, a former high school classmate from Prince George, Va. The two are planning a December wedding.

Ultimately, Bradley’s baseball sights are set on Fenway Park.

“I want to have an integral role in the big leagues,” he said. “Most of all, I want to win. I want to be a winner.”

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