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Tim O

Tim O’Sullivan: Don’t play waiting game with Bradley Jr.

  • Boston Red Sox's Jackie Bradley Jr. runs to first during an exhibition spring training baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles in Fort Myers, Fla., Tuesday, March 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

    Boston Red Sox's Jackie Bradley Jr. runs to first during an exhibition spring training baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles in Fort Myers, Fla., Tuesday, March 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

  • Boston Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley (74) fields a fly ball in a spring training baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin, Fla., Friday, March 22, 2013.  (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

    Boston Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley (74) fields a fly ball in a spring training baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin, Fla., Friday, March 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • Boston Red Sox's Jackie Bradley Jr. runs to first during an exhibition spring training baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles in Fort Myers, Fla., Tuesday, March 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

    Boston Red Sox's Jackie Bradley Jr. runs to first during an exhibition spring training baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles in Fort Myers, Fla., Tuesday, March 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

  • Boston Red Sox's Jackie Bradley Jr. runs to first during an exhibition spring training baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles in Fort Myers, Fla., Tuesday, March 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
  • Boston Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley (74) fields a fly ball in a spring training baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin, Fla., Friday, March 22, 2013.  (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
  • Boston Red Sox's Jackie Bradley Jr. runs to first during an exhibition spring training baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles in Fort Myers, Fla., Tuesday, March 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

He’s been the star of spring training, shining through the injuries, mediocre veterans and leftover stink of 2012. But when the Red Sox head north next week for the real games, they might not take their 22-year-old outfield prospect with them.

That would be a mistake. Jackie Bradley Jr. does not belong in Pawtucket.

Most prospects need more time in the minors, but Bradley isn’t most prospects. Some financially challenged teams need to be stingy with the long-term options of their young players, but the Red Sox shouldn’t be one. And some teams are so loaded with talent and fan interest they can afford to keep top prospects in the minors. The Sox aren’t one of those, either.

Conventional wisdom says Bradley needs more minor league at-bats before he’s ready for major

league pitching. Yet Bradley has shown an accelerated learning curve, and he was a remarkable amateur.

As a sophomore, Bradley led South Carolina to the 2010 College World Series title and was the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. He missed most of his junior year with a wrist injury, but came off the two-month layoff in the ’11 World Series with a key ninth-inning single in a one-run win. Sure, it was an aluminum bat, but when he was healthy on college baseball’s biggest stage, Bradley was the biggest star.

Last year, his first full season in the minors, Bradley crushed Single-A pitching while with Salem, hitting .359/.480/.526 in 67 games, numbers better than Dustin Pedroia (.336/.417/.523) or Jacoby Ellsbury (.299/.379/.418) put up when they were dominating at that level. Bradley did cool off after his promotion to Double-A Portland (.271/.373/.437 in 61 games), but most of those struggles came in the last 30 games, a fade that’s almost to be expected of a player at the end of his first lengthy pro season.

He didn’t carry that late-season slump into this year. Bradley’s numbers from Florida (.429/.525/.571 through Friday) are far too impressive to ignore, even if it is spring training. That’s not a nice camp, that’s off the charts, just like Bradley’s defense. He’s not the speed merchant some have mistaken him to be, but his defensive instincts and skills are exceptional.

Still, better prospects than Bradley have spent more time in the minors. Before his sensational rookie season in 2012, the Angels’ Mike Trout had 1,312 minor league plate appearances, more than twice as many as Bradley’s 615 (although Washington’s Bryce Harper did have only 536 before his stellar 2012 rookie campaign). Perhaps it would be ideal for Bradley to spend a few more months in the minors and get the final touches of experience, but the situation in Boston isn’t ideal and hasn’t been for some time.

With David Ortiz expected to miss the first two weeks to month (or more) of the season, there’s room, and need, in the lineup for Bradley. Although he’s a natural center fielder, Bradley could play in either corner outfield spot (he played left for the first time since high school on Friday). Shane Victorino would be in the other corner with Ellsbury in center and Jonny Gomes filling in for Ortiz at DH. And without Ortiz’s lefty bat, the Sox are missing their most dangerous weapon. Why not look to the lefty hitting .429 to pick up the slack?

Besides, what are Boston’s other options for the outfield or roster? Daniel Nava is a great story and could fill in at one of the corner spots, but we already know he’s a fourth outfielder at best. And if Bradley doesn’t make the team, it means that one of the unimpressive group of Ryan Sweeney, Mike Carp or Lyle Overbay probably will.

Honestly, who wants to see Mike Carp, other than the Carp family? Yet there is a roaring crowd waiting to see Bradley at Fenway Park. Management shouldn’t make decisions based on the fans’ wishes, but they also need to erase the dreary memories of last year, and Bradley will do more erasing than Carp, Sweeney or any other veteran stopgaps. It is an entertainment business, after all, and the customers would be entertained by Bradley.

Even if the Red Sox believe Bradley is ready for the major leagues based on performance (the only way he should be there), and they believe he’s the team’s best option, they might send him back to the minors in order to keep him under their control for as long as possible.

Here’s the deal: If Bradley spends more than 172 days in the majors this year, he will reach free agency in 2018 instead of 2019. If they waited 11 days and brought him up on April 12, they would loophole the dilemma and keep him until ’19. Milking that one extra low-cost year is a tool for cash-strapped teams. Boston shouldn’t be playing small-market games with its big-time star.

The one extra year could prove especially valuable because Bradley’s agent is Scott Boras, who pushes his players to test the free agent waters. But a few Boras clients, including Jason Varitek, have signed before reaching free agency. And maybe Bradley would be less likely to sign early if the Sox play start playing hardball with him now by keeping him in the minors when he doesn’t belong there.

If Bradley starts the year in the majors and excels, then the team should do all it can to sign him to a long-term deal before 2018, anyway. Plus, if he’s that good, it’s not worth keeping him away from the 2013 Sox and the 2013 fans so the organization can save a few bucks in five years, or be sure to have him in 2019. Too much can happen between now and then.

If Bradley starts the year in the majors and struggles, then send him back down and he won’t reach the 172 days of service. The development of some prospects gets damaged by premature failure in the big leagues, but Bradley, by all accounts, has the mental and emotional toughness to rebound from that kind of setback.

Last week, Boston General Manager Ben Cherington said there were three key factors in the Bradley decision.

“And those are: Is there an everyday role? Is a player really ready for it? And what’s our best team?” Cherington said. “If we use that to guide us, more often than not, we’ll make the right decision.”

Since the answers to those questions are yes, yes and yes, your best team is with Bradley on it, the right decision seems clear.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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