For the better part of the past decade, the Red Sox have allowed three players to roam center field: Johnny Damon, Coco Crisp and Jacoby Ellsbury.

Damon finished his career as one of the better Red Sox players of the 2000s: a postseason hero blessed with tremendous bat-to-ball ability, good speed and surprising pop. Crisp’s tenure as a Red Sox was less successful, but he was still capable of dazzling defensive plays and impressive base running prowess. And Ellsbury, while maddeningly inconsistent, has shown the ability to be one of the best all-aroun players in the game and is a four-tool force when he’s at his best.

Jackie Bradley Jr. does not profile similarly to any of the players I have just mentioned. He does not have the potential for plus power, as Damon and Ellsbury had before him. He is not a burner on the base paths, as all three of his predecessors were. He can, to the relief of many Red Sox fans, actually throw the ball 20 feet on a line, which is one positive way in which he differs from the aforementioned three players as well.

No, Bradley is not in the mold of recent Red Sox center fielders, and he may take some getting used to. Do not expect gaudy steal totals. Do not expect batting titles. Do not expect more than 10-homer power.

But do expect a player with the potential to become an above average center fielder for a long time. And feel confident in that expectation, as Bradley is among the “safer” prospects you’ll find on most Top 100 lists, and he could be in Boston by the end of the year.

Jackie Bradley Jr. should serve as a worthy -- but different -- successor to Fenway's center field. Photo by Kelly O'Connor,

Jackie Bradley Jr. should serve as a worthy — but different — successor to Fenway’s center field. Photo by Kelly O’Connor,

For those of you unfamiliar with Bradley’s history, let’s quickly break it down. The 40th overall pick in the 2011 draft, Bradley was a star during his sophomore season at South Carolina in 2010, winning an NCAA Championship and earning the Most Outstanding Player award. His 2011 season was a relative disappointing thanks to a mix of poor performance and injury, and allowed Bradley to fall to the Sox in the supplemental first round. Bradley received just 40 plate appearances between Low-A and Single-A in 2011, and so 2012 was very much his first true professional season.

And what a professional debut it was. Essentially splitting his time between High-A Salem and Double-A Portland, Bradley hit .315/.430/.482 with 24 steals, 42 doubles and nine homeruns in 575 PA. I’d like to emphasize that the .430 OBP is not a typo, and in High-A that number was a disgusting .480.

Yes. For a few hundred at-bats in his first professional season — in an appropriate environment for his age — Bradley essentially got on base half the time.

Despite everything you just read, you haven’t even heard about the best part of Bradley’s game yet: his defense. Despite his average to slightly above-average speed, Bradley gets tremendous jumps on balls hit his way, is widely lauded for his instincts and has a good arm for an outfielder, never mind just for a center fielder. He’s the real deal in center: a potential 70 defender on the 20-80 scouting scale, and someone who could absolutely play the position in the majors right now.

Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus cites Bradley as having “special baseball instincts,” a “preternatural feel for the position” and as having “Gold Glove potential at the position.” praised Bradley’s “strong natural instincts” and his “excellent reads and jumps on balls hit out his way.” Jonathan Mayo of compared him to a “Jim Edmonds type” defensively. The reports on Bradley’s defense are glowing, and they are consistent.

Based on a compilation of industry scouting reports on Bradley – plus what I saw with my own two eyes when I saw him in Portland last year – here’s how I’d grade his potential future tools.











Unfortunately I did not get to see Bradley truly tested in the outfield when I went to Portland, although he did make a few routine plays easily, did a nice job cutting off a ball in the gap and had obvious arm strength making a few throws to second. No, he’s not Vladimir Guerrero or Josh Reddick, but he might seem that way to Red Sox fans after watching Damon, Crisp and Ellsbury turn singles into doubles and doubles into triples dozens of times thanks to very weak arms.

At the plate, Bradley did not have his best day, but I’ll give him a pass because he was facing Gerrit Cole, who took a perfect game into the fifth inning and looked like he could’ve been facing major league lineups without any problems that day. Bradley did hold his own against Cole, fouling pitches off and looking comfortable in the box and refusing to go down via the K. Plus, Bradley showed decent speed on the bases and scored one of Portland’s two runs.

By and large, I saw what I expected to see thanks to scouting reports and online video: a player who projects to be slightly above average at the plate and on the bases, below average at driving the ball and way above average in the field.

I admit that at first glance, that might not be the sexiest profile for a prospect based on tools alone. You might like the speed projection to be a little higher for the center fielder, and the limited power ceiling is a bit of a downer as well.

Plus, when it comes to “counting stats,” Bradley doesn’t project to be a stud. I could see him challenging for a .300 average in his prime, but I’m not holding my breath for more than 7-10 homers, and I think a yearly average of around 20 steals sounds accurate as well.

All of this, in my estimation, is going to cause Bradley to become slightly underrated in the Fantasy-driven world we live in where many are still hesitant to adopt new ways to evaluate players.

If Bradley “only” hits .280/.360/.400, but does so while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense in center, that’s a tremendously useful player who can accumulate 3-5 WAR a year and bat near the top of a lineup.

Some people rail against prospect comparisons, and I understand why. Every prospect is different, and when players are pigeonholed into specific roles, they can often be improperly evaluated or face unrealistic expectations from fans.

That being said, getting a general sense of an idea of a player’s upside and floor is helpful. Also, player comparisons are fun, so let’s take a look at two players who come to mind for me when I think of Bradley.

Jackie Bradley, 22 AA 271 .271 .373 .437 8
Austin Jackson, 21 AA 584 .285 .354 .419 19
Denard Span, 22 AA 597 .285 .340 .349 24

The comparison isn’t perfect: Bradley’s sample size is smaller, Jackson was a year younger and Span was already in his second prolonged stint in Double-A. Jackson also has more pop than Bradley and Span may have a bit more speed but weaker overall defense. But you get the general idea, and I think the probability of Bradley becoming a Jackson or Span-like player in terms of pure value is pretty high.

I don’t want to become known as the prospect enthusiasm killer around here, and I know I risk earning that title after last week’s modest take on Matt Barnes as well. Yet just as last week, when I reinforced that projecting as a No. 2/3 starter is not a bad thing, this week I’m here to explain that forecasting as a center fielder who can hit second in a lineup is not a bad thing either. Barnes and Bradley do not profile as perennial All-Stars – Bogaerts is the lone Killer B who does – but they can be incredibly important cogs in the next Red Sox machine that perennially contends for AL East titles.

Appreciate Jackie Bradley Jr. for what he is – a player with a high floor and a high probability of exceeding that floor, and someone who could potentially find his way to Fenway towards the end of 2013, although 2014 is a more reasonable goal.

He can’t hit 30 homers like Ellsbury, swipe 40 bases like Coco or keep at-bats alive with the voracity with which Damon did. But there’s plenty he can do, and if he gets on base and keeps balls off the outfield grass, that should be enough to keep Sox fans plenty happy for many years.

And he can throw the ball to second base from the outfield. Like, hard. That will be a nice change too.