Jackie Bradley Jr. is back with the Red Sox and ought to play every inning of every game

First thing Red Sox manager John Farrell ought to do when Jackie Bradley Jr. arrives is summon him to his office and say the following: “You are playing today. You are playing tomorrow, too. And the day after that and the day after that. So just go out there and do what you do. We believe in you. You just need to believe in yourself.”

Bradley was baseball’s best defensive center fielder last season. Unfortunately, he hit just .198, and because there were offensive problems in other areas, Farrell couldn’t afford to keep running him out there. This spring, he got caught in a numbers squeeze and has spent most of the season at Pawtucket.

He has produced again, hitting .322 with an .867 OPS. He had 18 doubles, four homers, four stolen bases and a .398 OBP. Those numbers may not blow you away, and there’s no way of knowing how they’ll translate into the big leagues. So far, they haven’t translated very well.

That said, this kid is 25 years old and has every measurable tool. Young players develop at different speeds. Most of them don’t make it. But there’s only one way to find out. That is, he has to play. Tell him he’s playing and that there’s no need to look over his shoulder.

As bad as the Red Sox have been, they’re only 7.5 games out of first place in the AL East. As they look at the division landscape, they have every reason to think, “Why not us?”

Despite everything has happened, there are plenty of reasons for optimism. Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts are both 22. Both have played well. There’s a core of young pitching–Brian Johnson, Eduardo Rodriguez, Jonathan Aro–that offers more hope.

And there’s Clay Buchholz. Maybe he will end up being the ace the Red Sox thought he was. In his last eight starts, he has a 2.28 ERA along with 10 walks and 48 strikeouts in 55 innings.

Are there problems? Absolutely. It’s almost incomprehensible how poorly all those new starters have performed. Mike Napoli is hitting .197. Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval have not been very good, and that’s being charitable.

But there are 89 games left, and things can change. Ramirez and Sandoval have good track records, at least as far as producing offensively. If one or two of those starters perform better, the Red Sox might just get on a roll.

Am I being overly optimistic? Sure, I am.

But I believe in Ben Cherington and John Farrell. I believe in a clubhouse led by Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz. I believe the minor league system has significant quality depth. The Rays and Orioles probably are the best teams in the AL East, but they’re unlikely to run away with the thing, either.

This may end up being a classic kind of race in that there’s a case of some kind to be made for at least four teams, and perhaps the Red Sox can inch their way back into the conversation. Along the way, they should find out about some of the young guys who could figure prominently into their future, beginning with JBJ.

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