Boston Red Sox must let Jackie Bradley play when Hanley Ramirez returns


The Boston Red Sox will have a decision to make when Hanley Ramirez is ready to return to the lineup.

Ramirez has missed the last 7 games since fouling a ball off his foot in Detroit, but the team’s hesitance to place him on the disabled list suggests he should return this week. The Red Sox have used Jackie Bradley, Jr. in left field during Ramirez’s absence, but putting Ramirez back in the lineup isn’t as simple as having him replace Bradley. The case can be made that the team is actually better off sticking with Bradley in the outfield.

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The most obvious reason is of course the defensive upgrade that Bradley provides. Ramirez has been one of the game’s worst fielders, with -16 Defensive Runs Saved this season. His transition to the outfield has been a disaster and it’s about time the Red Sox cut the cord on that experiment.

Meanwhile, Bradley is widely considered to be one of the league’s best defensive outfielders. As disappointing as the Red Sox pitching staff has been this season, an outfield patrolled by Bradley, Mookie Betts and Rusney Castillo would go a long way toward making those pitchers look better.

While we’re at it, can we finally retire the notion that Bradley can’t hit? During a scorching August in which he’s hitting .356, Bradley has raised his season slash line to .247/.340/.494. Granted it’s a small sample size, but in his limited playing time he has actually performed better than Ramirez at the plate this season.

Bradley’s .834 OPS is not only higher than Ramirez’s, it’s the third best on the team among hitters with at least 30 games played. While Ramirez has walked only 20 times in 370 at-bats, Bradley is quickly gaining on him with 12 walks in 85 at-bats. Ramirez has a clear advantage in home run power, but he shockingly only has 9 doubles all season. Bradley has 5 in a fraction of the amount of plate appearances. Ramirez’s 101 OPS+ is barely above league average, while Bradley has delivered a 124 OPS+ that borders on being All-Star worthy.

Bradley has been working on fixing his mechanics at the plate since last winter. We have limited evidence of his refined approach at the major league level, but he’s been showcasing it for more than just a few weeks. Bradley hit .305 with 9 homers and an .853 OPS in 71 games in Pawtucket this year. With a few adjustments, Bradley suddenly looks like a completely different hitter.

A rival scout told the Boston Herald’s Scott Lauber that Bradley’s swing looks “shorter, more direct, level, on the ball.” He also has worked to eliminate a toe-tap from his routine, which was slowing down his swing. If he can stick with these adjustments, the version of Bradley the Red Sox get going forward should be closer to what we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks rather than the player that had seemed lost at the plate.

I admit that this does not mean that Bradley actually is a better hitter than his more established teammate. Ramirez has a lengthy track record of being among the best in the game, while Bradley has only recently proved capable of cutting it at the major league level. However, while Bradley won’t keep up his current torrid pace, his production is clearly on the rise, while the 31-year old Ramirez’s may be trending in the opposite direction. The gap between them may not be as wide as we once thought, while the defensive upgrade could make Bradley significantly more valuable.

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Now this isn’t to suggest that the Red Sox need to bench their $88 million man. Ramirez is going to get playing time as long as he’s healthy, but the team needs to re-evaluate how he is used.

The idea of using Ramirez at first base has been floated around for a while now. While it’s something to consider for next year, trying him out at a new position now would be too risky. Leave that experiment for spring training in 2016. Besides, the Red Sox need to use the remainder of the season to see what they have in Travis Shaw.

Ramirez does have experience playing third base though. He can’t really be any worse at the hot corner than he has been in left field and Pablo Sandoval has been a mess defensively anyway. The pair of “prized” free agent acquisitions could form a platoon at third, with Ramirez playing primarily against lefties, who have held Sandoval to a .202 average this season. Ramirez could also see time at DH against lefties, considering David Ortiz is hitting only .231 against them and the 39-year old could use the occasional day off down the stretch to keep him fresh.

The rest of Ramirez’s at-bats would have to come in left field, with the other outfielders rotating days off to fit him in. By giving each of them one day off per week, while sitting either Sandoval or Ortiz against lefties, there are enough at-bats to go around for Ramirez to still play almost everyday without taking significant playing time away from anyone else. It also limits Ramirez’s exposure to playing in the outfield and allows them to keep playing Bradley to see if he keeps hitting.

The Red Sox need more time to evaluate Bradley’s production to see if he can fit into their plans for next year. Or at least allow him to build some trade value, if they prefer to go that route. If his playing time becomes sporadic following Ramirez’s return, the Red Sox risk having him fall back into a prolonged slump.

Ramirez should return to the lineup soon and he has to play. So does Bradley. It’s up to the Red Sox to figure out how to make that work.