By John Perrotto
FORT MYERS, Fla. --- As soon as Jackie Bradley Jr. flashes his 1,000-kilowatt smile, it is obvious he is a glass-half-full kind of guy.
In fact, half-full doesn't come close to describing Bradley's outlook on life. For the Boston Red Sox rookie center fielder, the glass is overflowing.
"I like to take negatives and turn them into positives," the 23-year-old said after a recent spring training workout. "I've been that way my whole life. I don't let negative thoughts get me down. I just concentrate on making them positive thoughts."
He isn't kidding.
Bradley made his major-league debut with the Red Sox last season and hit just .189 in 37 games and 107 plate appearances while posting a paltry .617 OPS, which translates to a 69 OPS+ Yet he can't think of one bad aspect of the experience.
"It was the best thing that has ever happened to me," Bradley said.
And how exactly is that?
"I had the chance to play in the major leagues, which has been my lifelong dream since I told my grandmother when I was 4 years old that I was going to play in the big leagues someday," Bradley said. "I had a chance to experience what life in the major leagues is like. I only see the positive in it, and that's it prepared me for my next opportunity. I'll know what to expect and I will be a better player the next time."
The Red Sox are hoping the next time is opening day. They'd like to see the left-handed Bradley take over as their center fielder and leadoff hitter for Jacoby Ellsbury, who helped lead Boston to the World Series title last season, then signed with the archrival New York Yankees as a free agent for seven years and $153 million. Bradley's only challenger for the center field job is Grady Sizemore, who is a three-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner, but has not played in a major-league game since 2011 because of a string of injuries.
"We think Jackie is ready to handle the job and he'll have every chance to prove it this spring," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do down here in the [exhibition] games."
Despite the poor major league statistics (in a small sample size), Bradley has pedigree. Baseball America ranks him as the third-best prospect in the Red Sox's deep organization, behind shortstop and 2013 postseason hero Xander Bogaerts and left-hander Henry Owens. Bradley hit .275 with 10 home runs and an .842 OPS in 75 games with Class AAA Pawtucket last season, and has a .297 batting average and .876 OPS in 218 minor-league games since the Red Sox selected him from the University of South Carolina in the supplemental first round of 2011 amateur draft.
Scouts who watched Bradley during his three stints with the Red Sox last season all point to one weakness in his game. The 5-foot-10, 170-pounder -- at least, that's his listed height and weight, which might be charitable -- was unable to handle good major-league fastballs on the inner half of the plate.
"Pitchers are going to keep busting him inside until he learns to go the other way with the heater," said a scout from an American League club. "He's not a big guy and he's not strong enough to turn around a 95-mph fastball on the inside corner. He has some pop but being a power hitter is not going to be his game. For me, he is a table setter and the sooner he understands that the quicker he'll become a really good big-league player."
The Red Sox know Bradley is still a work in progress offensively, but they were encouraged by his at-bats in September.
"He looked a lot more comfortable in the box the third time he came up," Farrell said. "He did a better job of handling pitches in the strike zone. We really liked what we saw. He was a better hitter than he was at the beginning of the season."
No one has any questions about Bradley's defense: He has exceptional range and gets good jumps on balls. One scout went as far as to say Bradley could win a Gold Glove as a rookie.
"I love playing defense," Bradley said. "I watch the top 10 plays on TV, see all the different great catches and then I want to go out and do the same thing. I practice making top-10 catches. I'll be diving all over the place trying to make plays and be exciting."
The Red Sox provided their fans with plenty of excitement last season, and the party hasn't ended. More than 14,000 fans showed up for the first full-squad workout of spring training. The feel around camp is similar to what it was in 2005, when Boston was coming off its first World Series title in 86 years.
Some players (Carl Crawford, for one) find playing for the Red Sox and their obsessive fan base and media following to be overwhelming. It could be enough to swallow a rookie like Bradley, especially after he struggled last season. However, he grinned when asked what it's like to have his every move watched by all of New England.
"I think it's great that the fans care so much about the Red Sox," Bradley said. "I wouldn't want to be in any other situation. Maybe there would be less pressure if I were playing in a smaller market. But that wouldn't nearly as much fun. I love being with the Red Sox and I love that there are great expectations on me and team every day.
"That's not a negative. That's a positive."
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John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.