Last season, after coming over in a bad contract swap, Milton Bradley left the stadium in the middle of a game, was placed on the restricted list while undergoing personal counseling, struggled at the plate upon his return, and then injured his knee and had surgery, finishing with a .641 OPS over 73 games. Already seemingly on thin ice, Milton then went and got arrested not too long ago, and a lot of us figured that his time with the might be up.
Jack Zduriencik, meanwhile, has developed a reputation for saying nothing of substance to the media, and is known for building entire press conferences around the words "at", "end", and "day". He keeps his cards close to his vest, and while that isn't necessarily a bad quality for a general manager of a baseball team to have, it can be frustrating when you're listening in and hoping for some glimmer of insight.
So you can imagine my surprise when, during an on-air interview with Kevin Calabro this afternoon, Zduriencik said the following about Bradley, word for word:
Right now, he's the leading candidate to be the left fielder.
Bradley isn't only still with the team - as of this moment, he's in line to be one of its everyday players, standing beside Franklin Gutierrez and Ichiro. We weren't really planning on that.
I don't know that this was the idea coming into camp, and Zduriencik made sure to say that an awful lot can change between now and the end of the month. Just because things are a certain way on March 10th doesn't mean they'll still be that way on March 31st. But Bradley and Michael Saunders have gone in opposite directions since reporting. When talking about Bradley, Zduriencik made three references to energy, and also called him excited and upbeat. When talking about Saunders, meanwhile, Zduriencik said this:
We would like to have had Michael come in and do some things differently.
Clearly, the organization is happy with how Bradley has looked in the early going, and it's frustrated with Saunders. I gather they're still trying to make adjustments to his swing, which isn't really where a starting candidate wants to be in the middle of March. Barring injury, it seems like Saunders is really going to have to come on strong over these final few weeks if he wants to win the job.
So let's say Bradley gets it. Where does that leave us? Saunders, Ryan Langerhans, and Gabe Gross would be left in a fight for the fourth outfielder slot on the bench. I can see the argument for keeping Saunders up, since he could work with Major League coaches, but he also has an option and could get everyday action in Tacoma, which I think would be the more likely course. Langerhans or Gross could handle the job just fine.
And then we'd get to see how Bradley does. Here's the thing. The instinctive response to something like this is to be upset, because the Mariners are a rebuilding ballclub, and rebuilding ballclubs should play their young guys as often as possible. But sometimes those young guys aren't ready, and furthermore, the way things are on Opening Day doesn't have to be the way things are in August. If Bradley wins the left field job, he'll only keep it for as long as he's producing and is clearly the best option. If Bradley sucks, or gets hurt, and Saunders finds his game, then a switch can be made. These things aren't permanent, or even anywhere close.
So that's the situation. Saunders could still end up the starter come April, but he's the underdog right now, and I'd be lying if I said I weren't disappointed. But I'm not so much disappointed in the team as I am disappointed in Saunders, and his lack of progression. He's one of my favorite players in the system, but he needs to play better than he has, and he doesn't deserve to have a job handed to him. Youth isn't a good reason on its own to let a guy start.
And Bradley? Who knows. As a starter, he could be terrible, he could be awesome, or he could be somewhere in between. What he wouldn't be is boring. Unpredictability can be fun if you look at it right.