Boston center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. could be the odd man out when Boston puts together its outfield. Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Here’s a not-so-bold prediction: Jackie Bradley Jr. is going to get paid, but it’s not going to be by the Red Sox.

And that’s perfectly OK.

Dustin Pedroia signed his final eight-year contract extension with the Red Sox at a price far below market value because he wanted to play for one team and one team only. David Ortiz was never going to leave Boston, and he put up historic seasons while being vastly underpaid compared to others with similar production. But these guys are the outliers.

Players’ salaries keep growing, teams keep trying to become more efficient and loyalty is a word that’s going extinct in the sports world.

That’s why even now, with less than 10 days until the Red Sox begin working out in Fort Myers, it’s hard to envision Bradley returning to the Red Sox.

Reports around the league indicate Bradley is still seeking a contract of at least three years in length and the Mets are no longer interested after signing center fielder Albert Almora. The Astros still need a center fielder and look like a good landing spot after losing George Springer to the Blue Jays. The Giants have been rumored to be in the running for Bradley, too.

Then there are the Red Sox.

After spending roughly $35 million on a handful of the lower-to mid-tiered free agents, the Sox find themselves with a payroll around $179 million, which is low for them compared to recent years. But their payroll that counts for luxury tax purposes (it uses annual average value instead of actual value) is around $202 million, just $8 million under the threshold.

After staying under last year, the Red Sox wouldn’t suffer much of a penalty if they go over in 2021. But going over now would create incentive to stay under in 2022 or 2023, as the tax rate for repeat offenders rises each year. Unless the Sox were going to make an acquisition valuable enough to make up for the penalty, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

That’s why it’s hard to see Bradley coming back, regardless of chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom’s recent comments that the Sox are still in contact with Bradley’s agent, Scott Boras.

If Boras has made anything clear over his career, it’s that he’ll wait as long as necessary for his client to get a lucrative deal. Signing a one- or two-year deal under $8 million per season probably isn’t the best idea for a soon-to-be 31-year-old center fielder. Center fielders typically have to move positions when they get to their mid-30s, and Bradley likely only has a few years of prime production left.

This is his time to get paid. And the Sox aren’t exactly looking to pay people.

They’ve already got Alex Verdugo, who played center field just fine for the Dodgers before he was traded. They’ve got Kike Hernandez, who looks like the everyday second baseman but can just as easily shift to center, where he’s made 179 major-league appearances. And they’ve got prospect Jarren Duran, the former seventh-round draft pick who continues to impress as he marches through the minor leagues.

Duran never got a chance to compete in actual games in 2020. Instead, the 24-year-old was stationed in Pawtucket all year as he hammered his teammates’ pitches throughout the late summer. He was just as good in his brief audition in spring training before the shutdown last March. And this winter he earned MVP honors in the Liga de Béisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente Final Series, then hit .400 with a .500 on-base percentage as the leadoff hitter for Caguas in the Caribbean Series.

“He’s putting on a show in the Caribbean Series,” Manager Alex Cora said during the Sox’ virtual town hall last week. “This kid came down here to work with Ramon Vazquez and get his repetitions. He didn’t have a great season but all the feedback, not only from Ramon’s coaching staff, but coaching staffs around the league, is about his work ethic, athleticism and the way he approaches the game.”

The Sox already have two left-handed-hitting outfielders in Verdugo and Andrew Benintendi. Duran makes three. Bradley, who also hits left-handed, would be redundant, unless the Sox end up finding a trade for Benintendi.

Red Sox fans will miss his playmaking ability in the outfield, his annual hot streak, his professionalism and his impact in the community. And at some point they’ll need to put together a highlight video of Bradley’s best plays at Fenway Park. It’d be fitting for JBJ to get a standing ovation in his return. He’s certainly earned one.

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