It’s a good time to be Jackie Bradley Jr. and a challenging time to replace him.
Bradley’s free agency comes at the conclusion of a performance that, on the surface, featured some of the best offensive numbers of his career, albeit in a compressed 60-game format. He set career highs in average (.283) and OBP (.364) while delivering his characteristically excellent defense.
Some of the underlying data — lower average exit velocity, a career-low hard-hit percentage, a career-high groundball rate, and a batting average on balls in play (.343) that was significantly up from his career norm (.298) — suggest unsustainable numbers. But other elements point to an improved approach that aided his numbers, including a career-high walk rate, a career-low strikeout rate, more strike zone discipline, fewer swings and misses, and a greater-than-ever willingness to use all fields that helped neutralize shifts.
In short, he had an excellent year, and it’s not hard to understand why the Red Sox want to retain him.
“Jackie is definitely on our radar,” said GM Brian O’Halloran. “We’ve all seen what Jackie has been able to do over the years. Certainly a guy that … we’ll absolutely keep on our radar and see where it goes.”
Part of the appeal of bringing back Bradley is what he can do. Part of it relates to the less-than-ideal alternatives should he take his talents elsewhere. For all the attention paid to his offensive inconsistency, he’s had enough hot streaks — and his defense has been good enough to offset some of his downturns — that he’s steadily been an average or better everyday centerfielder. There aren’t a lot of free agents about whom the same can be said.
|Offensive category||2020||MLB CF Rank*||2018-20||MLB CF Rank**|
|Defensive measurement system||2020||MLB Rank||2018-20||MLB CF Rank|
|Ultimate Zone Rating (Fangraphs)||1.8 runs||8||7.9 runs||7|
|Defensive Runs Saved (Baseball Info Solutions)||5 runs||8||2 runs||19|
|Outs Above Average (Statcast)||6 runs||T-2||20 runs||T-8|
|Overall||2020||MLB CF Rank*||2018-20||MLB CF Rank**|
|WAR (Fangraphs - uses UZR)||1.4||10||5.7||16|
|WAR (Baseball-Reference.com - uses DRS)||1.8||4||5.9||7|
The Sox probably aren’t in the market for George Springer — a 31-year-old star who will require the sort of long-term deal (and sacrifice of the No. 39 overall draft pick) best justified by a team in a win-now position similar to the one the Sox occupied in 2018 when they added J.D. Martinez on a five-year deal. Bradley is the second-best option in center. Behind him, the falloff appears steep.
The Rockies elected not to tender a contract to David Dahl, thus making him a free agent after two years playing mostly center. Dahl, 26, has a potentially interesting skill set for the Sox, particularly given the lefthanded hitter’s tendency to loft flyballs to left. He’s been competent — even if grading as below-average — in center. But he’s so frequently injured (201 big league games since the start of 2017) that the Red Sox are unlikely to target him as an everyday option.
Jake Marisnick and Kevin Pillar are both ideally platoon options against lefthanded pitchers rather than everyday options, and Marisnick represents a health concern after missing most of 2020 with a succession of hamstring injuries. Delino DeShields is a standout defender but with no real offensive impact.
If the Sox don’t re-sign Bradley, they could also contemplate internal options. Andrew Benintendi probably isn’t a consideration for center given the declines in his speed and defense, but Alex Verdugo primarily played center for the Dodgers in 2019 and played at a roughly league-average level. He could be a consideration as a replacement for Bradley.
“He’s a very athletic outfielder and moves around very well,” said O’Halloran. “I have not seen him play center field but I believe he could do it.”
Still, even at a league-average level, Verdugo would represent a defensive downgrade from Bradley in center and the Sox would also be left to find a replacement for him in right. And there, the possibilities are likewise less than stellar.
Power-hitting free agents Marcell Ozuna and Eddie Rosario are both best pegged as either left fielders or designated hitters, positions occupied for the Sox by Benintendi and J.D. Martinez, respectively. Adam Duvall, even at 32, has the speed to cover right, though he’s played almost exclusively left in his career.
Joc Pederson is capable of playing right though probably better suited for left; he’s also coming off a year where he showed a concerning spike in swings-and-misses at pitches in the strike zone. Yasiel Puig, who missed the 2020 season after a COVID-19 infection, is unlikely to be targeted by the Sox.
Of course, the Sox don’t necessarily need to find a perfect multi-year solution in the free agent market. It’s possible that centerfielder Jarren Duran — who’s expected to open 2021 in Triple A — could be ready to make his big league debut by the middle of next season, particularly if he’s able to build on his standout Alternate Site performance in competitive games. Duran is playing winter ball in Puerto Rico, where his season gets underway this week.
The Sox could also identify a solution — perhaps a bridge to Duran and protection against a further decline by Benintendi — via trade. Still, Bradley is a fit — perhaps in tandem with a versatile super-utility player like Kiké Hernández or Marwin González who could offer infield and outfield depth while also offering a righthanded-hitting complement to an all-lefthanded group of primary outfielders.
Even if the Sox do re-sign Bradley, he’d come without guarantees. His track record for offensive volatility would precede him. As impressive as his 2020 season was, there’s no guarantee that it’s his new normal.
But there’s value to Bradley even if he returns to his old normal. The Sox won’t be the only team to reach that conclusion, but as they attempt to move forward from the wreckage of 2020, they may not want to explore change in one of their few areas of strength from the past season.