FORT MYERS, Fla. — There was never much of a chance Jackie Bradley Jr. would remain with the Red Sox once he became a free agent. The team’s level of interest was described to me two weeks ago as never getting beyond polite.
Bradley waited out a tough market and landed a two-year, $24 million deal with Milwaukee.
The Brewers didn’t necessarily need another outfielder with Lorenzo Cain, Avisail Garcia, and Christian Yelich on the roster. But they appreciated the impact Bradley can make on an entire team with his glove.
Fred Lynn has said Bradley is the best defensive center fielder in Red Sox history, and that should end any debate. Anybody who doubts that probably will be convinced after watching a few months of this season.
Keep track of how many fly balls touch down inside the line because a Red Sox corner outfielder couldn’t cheat over a few steps without Bradley being there to cover the gap.
Or how many innocent flares over second base fall in without Bradley there to snap them up because he isn’t afraid to play shallow.
Runners will be more willing to tag up or go first to third without having to worry about Bradley throwing them out.
And of course there is the long list of memorable catches he made in center.
For me, that list is led by the home run he robbed from Aaron Judge in 2017 while deep inside the triangle at Fenway. That had David Price laughing on the mound because it was so preposterous.
Bradley preferred his leaping grab in the right-center gap in 2014 to steal extra bases from Tyler Flowers.
“He was in the air forever!” said NESN’s Don Orsillo at the time, since we’re on the topic of baffling departures.
Bradley’s signing with the Brewers closes the book on an outfield trio that seemed destined to become foundational but was broken up within about a year.
Red Sox outfielders played 14,808 defensive innings from 2017-20. Bradley, Andrew Benintendi, and Mookie Betts played 11,827 of them, 79.9 percent.
Sox outfielders led the majors in assists in those four years, were first in UZR, third in defensive runs saved, and third in double plays started.
It all started with Bradley anchoring center field.
Bradley is a streaky hitter, frustrating to watch for weeks at a time. But if your evaluation of him starts with his .239 career batting average, you’re going about it wrong.
He has had a .769 OPS since 2016. The average for center fielders in that span is .744 and overall it’s .739. Bradley’s power and excellent base running don’t erase his batting average, but they make it far less of a factor.
Bradley’s bat turned the 2018 ALCS to the Red Sox, particularly his go-ahead home run in Game 5 at Houston.
This is not a loss that compares with trading Betts. But Bradley was a key component of winning teams, a homegrown standout who was active in the community and a good teammate.
“An outstanding kid,” Alex Cora said.
Now the Sox are left with Alex Verdugo and a rotating outfield cast that will include Franchy Cordero, Kiké Hernández, Marwin González, and Hunter Renfroe.
Cordero is injury-prone, Renfroe has been a platoon player, while Hernández and González are super-utility guys.
Verdugo is a good outfielder but probably better-suited for right field than center. The best center fielder on the roster is Hernández, whom the Dodgers preferred there instead of Verdugo on days they both played the outfield.
It’s a capable defensive outfield, not a game-changing one.
The Sox will need 24-year-old Jarren Duran to be an impact player in time, and there’s ample evidence that suggests he will be. But Duran also had a .634 OPS in 82 Double A games in 2019, with one home run in 320 at-bats.
Cora seems to have accepted that managing the Red Sox these days means not getting too attached to the players.
He was a bit chilly when asked about Bradley signing with Milwaukee.
“It’s the nature of the business,” he said. “We have our plan for this year, and we have our plan for the upcoming years. Like I’ve been saying all along, we have a good team.
“Guys come and go. They contribute and they go somewhere else. That’s been happening in baseball forever.”
He’s right, of course. But that doesn’t make it any easier when they go.