Jackie Bradley Jr. joined the Milwaukee Brewers on the field in Arizona Monday, wearing No. 41 and glad to be back in uniform after a protracted free agency that wasn’t settled until last week.
Bradley took a one-year, $13 million deal and holds an $11 million option for 2022.
It was the first time since he came to Milwaukee in 2015 that president of baseball operations David Stearns agreed to a player option in a contract. But Bradley valued the ability to reenter what should be a more player-friendly market next winter while having security to fall back on if that’s not the right move.
“I wanted to trust myself,” Bradley said. “I believed in my ability and my talent. I feel like this particular deal offers me a lot of flexibility.”
The Brewers weren’t an obvious fit for Bradley. They arrived at spring training seemingly set in the outfield with Lorenzo Cain patrolling center and Christian Yelich and Avisail Garcia on the corners.
“The motivation is, I think, he makes us better,” said Stearns, who was a sportswriter with The Harvard Crimson before going on to more honorable pursuits.
“Adding someone of Jackie’s caliber in terms of the play on the field, his impact in the clubhouse, his impact in the community is something we’re excited about.”
The Brewers could use a designated hitter to keep the peace. But with MLB and the Players Association unable to put their agendas aside for the good of the game, it’ll be left to manager Craig Counsell to sort it out.
Stearns sees benefits in having four players for three spots. The Brewers are protected against injuries, can exploit platoon advantages, and can bring a dangerous hitter off the bench late in games.
“That puts us in a really good spot,” he said.
But let’s be realistic. Yelich is one of the best players in the game. If he’s healthy, he plays.
If Bradley is in the lineup, it has to be in center. Paying Bradley $13 million to play in a corner would be akin to buying a masterpiece and hanging it in the shed.
Cain, who turns 35 next month, has been primarily a center fielder in his career but has played 159 games in left or right.
Bradley has played 96 games in the corners — only 18 in the last five seasons.
Cain has yet to play a game this spring as he deals with a quadriceps injury, and he could land on the injured list to start the season.
So for now it’s not a problem.
“We’ve got a lot of great players here, and obviously I’m excited to be in the mix,” Bradley said. “The opportunity is going to present itself. I don’t have to worry about making out the lineup.”
Before other offers came in, Bradley was open-minded about staying in Boston.
“There was talk for sure,” he said.
But that talk didn’t get very far. The Sox instead remade their outfield over the winter by acquiring Hunter Renfroe, Franchy Cordero, and an ever-growing collection of utility players.
Their hope is that Renfroe is more than a platoon player and Cordero can avoid the injuries that have so far masked his talent.
The only sure bet in their outfield is Alex Verdugo, whose first full season in the majors was the 60-game sprint last year.
So much changed in Boston over 13 tumultuous months as Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi were traded and Bradley eased out the door.
“I don’t think in the moment you really think about it,” Bradley said. “But as we all know, sometimes it can be difficult. Decisions have to be made. You’ve got to be fully ready to embrace it. This is a short time window. Not many players over the course of their careers stay with one team. It’s hard to do.”
As ever, Bradley had a thoughtful answer ready for every question — until he was asked what his message was to Sox fans.
“I’m working on it,” he said. “I don’t want it to just be some short thing. I feel like the years that you invest and put in, I don’t think it would do it justice for me to just give a little tidbit.”
Bradley said he would gather his emotions and come up with something later.
Bradley was drafted in 2011 and made his major league debut in 2013. Since then, only Xander Bogaerts has played more games for the Sox.
“I have some great memories,” Bradley said. “Developed a lot of great relationships that I will never forget. It’s one of the things, when you’ve been with an organization for so long, those bonds — they don’t go away.”