Most of the Red Sox-related focus of late has been around David Price, and we are certainly a part of that. Aside from some potentially (but at this point not likely) reliable trade rumblings about Mookie Betts, Price is the most exciting thing going on with this team. This is really the move that needs to be made before the rest of their offseason can start. Not that much more is likely to be added, but they can’t really know what they can do given their self-imposed payroll restrictions until they know how much money is coming off the books with this deal.
Price isn’t the only Sox veteran likely to be on his way out the door, though. As we’ve also talked plenty about, Jackie Bradley Jr. is another guy who is presumed to be dealt at some point this winter. The reasoning is pretty clear, as they are again trying to cut salary and as exciting as Bradley is, he has come settled in as something around a league-average starter, and his projected $11 million could be argued as an overpay for a team pinching pennies. So, as with Price, I don’t like it but I have accepted that it is the way it is.
Still, even if you are on-board with a Bradley trade or even if you are with me and have just accepted that it is going to happen, there is still the obvious side effect here. The lineup probably won’t suffer a ton from this move, but the defense is going to change pretty significantly.
We all know what Bradley does defensively. All you need to do is search his name on YouTube and you’ll find all of the evidence you need about that. I will point out that some of the defensive metrics have been inconsistent — DRS has rated him as a negative in each of the last two years and UZR rated him negatively this past season — but I’d also point out that defensive metrics can be pretty dumb sometimes! There’s really no way you can convince me, after watching him every day for the last five-ish years that he is anything other than absolutely elite.
So, again, whether you like this trade rumor or not there’s really no way to get around the fact that Boston is losing elite defense in their outfield. Unless you want to argue the defensive metrics, but again then we have a fundamental disagreement and it’s not worth going down that path. Anyway, if and when Bradley is indeed traded, then the Red Sox have to look ahead and figure out what they do about their outfield alignment looks like moving forward.
The first option is to put Andrew Benintendi in center field. The former top prospect, of course, came up as a center fielder and only moved over to left field because that was the only open spot in Boston’s outfield. He has played center plenty in the past, too, when Bradley has had days off. He is usable in that role, filling in for 20-ish games a year at the most. Playing him there every day, however, would be a mistake. Benintendi is just not a very good center fielder and doesn’t have the range or the arm to play at a high level there. If it brought in some sort of major bat to play left field the trade off would likely be worth it, but I don’t see a path to that this year. So, this would be akin to just playing a corner outfielder out of position in a big and complicated center field. It’s not a move that should happen unless injuries occur and things have just gone wrong.
They could also move Mookie Betts over to center field. This one makes more sense, at least at this position alone. Betts is one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball, which feels weird as he’s been in a corner his whole career. He has the range, instincts and arm to cover any center field in baseball, though, and I have no doubt his talent would translate. The issue with this route would be replacing Betts in right field. The Red Sox have talked plenty in the past about finding a right fielder who is basically a center fielder to cover Fenway’s huge right field. Finding someone who fills that need and also has a corner-caliber bat is asking for a lot, and given the budgetary constraints I don’t see it happening.
So, if moving either of the corner guys isn’t going to happen — for different reasons, to be fair — then that leaves just finding an outside replacement. If defense is the only concern, there are options on the free agent market. The Red Sox could look to Kevin Pillar, Jarrod Dyson, Billy Hamilton or Juan Lagares as strong defensive outfielders. Not all of them are Bradley — some are as good or better, to be fair — but they are all very good. On the flip side, they are not as good with the bat. Bradley can be infuriatingly inconsistent with the bat, of course, but the players listed here are just consistently underwhelming. On the trade market, the Red Sox don’t have the prospects to acquire a good defensive center fielder who can also hit. Those aren’t super easy to find.
This deal is probably going to happen. It’s been characterized as something close to inevitable, and it is one of the easiest paths to cutting salary. With all of that in mind, there is an argument to make it happen, even with the pitching staff being one that still skews towards fly balls. I’m not even arguing against it, because that seems futile at this point. More than anything else, the takeaway here is less that trading Bradley makes the outfield worse. That was always going to be true. It’s just been so long since we watched a pre-Bradley outfield, and even since we’ve had the Three B’s in the outfield together. It’s going to be a different experience in 2020, and for those of us who enjoy elite defense, a lot of the time it is going to be a worse experience.