Much of the discussion during the baseball offseason centers on what will be new during the next campaign. That is, after all, the essence of the Hot Stove. When it comes to roster construction, that means examining which free agents will end up where. We’re no strangers to such exercises here at Over the Monster, but there is something to be said for looking at who is still on the roster and evaluating their future. During this week’s flood of activity, we learned that for now, the plan is for Jackie Bradley Jr. to be with the Boston Red Sox next season.
However, as Matt pointed out on Monday, Bradley Jr. is still very much a potential trade chip for the Red Sox. There are a number of factors that we can’t possibly know when it comes to considering a trade for Bradley Jr., including which teams are interested, the packages offered and what the Red Sox’s roster looks like in the coming months. In the meantime, we can take a look at why it does and why it doesn’t make sense for the Red Sox to trade Bradley Jr.
The case against
The simple answer is that Bradley Jr. is still a player who provides value. Without diving into each and every metric and phase of the game, Bradley Jr. was a two-win player last season, according to Baseball-Reference and has been at that level or above in each of the last five years. FanGraphs is a little less bullish on his value, which sank to 1.4 wins above replacement last season after exceeding two in the three previous campaigns. These are not the WAR values of an MVP candidate but considering Bradley is in no way expected to perform to that level, the fact that he contributes positive value consistently is something the Red Sox should, well, value.
Now where does that value come from? The answer has usually been defense. Bradley Jr. makes plays that few humans in the world can make. His highlight reel is littered with leaping catches at the wall and diving snares. But he’s got much more than a few spots on SportsCenter to his name. The 2018 Gold Glove center fielder has accounted for 40 defensive runs saved as an outfielder during his career, including three seasons of 10 or more. Since making his debut in 2013, he is ranked seventh in ultimate zone rating (34.8) and tied for 11th in defensive runs saved among qualified outfielders. That’s not all a product of his ability to get to the ball but also his ability to throw it. In that same time period, he has the sixth-most outfield arm runs (21). When you combine those kind of numbers with all the incredible plays Bradley Jr. makes, its clear he is a top level defender.
In addition to his defense, Bradley Jr. provides some positive impact on offense. Although his work with the bat is far from middle of the order material, he has hit at least 20 home runs twice in his career, including 21 last season. He has also managed to accumulate at least 50 extra-base hits in three of the last four years. Meanwhile, in 2019, he actually matched his mark in walk rate from 2016 when he was an All-Star (9.9 percent) and he has generally provided productive results on the base paths for most of his career. Again, that wouldn’t impress anyone if Bradley Jr. was batting third or fourth but considering he normally populates the bottom of the order in the Red Sox’s stacked lineup, that is all solid evidence on his side, especially since it’s unclear what kind of return the Red Sox could expect in a trade.
The case for trading Jackie Bradley Jr.
Of course, putting a positive spin on Bradley Jr.’s offensive work doesn’t erase the fact that he has been struggling at the plate overall the last few years. After his All-Star season in 2016 when he posted a 118 wRC+ and 118 OPS+ across 636 plate appearances, Bradley Jr. has failed to even approach that kind of success. He has been a below average hitter in each of the last three seasons, including last year when he was 10 percent below league-average based on both wRC+ and OPS+. Making matters worse is the fact that his strikeout rate has risen steadily over the last few years while his marks in batting average and on-base percentage, which were never that great even in 2016, have generally headed in the opposite direction outside of a small bump in OBP last season.
Bradley Jr’s defense can make up for some of the offensive regression but what about when his defense begins to suffer as well? That’s what we started to see last season when Bradley Jr. had an UZR of -0.7 compared with a mark of 8.8 the prior year. It could very well be a fluke, particularly with the volatility of single-season defensive metrics. If, however, it’s an indication of what’s to come, then Bradley Jr.’s defense won’t distract from his struggles on offense anymore. If the Red Sox are worried enough by some of these developments and can find a partner and value on the trade market, that may lead to a deal.
Attempting to figure out what the Red Sox will do has been particularly puzzling this offseason. That is a symptom of new leadership in the front office as well as the messaging that has been presented about the future, specifically when it comes to finances. The overall evidence suggests that Bradley Jr. is still a player who can help the Red Sox with his defense and, occasionally, on offense. Without knowing what exactly the Red Sox hope to accomplish this winter, its tough to know how safe Bradley Jr.’s roster spot is in the long term. However, if we’re just judging on his ability to play baseball, even if there are a few red flags, there is enough of a track record available to indicate that he should stick around.