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Scattered Thoughts on the Hunter Renfroe/Jackie Bradley Jr. trade

Like most every move this time of year, it’s hard to judge at this point.

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Division Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox - Game Four Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Right before the clock struck midnight and the owners decided to impose a lockout on the players that came with it a freeze of all transactions, the Boston Red Sox got one more move out of their system via trade. Out of nowhere they sent Hunter Renfroe to the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for old friend Jackie Bradley Jr. as well as prospects Alex Binelas and David Hamilton. Here are some scattered thoughts on the deal.

  • We should start by talking about the season that Renfroe just had for the Red Sox, because it was a big year and a significant reason Boston was able to go as far as they did. We actually have his season review coming up later today by coincidence, but just to summarize he hit .259/.315/.501 with 31 homers and a 114 wRC+. A streaky hitter, at times he was the one carrying the load more than anyone else in this lineup. With that offense also came defense that was set up for making game-changing plays. Before we get into the reasons why trading him makes at least some sense, we should certainly acknowledged what did happen in 2021 and the importance that was there for the team.
  • That said, there’s a reason we’d been talking about him as a potential trade candidate since the very moment the offseason got underway. The big raise in arbitration is part of it, though it’s not as though the Red Sox were shedding salary as they actually took more money back in this deal than they gave up. But in addition to the money, there are legitimate concerns about how sustainable Renfroe’s 2021 was. We mentioned above that he is a streaky hitter, and those types of players can have the kind of season he just had but then come back the next year and be below-average at the plate, which is what he had been three of the previous four seasons. And while he made some huge plays defensively, overall he was just fine rather than very good because he played at a speed that would cause him to make big mistakes in other moments. Just as a vague idea, trading Renfroe certainly had its merits.
  • The other part of the coin is what they got back and whether or not it was enough to trade away one of the key players from a team that went to the ALCS, even given the fears for regression and defense mentioned above. Bradley is the highlight coming back, but he’s not the reason this trade was made. The Red Sox are certainly hoping he can play some sort of role on this team, but they took on his salary in order to get a better prospect return in the form of Alex Binelas and David Hamilton. It’s a similar thought process to when they received Frank German along with Adam Ottavino last year, though this time they are giving up a player as well so the prospects they get back should be better than German, who looks like his ceiling may be of a solid middle reliever.
  • But even though he’s not the main reason for the team making this deal, we should start with Bradley, and we should start with the sentimental fan side of things. There will be people who look at this in a cold and calculated manner, taking feelings out of it and looking at what Bradley did (or more often did not) do this past season. That’s fair. To each their own. But for many of us Bradley was a favorite on the roster for the better part of a decade, and just having him back on the dugout and in the field at times is something to celebrate. This is supposed to be fun, so there’s certainly nothing wrong with celebrating a favorite coming back to the team, even if the player has some major question marks.
Boston Red Sox v Atlanta Braves Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images
  • And that is certainly where we’re at with Bradley, who had a good case for being the worst hitter in the entire league in 2021. In his first season outside the Red Sox organization, Bradley hit just .163/.236/.261 for a 35 wRC+, which means by that metric he was 65 percent worse than the league-average hitter. That’s Sandy León levels of ineptitude at the plate. Now, Bradley has rarely been a great hitter over his career, but this is a new level of extreme lack of production. His defense is still fantastic, but given how poorly he hit in 2021 it seems hard to believe the Red Sox are going to give him a full-time role, and that’s the right move.
  • Instead, this seems to telegraph that there is going to be another move coming for a corner outfielder, with Kyle Schwarber and Seiya Suzuki being the two most prominent possibilities. Those would be big moves and in conjunction with this move would probably be a net positive for the organization. Granted, the moves have to actually happen before we can celebrate. But assuming some other outfielder is added to take over a corner role, my guess is that we’d see Alex Verdugo in right field with Enrique Hernández sticking in center field most of the time. They could also add a second baseman, but if not the other option would be to roll with Christian Arroyo most of the time, with some instances of Hernández coming in to play second and Bradley starting in center field. I suspect that’s how they’ll start things off in the beginning of the season, with the flexibility to add more playing time for Bradley if he does regain some stability at the plate.
  • Along with not wanting to hand Bradley a full-time role, the other reason to now bring in another starting quality outfielder would be to be able to put Jarren Duran down in Triple-A to start the season. His audition in the majors last season was such that he shouldn’t be handed a major role out of the gate in 2022 either, and it’s unlikely they want him on the bench in the majors versus getting consistent at bats in the minors. If he does start hitting and Bradley doesn’t regain form at the plate, they could make that swap midseason and eat the money they’re paying Bradley.
  • As far as the prospects, I’ll need some more time learning about them before I make any strong opinions, but they are both at least intriguing. I don’t believe either Binelas nor Hamilton are top 10 prospects in this organization, but in an improving farm system that doesn’t mean they are nothing prospects. Binelas hasn’t yet played his first full season so it’s a lot of projection at this point, but the power is intriguing and he held his own in A-Ball right out of college. Hamilton’s defensive profile is such that he looks like a potential bench piece that is relatively close to the majors with some second division starter upside. These aren’t system-changing prospects, but it’s the kind of depth that may make it easier to swing a trade on the other side of the lockout.
Boston Red Sox End of Season Press Conference Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images
  • If given the choice, I probably would have rather used Renfroe to upgrade the pitching, possibly for a reliever, rather than using him to essentially buy a couple of prospects. That said, this path has its warrants as well, assuming they find another way to address the pitching. And of course, we have no idea what may have been out there, if anything, in terms of pitching coming back for Renfroe.
  • To sum it up, this just really feels like another one of those moves that we have to wait and see what happens the rest of the winter to judge. The prospects will turn out how they turn out, but in terms of instant reaction they seem like solid returns for Renfroe, though nothing that will blow us away. But to me this is really going to come down to what they do to counteract Renfroe’s loss in the outfield. If they do make a relatively high-impact move by signing someone like Schwarber or Suzuki, or maybe even Kris Bryant, then I think all together the string of moves improves the major-league roster while adding prospect depth as well. But if they settle for a fringe starter in left field or do nothing else at all for the lineup, then they are making the major-league roster worse in order to add a couple of fine but unspectacular prospects. I’d be surprised if the latter scenario comes to fruition, but it’s not impossible so it’s best to withhold sweeping judgement until we figure out that piece.