Major League Baseball spring training is only a few days away and nearly all the top free agents have signed. , so now all of our top 10 free agents have signed, and 24 of our top 25 free agents have signed. The lone exception: Jackie Bradley Jr.
Bradley, 31 in April, is arguably the best defensive center fielder in MLB, and his 118 OPS+ in 2020 was his best offensive season in five years. Of course, it came in a 60-game season, and the underlying numbers (exit velocity, chase rate, etc.) suggest he was the same hitter as always, just that he benefited from a career best .343 batting average on balls in play (.298 career).
Even if he reverts back to the 90 OPS+ hitter he was from 2017-19 in 2021, Bradley's defense at a premium position is so good that he is deserving of a full-time lineup spot. Ideally he would hit eighth or ninth, but the point is the defense alone makes him a starting player on a contender. If he gives you league average offense, consider it a bonus.
Earlier this month it was reported Bradley is seeking a contract as long as four years, and that's not unreasonable in a vacuum. Dexter Fowler signed a five-year contract going into his age-31 season four years ago. Lorenzo Cain signed a five-year contract going into his age-32 season. In a vacuum, Bradley wanting four years makes sense.
Hard to pinpoint where the Mets are in negotiations with Jackie Bradley Jr., right now, but he has been seeking a significant contract, perhaps beyond four years.— Mike Puma (@NYPost_Mets) February 4, 2021
This is not a vacuum, however. Spring training starts in a few days, so hold out any longer for a contract and Bradley would risk disrupting his preparation for the season. Also, the sport's economic landscape has changed since Fowler and Cain signed their contracts, though certain moves indicate teams aren't hurting as much financially as they've claimed amid the pandemic.
With all that in mind, let's take a look at Bradley's market as spring training approaches.
The best fit: Astros
I like Myles Straw. He's a pesky hitter and a defensive demon in center field, . That said, I wouldn't want him starting in center if I were a contender. ZiPS projections peg Straw as a true talent .243/.321/.319 hitter in 2021. His defense is great, but there's a minimum acceptable standard of offense and he doesn't meet it.
The Astros smartly re-signed Michael Brantley last month and Kyle Tucker will handle right field. Stick Bradley between them and, at worst, the club has upgraded their offense without sacrificing defense. More likely they've upgraded the defense as well, and I say that with all due respect to Straw's glove. He's stellar out there. Bradley's glove is nearly unmatched in the game though.
Houston has about $13 million in wiggle room under the $210 million luxury-tax threshold -- their current payroll is about $36 million (!) under last year's full season payroll -- so Bradley would be a tight fit, but it is doable. Whatever the fit on the payroll, Bradley is an obvious fit on the field. The Astros need a center fielder and he's the best available, and it's not close either.
The top alternative: Giants
The Giants have been one of the most active teams in baseball this offseason. They haven't signed a big name, but they have signed seven players to major-league contracts: John Brebbia, Curt Casali, Anthony DeSclafani, Tommy La Stella, Jake McGee, Matt Wisler, and Alex Wood. San Francisco also retained Kevin Gausman via the $18.9 million qualifying offer.
Despite that, the Giants are set to rely on Mauricio Dubon (a natural infielder) and Steven Duggar in center field this coming season. Maybe top prospect Heliot Ramos arrives at some point, though he just lost a season of development to the pandemic, so a few weeks (or months) in the minors would be smart. Bradley's all-world defense would be a major asset in spacious Oracle Park.
The other good alternative: Cleveland
On the field, Bradley is a great fit for the Fightin' Biebers. Eddie Rosario is locked into one outfield spot, and the other two will go to some combination of Jordan Luplow, Daniel Johnson, Oscar Mercado, Bradley Zimmer, and whichever one of Jake Bauers and Josh Naylor isn't playing first base that day. Luplow mashes lefties, otherwise that's not a great collection of outfielders.
Bradley would take over in center field -- his defense would help cover for the range-challenged Rosario and Bauers/Naylor -- and allow Cleveland to send Johnson and Mercado to the minors for more seasoning. Will they meet his asking price? History suggests no. The Rosario and Cesar Hernandez signings were nice cost-effective pickups. Bradley is likely out of their price range though.
It could still work: Red Sox
The Red Sox could easily make a Bradley reunion work on the field. Put him in center, slide Alex Verdugo back into a corner, and platoon lefty masher Hunter Renfroe and righty masher Franchy Cordero. See? Easy. The Red Sox don't seem all that interested in a reunion though. Here is chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom's standard answer when asked about Bradley this offseason:
Chaim Bloom on Jackie Bradley Jr. in Red Sox town hall: "We've stayed in touch with him the whole time. Would love to have him back." But adds it has to make sense for both sides.— Alex Speier (@alexspeier) February 4, 2021
That sounds like front office code for "we like him but we're not going to sign him." The Red Sox only have about $6 million in breathing room under the $210 million luxury-tax threshold. There's no way to fit Bradley under the threshold without shipping out significant salary, and that won't be easy this late in the offseason. A reunion makes sense but remains unlikely.
It made more sense 10 days ago: Mets
The Mets were in on George Springer, who would've plugged the center field hole and added a righty bat to a lefty-heavy lineup. Bradley doesn't solve the lefty-heavy problem, but he is a legitimate center fielder, something the Mets haven't had in a while. The last Met to play at least 81 games in center and have a 2-WAR season was Juan Lagares in 2017 (2.1 WAR). Yeah.
The problem is New York committed real dollars to Albert Almora ($1.25 million) and Jonathan Villar ($3.55 million) in recent days, tying up their final few position player roster spots. Also, sign Bradley and it means (at least) one of Bradley, Pete Alonso, Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, and Dominic Smith will be on the bench every game. Such is life without the universal DH.
Of course, the Mets could solve this problem -- call it a "problem," because too many good players is not a bad thing -- with a trade. Trade, say, Nimmo or Smith for a pitcher, and you've opened a roster spot for Bradley. I don't think it's happening though. I think the Almora and Villar signings were the Mets closing the door on Bradley and polishing off the position player side of their roster.
Don't sleep on: Cardinals
The Fowler trade sets St. Louis up to go into the season with Harrison Bader flanked by Gold Glover Tyler O'Neill and top prospect Dylan Carlson in the outfield. That's ... fine? It's fine. Not great, not terrible. It's fine. Kind of depends how you feel about Bader's and O'Neill's bats, and how quickly Carlson settles in (he started slow last year but finished strong).
Bradley would give the Cardinals a lefty bat to balance their righty-heavy lineup and also an outfielder with some offensive certainty. He's not a great hitter by any means, but he can hold his own against righties, and that's more than we can say about any of the club's incumbent outfielders at the moment. Also, the Bradley-Bader-O'Neill late-inning outfield defense would be unreal.
Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak indicated the team wasn't done after the Nolan Arenado trade, though it's unclear whether they're willing to up payroll. They're about $7 million under last year's full season payroll, so unless they find a taker for Matt Carpenter, signing Bradley would require a payroll hike.