Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

jackie bradley jr red soxAccording to Rob Bradford (in a piece you might want to read anyway, because it’s largely about the Red Sox pursuing Indians starters in trade, which is of note to Cubs fans), the Cubs and Royals are “possibly ready to take a run” at acquiring outfielder Jackie Bradley, Jr.

There’s a lot of wiggle room in that, but it brings up an interesting topic worth discussing. So let’s discuss.

In his final draft before leaving the Red Sox, Theo Epstein and his front office selected young outfielder Jackie Bradley, Jr. 40th overall, and paid him over slot to sign. Bradley worked his way up through the Red Sox’s system, emerged as one of the top prospects in the game within a couple years, and made his big league debut in 2013.

He struggled. Of primary concern, Bradley’s strikeout rate rocketed upwards toward 30% after being closer to 20% in the minors – a story with which we’re all too familiar. Bradley got another look in 2014, and it was the same story. There was concern.

But after getting one more shot in 2015, Bradley, who was just 25 this past season, finally broke out offensively, hitting .249/.335/.498, with a 121 wRC+. You throw in excellent outfield defense, and in just 255 plate appearances, Bradley was a 2.4 WAR player. Sweet, right?

Well, there are some huge caveats. First, there are the struggles that preceded 2015 (though, hey, sometimes young players need time to adjust to big league pitching – it happens all the time). Second, there’s the fact that his strikeout rate really didn’t drop all that much (27.1% still makes you nervous, though his walk rate did pop to a nice 10.6%). Third, his power numbers exploded (.249 ISO) to such a level beyond anything he’d ever done before at any level that you have to regard it suspiciously.

Then there’s the fact that almost all of his positive production came in a scorching-hot August. Otherwise, his season was pretty ugly. There are also some unnerving home/road splits.

In sum, there are reasons to be nervous about the offensive breakout being a sustainable thing – though, if the Cubs wanted him, I’d have to assume their scouts saw some reasons for sustainability.

Bradley can be an elite defender in center field, which would be of particular value to the Cubs, who might send out Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler on the corners.

An ancillary – and not insignificant – upside to importing Bradley to play center field is that his salary in 2016 will be negligible, allowing the Cubs to focus their resources on the rotation (and the bullpen). Remember when Theo Epstein said it would take getting “creative” to make two significant pitching additions? Well, Bradley in center is certainly creative.

So, where do we land on all of this? As always, it depends on the acquisition cost, which I’d expect to be not insubstantial. Bradley doesn’t project to be arbitration-eligible, at the earliest, until 2017. Further, nobody expects his defensive value to erode, so there’s something of a floor in place. And with the upside in the bat, you could understand why the Red Sox would want a young, borderline impact player in return. Indeed, if they had their druthers, they’d probably try and pick up a guy who could immediately slot into their rotation (though that wouldn’t be coming from the Cubs unless they got *really* creative in free agency and other trade avenues).

My best guess? The Cubs saw a player they liked who could fill a spot (with upside), and saw a team with an outfield glut that might be willing to move that player. So they’re checking it out, among many other options.

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