It was just yesterday that someone on Twitter was asking about free agent Jackie Bradley, Jr. as a fit for the Cubs in relation to my post about the corner outfield market. And my thoughts were, yeah, of course Bradley would make sense for the Cubs as a true center fielder who could push Ian Happ to left field, thus dramatically improving the overall outfield defense, and also adding an intriguing bat the lineup. I’d just written about that in the Bullets, which is what, in turn, prompted me to write about the corner outfielder market, because frankly, I didn’t see it as realistic that the Cubs would pursue Bradley right now. A free agent who would require multiple years to sign? Pfft. Cubs ain’t putting out those vibes these days …
So, then, consider me dang near gobsmacked to see this tweet this morning:
Free agent Jackie Bradley Jr. is drawing interest from the Phillies, Cubs, and Blue Jays, among other teams, as I mentioned this morning on @MLBNetwork. Bradley, 30, is coming off a season in which he posted a 118 OPS+, his best since 2016. @MLB
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) December 15, 2020
The Cubs? Listed as one of three teams with interest in Bradley? A real-life free agent?
To be sure, Bradley is an obvious fit for the Cubs, who currently sport just two outfielders. Bradley been attached to the Cubs many times before – in part because of the front office connection (he was drafted back in 2011 when Theo Epstein was in Boston), and in part because the Cubs have lacked a true, everyday center fielder for a while not – and he’s long been viewed as a guy with upside in the bat that he just hasn’t shown yet. Maybe a change of scenery, the thinking was, would tap into it some more.
Whether that last part will happen or not for Bradley, who’ll play next season at age 31, is probably in doubt. But he’s a guy who has generally hit around league-average while playing above-average defense in center field (borderline elite in his younger days, and more recently just slightly-better-than-average, for what it’s worth). He takes his walks and hits for a little power without striking out an egregious amount, and he’s coming off his best (short) season in a long time:
Bradley’s results in 2020 are probably skewed by the shortened season, and there’s a lot under the hood that would make you quick to discount a lot of it (extreme jump in groundball rate and BABIP, extreme drop in hard contact, a .048 difference between wOBA and xwOBA, the 8th highest mark in baseball). It sure looks like it was probably not nearly that good, but I think it’s worth nothing the big drop in strikeout rate to go with a huuuuuge increase in opposite-field work. It’s conceivable that he adjusted a bit, and maybe at least deserved something closer to a 100-105 wRC+?
In any case, Bradley is not going to be viewed as a top-tier impact guy, but in a market without a lot of true center fielders, he’s clearly one of the best options out there if you’re not spending big on George Springer. But he’s likely to get a multi-year deal in the $7 to $10 million AAV range, even in this market. The Cubs haven’t at all signaled that they’d be spending that much on an outfielder, so we’ll see if Morosi’s report of interest is more about the Cubs staying in touch and seeing what’s what down the line if Bradley’s market isn’t strong.
Obviously you look at Bradley’s past, and you want to dream on the 2015/16 version where he was an elite center fielder and obvious leadoff hitter. It’s highly likely he won’t be that guy any time in the future. But a league-average hitter who plays good center field defense and runs the bases well? That guy could easily be a net upgrade for the Cubs.