Johnny Damon was the first to jump ship, signing a four-year deal with the Yankees after spending four seasons manning center field in Fenway Park; in many ways, it was a fantastic signing, as Damon was a key contributor to the 2009 World Series team. Then, it was Jacoby Ellsbury and his massive seven-year deal that made Yankees fans pine for a Men in Black-style neuralyzer cure. Might Jackie Bradley Jr. be the next center fielder on that list?
If the Yankees are looking to add an outfielder this winter, they’d be hard-pressed to find one with a higher floor than Bradley. Aside from a brief blip in UZR/150 and DRS in 2019, he has consistently been among the league’s best defensive players — in 2020, for example, he was tied for second among all players (not merely outfielders) with 7 OAA; That’s a 162-game average of 18.9, which would have been second in baseball in 2019 (behind Victor Robles of the Washington Nationals). While that would be a career-high, it’s not abnormal for him, either — in 2017 and 2018, respectively, he posted 15 and 12 OAA; 2019’s 6 OAA constitutes a “down” year for him.
While DRS and UZR/150 were not quite as high on him, ranking him tied for fifth and sixth among centerfielders, respectively, they do nonetheless agree that Bradley is one of the better defensive centerfielders in the league. That on its own is harder than it sounds: Cody Bellinger is considered above-average by DRS but below-average by UZR/150, and vice versa for Avisail Garcia.
The question with Bradley, however, has never been his glove; it’s been his bat. Over the course of his career, he’s posted a 94 OPS+, a not unrespectable figure, but not exactly what most contenders are looking for in a starter. Last season, however, his bat broke out for the first time since 2016, as he posted a .283/.364/.450 slash with seven homers and a 118 OPS+.
That said, it’s fair to question whether Bradley’s performance will be sustainable, as it was driven in large part by a .343 BABIP (more than 40 points above his career .298 and 60 above 2019’s .281). He hit groundballs at an alarming rate (54.9% of the time) and rarely got the ball in the air (18.8 percent of the time). Moreover, his average exit velocity (90.1 mph to 88.3 mph), hard-hit percentage (44.2 percent to 36.1 percent), and barrel rate (9.6 percent to 7.6 percent) were all down from last season.
There are two upsides, though. In 2020, Bradley managed to cut his whiff rate from 27.3 percent to 22.1 percent, which doesn’t seem like a ton at first glance but actually moves him from the 15th percentile to the 52nd percentile among big leaguers, while his walk rate remains in the upper-third of the league (10.6 percent, or 70th percentile). This was driven in part by his reduced chase rates, which saw his swing/take runs score on Statcast improve from -11 in 2019 to 7 in 2020 (which was his highest since 2016). If Bradley can somehow manage to both elevate the ball a bit (a career-long problem for him) and generate hard contact at levels closer to his 2019 self (90.1 mph EV, 67th percentile) without sacrificing his reduced strikeout rate, he could become a valuable asset for whichever team signs him going forward.
Chances are, however, that team will not be the Yankees, who currently have a glut of outfielders on the roster — Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, Clint Frazier, Mike Tauchman, and Giancarlo Stanton at the bare minimum. Even so, we’ve said that the past two seasons, and both times, the Yankees have needed to dig deep into their roster to fill out their outfield. If Bradley ends up signing for something close to what MLB Trade Rumors projects (2 years, $16 million), he might represent a valuable investment as a high-floor, high-ceiling type of player.
Bradley would also, at the bare minimum, be able to provide elite-level defense at all three outfield positions as a “fourth starter,” in the same vein that DJ LeMahieu was intended to be a “fifth infielder” at the start of 2019. Even so, with the high premium placed on the outfield position, it’s more likely that he’ll be able to sign on with a team in need of an everyday center fielder.
In a market sure to be dominated by George Springer and David Dahl though, if Bradley somehow remains on the market later in the winter and is willing to be a backup or a rotational piece, then the Yankees may well be a good fit.