Too many outfielders, part two.
The standard operating procedure under the current David Stearns regime has been to take advantage of as many opportunities to as bring in as many good players as possible, and figure out the positions and playing time later. Time and time again we have seen Slingin’ Stearns and company go out and get a bat and present manager Craig Counsell with the challenge of how to fit him into the mix. That is what happened again this offseason, not once but twice — with the signing of Kolten Wong that moved Keston Hiura to first base, and the acquisition of Jackie Bradley, Jr., giving the team two former Gold Glove award winners in center field.
Bradley, Jr. signed a creatively written two-year, $24 mil deal during Spring Training that could become a one-year deal if an opt-out clause is exercised or a three-year pact if a mutual option is executed, and he joins Lorenzo Cain as someone who will spend time roaming the center field grass at American Family Field in 2021. He comes to the Brewers off arguably the finest offensive season of his eight-year career, finishing his tenure in Boston by batting .283/.364/.450 for a career-best 122 Rbat+, albeit during a pandemic-shortened season that included 55 games and 217 plate appearances for JBJ. He hit 7 home runs and 11 doubles, stole 5 bases, and posted career-bests in strikeout (22.1%) and walk (10.6%) rates.
The left-handed swinging Bradley, Jr. has flashed brilliant offensive potential during his career, having twice previously mashed 20+ long balls in a season in addition to a couple of years with an OPS over .800 before 2020. He’s been inconsistent at times, struggling with swing-and-miss as well as a notable platoon split, but he’s established his floor as a someone with a competent bat and superlative defensive ability, a package that should yield 2+ WAR per season with everyday playing time.
Since he debuted in the big leagues in 2013, Bradley, Jr. ranks #3 among center fielders with +51 Defensive Runs Saved. The man who sits atop that list (by a margin of +28 runs saved) is who JBJ will be sharing time with in center field this year — Lorenzo Cain (+100 DRS). The soon-to-be 35 year old opted out of most of the 2020 season amid COVID-19 concerns as well as a desire to more deeply connect with his family and his faith, appearing in only five games and taking 21 turns at the plate. Prior to that in 2019, Cain posted his worst offensive season in six years, finishing with a .260/.325/.372 slash line for an 83 Rbat+. Several underlying metrics suggest that Cain was unlucky to finish with that result in 2019, however, with his quality-of-contact data suggesting that his expected weighted on-base average should have been some 28 points higher (.330 xwOBA) than where it actually finished (.302 wOBA). Cain appeared to be on his way to a bounce back last summer before opting out (small-sample .817 OPS) and has looked strong so far during camp, hitting .267/.421/.467 including his first home run yesterday.
Both JBJ and LoCain have struggled with injuries at times during their careers, and indeed both players have been slowed at times during Spring Training so far this year, with Cain appearing in just five games and Bradley, Jr. in seven. But Counsell is planning on both players starting the year on the Opening Day roster, so it appears that there is not too much concern about their various camp ailments. Because of Cain’s age and injury history, he stands out as a player who should likely receive somewhat regular maintenance days off during the season, which would open up plenty of time for Bradley, Jr. to patrol the position for the Brewers. JBJ’s left-handed bat will allow Counsell to play matchups with the right-handed hitting Avisail Garcia in right field, as well. Not to mention, Garcia is coming off a very down year at the plate.
We’ve seen how this movie plays out before — fans panic about having too many competent players within a given position group before the season starts, then as things progress the “issue” resolves itself naturally as the team deals with injuries and fluctuations in performance. There will be plenty of playing time for everyone, and having a deep cache of legitimately good players at a position is never a bad thing. Plus, there should be a plethora of fun defensive highlights by the end of the year between the two Gold Glove center fielders.
In the Minors
Tyrone Taylor and Corey Ray are both legitimate defensive center fielders, and if one of Cain or Bradley, Jr. goes down during the season, it may be one of those two players who get the call. Derek Fisher also saw time in center during the early part of camp before going down with an injury. Tristen Lutz has played some center as he’s ascended the minor league ladder, and of course Garrett Mitchell has gotten rave reviews during Spring Training that could portend to an aggressive first minor league assignment. Carlos Rodriguez, Micah Bello, Pablo Abreu, Arbert Cipion, Joe Gray, Hedbert Perez, Eduarqui Fernandez, and Luis Medina are other center field-capable players down in the lower levels of the farm system.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs