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Exploring fits for Jackie Bradley Jr.

Who needs JBJ’s elite defense the most?

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Boston Red Sox v Atlanta Braves Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The shortened season was a double-edged sword for impending free agents. While a shortened season might have given the impression that consistently good hitters like Joc Pederson have taken a step backward, it also provides some doubt that consistently below-average hitters like Jackie Bradley Jr. have made some real changes. In 2020, Bradley had his best “year” at the plate since 2016, slashing .283/.364/.450 for a 119 wRC+. His .352 wOBA was buoyed by a .343 BABIP and an mediocre hard hit rate of 36.1 percent, so his offensive jump was probably just a mirage, but Jackie Bradley Jr. is still a great center fielder.

George Springer might be the better all-around center fielder because of his bat, but Bradley is certainly better at playing the position. By outs above average, Bradley has never ranked below the 91st percentile and has finished in the 99th percentile twice including 2020. Bradley might not be league average with the bat, but he’s still an above average contributor because of his glove. Because of that, he’s one of the best options available for teams with a need in center field.

With the White Sox signing Adam Eaton, Bradley becomes a less obvious fit for Chicago. If the Sox keep Eloy Jiménez at DH, there’s an opening in the outfield assuming Eaton plays a corner and Luis Robert sticks in center. One would think the White Sox would want someone with a more reliable bat to fill that role and Bradley would be underutilized in a corner. Michael Brantley or Joc Pederson would be a better fit for Chicago, but and outfield with both Robert and JBJ would be fun to watch.

The Giants are perpetually in need of outfield help, and this year, they’re in the market for a center fielder. In 2020, they turned to Mike Yastrzemski and Mauricio Dubón for most of their innings. Yastrzemski is definitely playable in center, but he’s more of a right fielder. Despite coming up as a second baseman, Dubón impressed after jumping from the middle infield to the outfield, putting up four outs above average in 2020. The plan with Dubón is to put him in a super utility role, however, which leaves San Francisco without a dedicated center fielder.

If the Astros don’t bring back George Springer, they should heavily consider Jackie Bradley Jr. With Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick’s departure likely as well, Houston’s outfield could be decimated. Kyle Tucker took a major step forward in 2020, proving himself as an everyday starter, but there are still plenty of question marks in Myles Straw and Chas McCormick.

Of course, Bradley’s original team has a need for him as well. If Bradley doesn’t return, the Boston Red Sox would likely have to slide Andrew Benintendi over and pivot to searching for a corner outfielder. The Red Sox still have Bradley “on [their] radar,” but with the AL East being as competitive as it is and with owner John Henry being as disinterested in winning as he is, it doesn’t seem likely that the Red Sox will make a strong enough push to get back to contention this winter. Boston could very easily be outbid.

2020 might have been a high-water mark for Jackie Bradley’s offense, but his defense is remains elite, and with a shallow center field market, he should be drawing plenty of interest.

Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.