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Jackie Bradley Jr. is an interesting potential free agent target for Atlanta. He’s played in Boston for his whole career, and the best way for me to describe his career so far would be “Ender Inciarte but with periods of actual above average offensive production”. He has been a spectacular defensive centerfielder, and has had multiple seasons at around 120 wRC+.
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In the shortened 2020 season he posted a 119 wRC+ with a good balance of contact, on-base skills, and power. This has been his model for offensive success when he has been at his best. 2019 was much worse though on offense, at a wRC+ of 90.
Defensively, the metrics are conflicted. UZR and DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) have him as neutral to slightly above average in the last two years, but Statcast’s OAA (Outs Above Average) have him in the 90+ percentile over that same period. All of the metrics graded him out as genuinely elite before 2019. I will call him a good defensive centerfielder conservatively.
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Free agency is in full swing, and as the 2021 MLB season quickly approaches, teams are looking to add those last few pieces to make them a contender. While he hasn’t experienced it often in his 16 years as a professional, Brett Gardner is one of those free agents on the market.
Gardner has provided a spark to the New York Yankees since his 2008 debut. Does the 37-year-old veteran outfielder have enough in the tank to help the Atlanta Braves this season?
Brett Gardner: Yankees’ spark plug to wise old sage
The Yankees selected Gardner in the third round of the 2005 MLB draft and the College of Charleston alum made quick work of the minors. In the Yankees (over)hype machine that is their minor league system, Gardner was never a top prospect for the team, nor did he really sniff the MLB top 100.
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Gardner’s early years were spent as the versatile fourth outfielder in a crowded outfield that featured Johnny Damon, Melky Cabrera and Nick Swisher playing daily and Hideki Matsui splitting time at DH and right field. After his brief debut in 2008, Gardner became a mainstay the following season, having a tremendous ALCS on the Yankees road to the World Series victory.
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By 2010, Gardner was the starting left fielder, a spot he would hold down for the next decade. He quickly became a fan favorite from his scrappy play. Gardner could slap the ball to all fields and had some sneaky power as well as 20-stolen base potential. His plate discipline worked pitchers deep, and though he wasn’t a high-average hitter, he was frequently on base thanks to his patience at the plate. A late career power surge earned him his first and only All-Star nod and in 2019 at the ripe old age of 35, he blasted a career-high 28 home runs.
Brett Gardner in the wildly weird year of 2020
Gardner played 49 games last season and did things that Brett Gardner is known to do. His average continues to decline as he sells out for more power, but he’s always had an impressive walk rate while keeping the strike outs in check (his 16.5 percent walk rate last season was well above league average). The one thing Yankees fans didn’t have to watch in this abbreviated season was Gardner’s second-half plunge. With 2019 the anomaly, Gardner became somewhat notorious for posting lesser stats as the year progressed. Last season, he heated up as the season wound down and postseason played out.
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As many spectators are aware, Gardner is also known for his fire. Whether it’s going all out and climbing a wall or beating the ceiling of the dugout with a bat after a strikeout, Gardner’s flame made him beloved amongst Yankees fans, and annoying to everyone else.
While Gardner is still keen at the plate luring pitchers into deep counts with some of the best discipline in a free-swinging AL East, his play in the field has diminished. Though he’s still quick, as expected with age, he’s not as fast to the ball in the outfield as he once was, but he can still play serviceable defense.
His final line for his last full season in 2019 was .251/.325/.503 with a career-high 28 home runs and 10 stolen bases. Last season in 49 games, hit hit .223 with a .747 OPS and five home runs. Both seasons he posted wRC+ numbers above league average, so he can clearly still be productive.
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Sign him or pass: Where does Gardner fit with the Atlanta Braves?
Gardener is an interesting case. At age 37, and in decline, is he the right fight for a young and fiery Braves team? He’s going to likely command a $6 to $8-million contract for one year, and possibly the $10 million he made last year. While that is not expensive by any means, it is also a lot more than a Nick Markakis type, who the Braves paid $2 million to last season. Most reports are that the Yankees are still very interested in bringing back the Gardy Party at a discounted price tag from his $10-million option. Simply put, there is no need to get into a bidding war with the Yankees on Gardner.
On the other hand, the Braves current outfield options on the 40-man roster are not exactly plentiful. While Ronald Acuña, Jr. and Cristian Pache seem locks for the opening day lineup, who will fill that left field spot? Is 2021 another year of Ender Inciarte?
Luckily, the Braves have outfield depth aplenty in the minors, so a long-term answer isn’t needed (but George Springer would be more than welcomed if you’re listening AA). Can a crafty veteran who can still work a count with the best of them be a nice fit for the younger guys on the lineup to learn from watching? Based on the Braves recent spending history, a multi-year deal on a veteran outfielder seems out of the question.
If the Braves do bring back Marcell Ozuna, does Gardner go back to the fourth outfielder role he hasn’t had since his rookie campaign? And if he does, is he worth the price tag? Last season was supposed to be Gardner’s return to the fourth-outfielder role, and with the Yankees amid their annual injury bug, Gardner put up a 110 wRC+ season as the starting left fielder and put up a monster postseason. The guy simply doesn’t go away.
As you can see, there are plenty of questions surrounding a Gardner signing. While it wouldn’t be a terrible move, it doesn’t seem to fit the direction the team is headed.
Should the Braves sign him?
Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox
Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images
There are basically two realistic scenarios in which the Braves would sign Bradley Jr. as a starter. One scenario is if they have no intention of letting Ender Inciarte play meaningful innings and also want Pache to spend a good part of the next season in the minor leagues. In this scenario, Bradley could be a good defensive centerfielder for the club, with real offensive upside and an offensive floor that is close to Inciarte’s ceiling. One problem with this scenario is that Pache seems ready and is the level of prospect that I would not sign a non-star player to block. The other problem is that Inciarte would be sitting on the bench and being payed a lot of money for a player that could probably produce similar to what I would expect Bradley Jr. to produce. Additionally, this scenario would leave Atlanta still needing a starting left-fielder.
The second reason would be if they buy into his offense from 2020. This isn’t entirely insane, because he did have two full seasons before 2020 of well above average offensive production, but those were in 2015 and 2016. From 2017-2019 his season wRC+ has been 89, 90, and 90, which doesn’t exactly make me comfortable buying into an offensive resurgence. Buying into his offense seems especially dubious, since his Statcast batted ball profile (based on exit velocity and launch angle) already indicates that his 2020 offensive production was more luck-based than a real improvement in his play. He has a huge split between his xwOBA and wOBA, and all of his Statcast offensive metrics are either average or below average (aside from his BB%, which is actually in the 70th percentile). With all of that said, if Atlanta buys into his offense, he could be signed to play a corner outfield spot or center.
As you can tell, I do not find either of these scenarios in which Atlanta signs Bradley Jr. to be very compelling. There is a scenario in which I would love to have Bradley, however. This scenario is if his free agent market is either substantially depressed or virtually non-existent and he is willing to sign a relatively cheap deal as a bench player which is unlikely. Bradley is a good defender with the ability to play any spot in the outfield. He is also a lefty bat that is about league average against right handed pitching, and a good baserunner. He would be a fantastic piece of the bench, with the ability to come on as a defensive replacement for whoever ends up being Atlanta’s left-fielder (this would be especially useful for a Marcell Ozuna type), to pinch hit against right handed pitching, and to be a pinch runner if necessary. Ender Inciarte’s contract of $8 million to be a similar type of player to Bradley (albeit likely worse offensively) makes this scenario unlikely to actually happen in my opinion, but if Atlanta finds a way to trade Inciarte it might make a lot of sense.
MLB Trade Rumors projected Jackie Bradley Jr. for a two year $16 million contract in their top 50 free agents piece at the beginning of the offseason. This seems like more than Atlanta would pay him, since they would likely prefer to just sign Adam Duvall for cheaper to play left-field and allow Pache to roam center. Atlanta might be willing to spend a little bit more if they can off-load Inciarte in a trade. Bradley will likely be looking to sign somewhere where he can play every day, but the economics of baseball are strange right now, so it isn’t out of the realm of possibility.