After Dave Dombrowski aggressively rebuilt this Red Sox team early on in the offseason, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about the near future for this team. Unfortunately, at the same time there are still plenty of question marks on the roster, and thus plenty of reasons to be worried about how 2016 will go. One could make a strong argument that among all of those question marks, the outfield represents the biggest one. Of course, basically everyone is expecting Mookie Betts to be perfectly fine (and probably better than that) this season. It’s the other two pieces that give people pause. Jackie Bradley Jr. and Rusney Castillo both showed strong flashes in the second half of 2015, but neither has anything close to an extended major-league track record. It’s the former I’m most fascinated by, and his production may not be the biggest factor in his value.
Before we get to that, though, let’s go through a quick rundown of Bradley’s pros and cons as a player. As I just mentioned, he showed some flashes last year, but that may be an understatement. From July 31 through September 7, he hit an astonishing .371/.437/.771. It’s hard to be that hot for a five-week stretch without being a capable hitter. Combine that fact with Bradley being a top prospect not all that long ago, and you have people who are very confident in his ability at the plate in 2016.
Unfortunately, it’s not all positive. We’ve seen him fail much more often at the major-league level, and the biggest reason for that never really went away. For all of the high praise Bradley’s plate discipline received while he was making his way through the minors, he hasn’t been able to stop striking out. The outfielder has carried a strikeout rate over 25 percent in each of his major-league seasons. In fact, even during his insane August last season he was still striking out 26 percent of the time. The reason for this is his propensity to swing and miss, something he did more than all but 41 of the 300 hitters who saw at least 1,000 pitches. One can certainly succeed with this kind of strikeout rate, but it’s very difficult to do.
I certainly don’t foresee a repeat of Bradley’s 2014 performance when he finished the year with a .198 TAv. With that being said, I do think he’ll be safely below-average with the stick. Fortunately, being a negative at the plate certainly doesn’t mean a player is an overall negative. Defense matters! Defense mattering is a very good thing, because Bradley is one of the elite defensive center fielders in baseball. Last season, the Red Sox were one of the worst defensive teams in the league regardless of which numbers you look at. While the pitching wasn’t great, the defensive had a lot to do with the team’s run-prevention issues as well. Putting an elite glove up the middle should go a long way towards fixing that.
Now, the question becomes whether that glove will be enough to make up for the net negative his bat will (likely) provide in the lineup. The keys to that question don’t involve Bradley, but rather Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. As we all know, these two were massive disappointments in 2015. While Ramirez’s atrocious defense got the headlines, he wasn’t much better at the plate, finishing the year with a .252 TAv. Sandoval was somehow significantly worse as he produced a .229 TAv.
These two bouncing back is likely what is going to make-or-break this lineup. Reasonably minded people can head into the season expecting fine years from Betts, David Ortiz, Xander Bogaerts and Dustin Pedroia. That by itself is a good start for an average-ish offense. When you are able to add in the old versions of Ramirez and Sandoval, all of a sudden they’re looking at one of the better lineups in the game. To bring it back to Bradley, his bat doesn’t matter nearly as much when you already have six productive bats in the lineup. He certainly can’t be the black hole he was in 2014, but his glove more than makes up for the subpar bat in a lineup with this much production.
Bradley is one of the more confounding players on the roster looking ahead to 2016, but it’s very easy to see him being a below-average offensive player. Fortunately, he’s a defensive monster, which should help make up for that bat. Unfortunately, it’s unclear whether the Red Sox offense will be able to afford carrying that kind of bat. In the end, Ramirez and Sandoval making Boston’s lineup a force again is the key to just how value Bradley’s profile can carry in 2016.
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