With Alex Gordon retiring, the Royals could be in the market for a free agent outfielder to be in the mix with Whit Merrifield, Edward Olivares, and Franchy Cordero. Kansas City is not likely to shop in the top tier of free agent outfielders, but if they look in the next tier, Jackie Bradley, Jr. could be a name on their list.
The Royals have been reported to have interest in Bradley before, and in fact there have been rumors they have had their eyes on him ever since he was an outfielder at the University of South Carolina. It was with the Gamecocks that Bradley was such a gifted centerfielder, he forced teammate Whit Merrifield to second base. Bradley and Merrifield still seem to have an affinity towards each other, which could perhaps help in the recruitment of the free agent.
The 2011 first round pick was a regular for the Red Sox by 2014, and in 2016 he made the All-Star team with his best season at the plate. He hit .267/.349/.486 with a career-high 26 home runs and 63 walks, and was a 5.3 WAR player, according to Fangraphs. Unfortunately he has never come that close to duplicating those offensive numbers, and he posted a below-average OPS+ in the next three seasons with a rising strikeout rate. His numbers spiked back up this year in the shortened 2020 season, and he finished with a line of .283/.364/.450 with seven home runs in 55 games and h the best walk rate and lowest strikeout rate of his career. However his high BABIP (.343) and a number of infield hits may suggest his spike is not sustainable going into 2021, and he did post a lower exit velocity and lower hard-hit rate last year than he had in the previous two seasons.
A left-handed hitter, Bradley has fared worse against lefty pitchers, although he doesn’t have a huge split, sacrificing mostly power. Overall, he is a slightly below-average hitting outfielder with a low average and a good walk rate and decent power for a centerfielder. He has a career line of .239/.321/.412 with a 9.3 percent walk rate and 25.2 percent strikeout rate.
If there is one skill that will attract the eye of Royals scouts, it is Bradley’s defense. Since he became a regular in 2014, he is seventh among all outfielders in UZR, just behind Lorenzo Cain, and eighth in Defensive Runs Saved, just ahead of Alex Gordon. He won the 2018 Gold Glove Award and continued his excellence this year (although he was snubbed from even being a finalist for the Gold Glove Award), finishing ninth in Defensive Runs Saved and tied for tops in Statcast’s Outs Above Average. He has good range and a strong arm for a centerfielder.
Bradley is a very good baserunner, even though he doesn’t steal a lot of bases. Since 2016, he is 16th in baseball in Baserunning Runs, and he may have the potential to swipe more bases if the Royals give him the green light. He has an 81 percent success rate in stolen base attempts, and in 2018 he was 17-for-18 when attempting to steal.
Bradley’s bat isn’t enough to carry your lineup, but he is a very good complimentary player who can provide great defense and put up a 1.5-3 WAR season for you. He will turn 31 in April, a full year younger than Merrifield. Craig Edwards at Fangraphs expects a two-year deal for Bradley at around $9 million per season. The Red Sox are interested in having him return to Boston, and the Astros are said to have made him a priority for them this off-season.
Signing Bradley won’t break the bank, but it would be a more significant signing than any that they have made the last few winters. If they are serious about wanting to win more urgently this season, perhaps Bradley makes sense in the spacious Kauffman Stadium outfield. But for a team struggling to score runs, his age and his bat may be concerns going forward.