PHOENIX -- Remember when the Brewers signed Lorenzo Cain, traded for Christian Yelich and had “too many outfielders” in the spring of 2018? They are doing it again.
A source told MLB.com’s Ian Browne that the Brewers are in agreement with free agent, Gold Glove Award-winning outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. on a contract that reportedly pays $24 million over two years and offers Bradley an opt-out after Year 1. The Boston Globe was first to report the news early Thursday morning.
The Brewers did not confirm the agreement, which is pending a physical exam.
Bradley’s wife, Erin, took to social media to offer a heartfelt thank you to the Red Sox and their fans while saying, “Hello, Brewers.”
The Brewers came to camp with a question mark at third base but looking set in the outfield, with Yelich intent on returning to MVP form after he was one of the many MLB stars who put up more meager than expected statistics in the shortened 2020 season, Cain returning to action after electing not to play last year over concerns about the coronavirus and a desire to reconnect with his faith and Avisil Garcia having shed 36 pounds to be more fleet in right field. President of baseball operations David Stearns assembled an army of former top prospects to compete for the backup jobs behind that trio, including organizational newcomers Derek Fisher and Billy McKinney and in-house options Corey Ray and Tyrone Taylor. Fisher, McKinney and Ray are not too far removed from being MLB Pipeline Top 100 prospects.
Now comes Bradley, 30, the first-round Draft pick of the Red Sox in 2011 who had spent his entire career with Boston including the past eight seasons in the Major Leagues, mostly as a center fielder. He is a .239/.321/.412 hitter who bucked the trend and hit well in 2020, with a career-best .364 on-base percentage as part of an .814 OPS. Bradley has a bit of power (he topped out at 26 home runs and was an American League All-Star in 2016) that should play up at American Family Field compared to Fenway's cavernous right field, some speed (he stole 17 bases in 2018, but that is his only year in double digits) and a golden glove, ranking tied for 10th among outfielders in defensive runs saved since 2014, Bradley’s first year of regular playing time with the Red Sox.
Cain is fourth on that list, and how he and Bradley will fit in the same outfield is the most pressing question facing Stearns and manager Craig Counsell in the wake of the Bradley news. Counsell made it clear on Thursday, however, that, “Lorenzo is our center fielder.”
“We don’t have any fourth outfielders,” Counsell said. “We’re going to have a lot of starting outfielders and we’re going to have to figure out how that works. That’s kind of how I’m viewing it. But there is playing time, absolutely.
The answer, with no designated hitter in the National League as the rules are currently written, probably involves moving some players in and out of the lineup. Yelich, who isn’t budging from the lineup, is a left-handed hitter. So is Bradley. Cain and Garcia are right-handed hitters. Bradley and Garcia have experience manning both center field and right field.
So, there could be a scenario in which one day Yelich, Cain and Bradley form a starting outfield, the next day it’s Yelich, Bradley and Garcia, and the next it’s Yelich, Cain and Garcia. Add that up over a season, and Counsell believes there are sufficient at-bats to go around while keeping everyone healthy and having solid insurance in the event Yelich’s back acts up, or Cain’s legs get tight, for example.
Adding Bradley insures the Brewers against the health of 35-year-old Cain, who said his workouts last summer and over the winter in Oklahoma consisted mostly of running around after his kids. He typically hits at the University of Oklahoma, but that was restricted this offseason due to the coronavirus, so the Brewers and Cain instead mapped out a conservative spring schedule that allows the 35-year-old to get his legs under him.
Cain, who has been dealing with some leg soreness this week, won’t play in the Cactus League until after Sunday’s team off-day at the earliest.
Cain has two years remaining on his five-year contract. Garcia could be a free agent as soon as after this season if the Brewers decline his club option for 2022.
“Look, adding players that we can put out there every day, a combination of players who are going to tackle all of those plate appearances, I think it can create a really good insurance floor,” Counsell said. “And it would allow us to go a little bit slower [with] Cain at the start of the season if we had to. I’m not anticipating that will happen.”
Of Cain’s current health, Counsell said, “We’re trying to get his legs underneath him and it’s going a little slower than we’d like. Nothing that I would say we’re worried about, but it’s got to be a foundation. We have to build his foundation for him. It makes sense that he needs it. His legs were bugging him so we’re going a little slower, but it’s nothing I’m worried about for the season. We’re just going to have to go a little slower at the start here.”
Whatever the daily breakdown in the regular season, the Brewers appear a vastly improved defensive team with the return of Cain and the additions of Bradley and Gold Glove Award-winning second baseman Kolten Wong. Before Thursday, Wong’s two-year, $18 million contract was Milwaukee’s biggest offseason splash.
“One of the ways we’re going to prevent runs is with defense this year,” said Counsell, who tends to think of pitching and defense together as the so-called run-prevention unit. “We’ve invested in that this year. There’s scoring runs and there’s preventing runs, and we’re going to try to be really good at preventing runs this year.
“Clubs have strengths in different places, and [defense] needs to be a strength for us to be successful.”