Red Sox: Should Jackie Bradley Jr. receive a qualifying offer?

The Red Sox must decide if Jackie Bradley Jr. will get a qualifying offer.

Jackie Bradley Jr. is about to venture into free agency for the first time in his career with the Boston Red Sox showing little interest in discussing a long-term extension. That doesn’t necessarily seal his exit out of town though. There are still scenarios in which Bradley could remain in Boston, one of which could be by accepting a qualifying offer.

The qualifying offer is a competitive balance measure that compensates teams for losing key players to free agency. If the player accepts the qualifying offer, they are signed to a one-year deal for a rate equal to the mean salary of MLB’s 125 highest-paid players. If they decline the offer, the player is eligible for free agency while the team receives a compensation draft pick.

The salary tied to the qualifying offer this year hasn’t been determined yet and it will be interesting to see if MLB tries to renegotiate the terms due to the prorated salaries of this year’s shortened season. The qualifying offer was worth $17.8 million in 2020 so we should expect the figure to remain in that ballpark next year.

Bradley had one of the best years of his career, hitting .283 with a .814 OPS while providing his usual stellar defense in center field. The 30-year-old has put himself in position to earn a multi-year deal. However, the average annual value of any offer he receives is likely to be lower than $17.8 million, which might make the qualifying offer too tempting to pass up.

The Red Sox would surely prefer to be compensated with a draft pick for losing their starting center fielder but the uncertainty over if he would accept the offer, sticking them with a salary that exceeds what the player is worth, might make them hesitant to put the offer on the table. Boston’s brass needs to review the other variables to determine if the potential benefits outweigh the risks.

If Bradley Jr. accepts the qualifying offer from the Red Sox

Assuming the salary ends up similar to this year’s $17.8 million, Bradley would end up costing a bit more than the Red Sox would want to pay for him. However, overpaying a player for one year might not be a bad idea.

The Red Sox have an exciting young outfield prospect in Jarren Duran who impressed during his time at the alternate site in Pawtucket this year. Duran still needs more time to develop so he probably won’t be ready to step into a starting role to begin next season.

If the team believes that Duran is their center fielder of future, their familiarity with Bradley makes him an ideal placeholder until his heir apparent is deemed ready for the big leagues.

If Bradley Jr. declines the qualifying offer from the Red Sox

The Red Sox were able to dip below the luxury tax threshold this year, setting them up to receive a compensatory draft pick after Competitive Balance Round B, which follows the second round, for a free-agent who declined their qualifying offer and signed elsewhere.

Bradley’s departure would leave a hole in the middle of the outfield. With more money to spend this winter, the Red Sox could try to fill the void with a marquee free-agent outfielder such as George Springer or Marcell Ozuna.

While Boston might look to make a splash to appease their frustrated fan base, spending on an expensive outfielder might not be the best approach when the clear need for this team resides with upgrading the pitching staff.

Splurging on a long-term deal for an expensive outfielder when Duran could be ready later in the season or by 2022 would be a short-sighted approach to free agency. Boston probably won’t go that route unless they aren’t believers in Duran’s future or their stance on Andrew Benintendi has soured significantly.

Instead, the Red Sox are more likely to target a cheaper, short-term option for the outfield. That would create the flexibility to leave a spot open for Duran in the near future and allow the Red Sox to focus most of their available budget on pitching.

Another way for Bradley to return to the Red Sox

If Bradley declines the qualifying offer, any other club that signs him in free agency would forfeit a draft pick. It typically costs the player’s new team their second-highest draft pick, although the penalty varies for teams that exceed the luxury tax or receive revenue sharing.

While there should be some interest in Bradley if he hits the open market, suitors could be limited if he has a draft pick penalty attached. He might not find the type of contract he’s seeking in that case.

That could lead to a temporary reunion with the Red Sox. Boston could conceivably sign him for a one-year deal for less than the qualifying offer would have been, perhaps with an option year tacked on. This allows them to retain a solid center field option to use until Duran is ready. They couldn’t offer Bradley the qualifying offer a second time so Bradley could hit free agency again after the 2021 season without the draft pick penalty hindering his options.

Next: Five most disappointing players from 2020 season

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There are several ways the Red Sox could benefit if Bradley declines a qualifying offer. There’s some risk that he’ll be overpaid if he accepts, but the short commitment helps provide future flexibility to go along with the short-term stability of keeping Bradley’s glove in center field until a viable alternative comes along. If the Red Sox aren’t planning on chasing after one of the expensive free-agent outfield bats, bringing back Bradley for another year is worth considering.