Why the Red Sox traded Hunter Renfroe for Jackie Bradley Jr.
The Boston Red Sox swung a stunning trade just ahead of the lockout that went into effect at midnight to bring a familiar face back from the National League. No, it’s not the guy they shipped to the Dodgers, although he is an outfielder who was a part of that same championship core from 2018.
On the surface, this is a baffling swap of outfielders for a Red Sox team intent on remaining a contender. Bradley Jr. was one of the worst players in baseball last season, hitting a pitiful .163 with a .497 OPS, six home runs and 29 RBI for the Brewers. His 35 wRC+ and -0.8 WAR were the worst among major league position players with 400+ plate appearances, per FanGraphs.
Renfroe had a career year, hitting .259 with a .816 OPS, 31 home runs, 96 RBI, 114 wRC+ and 1.8 fWAR.
There were whispers that Renfroe was a non-tender candidate with the Red Sox hesitant to buy into his career-year by paying the $7.6 million he’s projected to earn in arbitration. Instead, they traded him away for a below replacement-level player who is owed more money. Bradley Jr. is owed $9.5 million next season plus an $8 million buyout on his $12 million mutual option for 2023 (there’s no chance that gets picked up). The Red Sox are paying Bradley Jr. a guaranteed $17.5 million, proving this trade wasn’t about saving money.
This deal wasn’t about bringing back Bradley Jr. either. The Red Sox didn’t view JBJ as worth retaining at the price the Brewers paid him in free agency last year. Do you really think the worst season of his career convinced them to change their minds?
Despite his reputation as one of the best defensive outfielders in franchise history, Bradley Jr.’s glove no longer offsets his lack of production at the plate. Chaim Bloom can express all the optimism he wants about how returning to Boston will revitalize the veteran center fielder to get him back to the player he used to be but it’s all a smokescreen. JBJ cannot be an everyday player if his bat continues to be anywhere near as dreadful as it was in Milwaukee.
It’s clear the Red Sox were willing to sell high on Renfroe. As impressive as his 30+ homer power was in the middle of the lineup, Renfroe has always been a player who struggles to get on base at a reasonable clip. So much praise was given to Renfroe for leading the league in outfield assists that it often went overlooked that he also led major league outfielders in errors and showed a frustrating habit of getting poor jumps on his routes.
Milwaukee was eager to add Renfroe’s bat to their lineup but he wasn’t deemed valuable enough to pry away the prospects that Bloom coveted. The Brewers also wanted to carve out payroll space and dumping Bradley Jr.’s contract on Boston was the only way to get the deal done.
This was essentially a salary dump trade, similar to when the Red Sox took on Adam Ottavino’s contract from the Yankees in order to acquire pitching prospect Frank German. Boston is using their financial flexibility to buy prospects. The price to do so also happened to include Renfroe, a player the team clearly found expendable.
Buying prospects is a wise strategy to stock the farm system but the trade does little to improve the major league club in the short-term. Despite his flaws, Renfroe was a valuable member of this team last season. Bradley Jr. remains a strong defensive center fielder but he’s clearly a downgrade as on overall player. In a vacuum, this trade signals the Red Sox roster is drifting backwards, which is unacceptable for a club that was two wins away from reaching the World Series.
Bloom isn’t operating in a vacuum though. The lockout has frozen transactions across the league for now but he undoubtedly has more moves up his sleeve once operations resume.
I’m not expecting Bradley Jr. to be the everyday center fielder for this team next season. He can provide value as a fourth outfielder and defensive replacement. JBJ would be an excellent mentor for Jarren Duran, who is still learning the position. Bradley Jr. is a high-character player who provides a positive clubhouse influence. There’s nothing wrong with adding those elements in the short-term as long as the Red Sox aren’t counting on him to be in the lineup on a regular basis.
Don’t judge the Red Sox on this trade until we see what comes next
Moving Renfroe creates an opening in the outfield and if it’s not going to be primarily filled by JBJ, there’s opportunity to find an upgrade elsewhere. That could come in the form of re-signing Kyle Schwarber. The challenge of fitting a square peg into a round hole made a Schwarber return unfeasible but now it would make more sense. Scwharber can play left field, shifting Alex Verdugo to right, where he performed admirably during the 2020 season. Duran could plug into center field if he earns a roster spot with a strong spring with Bradley Jr. backing him up, allowing Enrique Hernandez to settle in at second base to provide a desperately needed upgrade to the infield defense.
If Schwarber lands elsewhere, the Red Sox could turn their attention to Kris Bryant, Nick Castellanos, or Seiya Suzuki.
Outfield doesn’t necessarily need to be an area to address. The Red Sox could target Carlos Correa or Trevor Story, both of whom are strong defensive shortstops who could push Xander Bogaerts to second base where is glove would be less of a liability. Hernandez could then remain in the outfield.
Bloom won’t limit his options to free agency either. One of the benefits to stockpiling prospects is that it increases the number of chips he can use to swing another trade. Free agents are often poor investments so Bloom might prefer the trade route. The prospects acquired from the Brewers could be used in a package for another deal. Adding Hamilton and Binelas to the system could make other prospects more expendable. The Red Sox weren’t able to protect all of their eligible prospects from the Rule 5 draft so including some of them in a trade would eliminate the risk of losing valuable assets for nothing.
The Red Sox roster has taken a step back since the season ended. Eduardo Rodriguez bolted in free agency and now Renfroe is heading out of town. Bloom has made some clever moves that may bode well in the long run but he hasn’t added anyone who will provide significant value to immediately offset those loses.
We have to believe that these moves are a precursor to something bigger. There’s another shoe that still needs to drop, we just need to wait until after the lockout to find out what it is.