DFA-ing Jackie Bradley Jr. doesn’t mean Red Sox lost the trade yet

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 20: Jackie Bradley Jr. #19 of the Boston Red Sox returns to the dugout during the seventh inning against the New York Yankees at Fenway Park on September 20, 2020 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 20: Jackie Bradley Jr. #19 of the Boston Red Sox returns to the dugout during the seventh inning against the New York Yankees at Fenway Park on September 20, 2020 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

The Boston Red Sox are cutting bait with Jackie Bradley Jr.

Ahead of their series against the Kansas City Royals, the Boston Red Sox designated struggling outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. for assignment.

Bradley, fondly known as JBJ, was drafted by the Red Sox in the first round of the 2011 draft and spent his entire career in the organization until last season when he signed a lucrative free-agent deal with the Milwaukee Brewers. A disastrous season in which he set career-lows with a .163 batting average, .497 OPS, and -0.7 WAR quickly convinced the Brewers to move on after only one year.

Milwaukee shipped him back to Boston, reuniting him with a team that had plenty of familiarity with the veteran outfielder. The Sox didn’t view Hunter Renfroe as part of their long-term future, so they sold high after his impressive one-year stint in Boston. They made the deal to acquire prospects David Hamilton and Alex Binelas. Absorbing Bradley’s salary was simply the cost of the prospect haul they received for Renfroe.

In a way, the Sox giving up on JBJ early isn’t a sign that they lost the trade, because it was never really about him, to begin with. However, the Sox were expecting to get some short-term value out of Bradley in hopes that he could be a piece of the puzzle filling the void created by Renfroe’s departure. To some extent, he did. The former Gold Glove award winner provided his usual strong defense in the outfield, compiling +3 OAA. Boston was also correct in predicting that a return to Fenway Park would awaken his bat; he hit .288 with a .785 OPS in 45 Boston games this season and hit all of his homers at home.

Unfortunately, the negatives outweighed the positives. JBJ was basically unplayable on the road (.129/.196/.167) and against left-handed pitching (.132/.193/.226). In previous seasons, the Sox could overlook his inconsistent hitting because of his defense, but not this year. No matter how much value his glove provided, he was a liability in the lineup, and an injury-ravaged Sox roster couldn’t take another hole.

Can the Red Sox clinch a Wild Card?

Losing Renfroe’s bat power could potentially cost the Red Sox a playoff spot this year. Boston is currently two games out of the final Wild Card spot. Renfroe has been slightly less efficient at the plate in Milwaukee than he was in Boston, but he’s on pace to hit even more home runs this year.

The trade was made to collect assets for the future but the ramifications could hinder their long-term approach. The Sox are projected to exceed the luxury tax this season. Bradley is owed $9.5M this season but counts for $12M for tax purposes based on the average annual value of his deal. That’s quite a bit higher than the $7.65M Renfroe is earning in arbitration. In theory, Boston could have ducked the tax without committing to selling at the deadline if they hadn’t made this trade.

Boston held on to J.D. Martinez and Nathan Eovaldi at the deadline to help make a push for the postseason, but the potential for extending them a qualifying offer that would provide them with a compensation draft pick if they leave in free agency was presumably another motivating factor. As a tax-paying team, the value of those compensation picks is reduced. The Red Sox would also be charged an additional pick if they sign a free-agent next winter who declined a qualifying offer. The potential loss of draft picks or devaluation of comp picks that may result from Bradley Jr’s salary pushing them over the tax partially negates the value of the prospects they acquired in the deal.

Bradley finishes his partial season with the Red Sox hitting .210 with a .578 OPS, three home runs, and 29 RBI in 91 games. Those offensive numbers are brutal but the Sox also never intended to lean on Bradley as much as they have. He could have provided some value as a defensive replacement who could occasionally start in home games against right-handed pitchers. Injuries forced him into being an everyday player, as did playing primarily right field instead of his natural position in center, and outside of Fenway Park, his production suffered from it.

The Red Sox plan to roll with an outfield primarily consisting of Alex Verdugo, Jarren Duran, and the recently-acquired Tommy Pham. JBJ’s role as a defensive replacement can be filled by Kiké Hernández if he’s eventually able to return from injury.

Boston needed to open a spot on the active roster for Eric Hosmer, who is expected to join the team in Kansas City today after the Sox acquired him from the San Diego Padres at the trade deadline. At some point, they will also need to open roster spots in order to activate Hernández and/or Matt Barnes from the 60-day IL. Bradley clearly wasn’t in the team’s plans for next season and his inconsistencies at the plate made him expendable.

Bradley will likely clear waivers since no team is going to want his pricy contract without the benefit of prospects being attached to it. Once he does, another team could take a chance on him as a defensive outfielder to stash on their bench at a minimum salary. The Sox will be on the hook for his remaining salary this season minus that minimum amount if another team picks him up this year. Assuming he clears waivers, Boston will also pay the $8M buyout on his 2023 mutual option that obviously isn’t being picked up.

During his nearly nine seasons with the Sox, Bradley had his fair share of highlights. He’s arguably the greatest defensive centerfielder in franchise history and he has some hardware to state his case. Bradley was an All-Star in 2016. He won World Series championships with this team in 2013 and 2018, earning the ALCS MVP award during the latter championship run. He also won a Gold Glove in 2018 and probably should’ve won another the year before.

Red Sox fans have many fond memories of Bradley. Unfortunately, almost none of them are from this season. With the Sox finding some modest upgrades to improve the edges of their roster at the trade deadline, it was time to move on from a struggling player who no longer fit.

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