Is the Crew courting JBJ for outfield mix?

February 22nd, 2021

Too many outfielders? That’s never stopped the Brewers before.

Milwaukee is reportedly “in the mix” for free-agent center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr., according to Robert Murray of FanSided, which may come as a surprise considering the Brewers already have a high-priced trio in left fielder Christian Yelich ($14 million salary this season), center fielder Lorenzo Cain ($17 million) and right fielder Avisaíl García ($10.75 million).

Cain, one of the game’s smoothest center fielders and a Rawlings Gold Glove Award winner in 2019, elected not to play the pandemic-shortened season in 2020, but all indications from Brewers officials are that he is back for 2021.

So where would that leave Bradley, a Gold Glover in 2018 for the Red Sox who, according to Statcast, ranked in the 99th percentile of defenders last season?

To be determined.

A crowded field hasn’t deterred president of baseball operations David Stearns in the past. The Brewers had a decent outfield corps at the end of 2017, with Ryan Braun, Keon Broxton and Domingo Santana (coming off 30 homers), and Brett Phillips in the wings, before Stearns pulled off the 1-2 punch of trading for Yelich and signing Cain on the same day in January 2018. Throughout the subsequent Spring Training, manager Craig Counsell fielded questions about how all of those pieces would fit.

In the end, it worked out nicely. Yelich won the 2018 National League MVP Award, with Cain finishing in the Top 10, and the Brewers had enough outfield coverage to properly rest Braun, who was at his best that September as the team chased down the Cubs to win the NL Central in a tiebreaker. The depth proved especially helpful, because Santana was unable to build on his big season the year before and was demoted to the Minor Leagues in June.

Stearns pulled off the Cain and Yelich additions with future years in mind, and that could once again be the case were talks to progress with Bradley, who has drawn interest from as many as a half-dozen teams, according to MLB Network insider Jon Heyman. Yelich is locked into a long, record-setting contract, but Cain is a free agent after 2022, and García could be a free agent as soon as the end of ’21 if the Brewers opt to decline his $12 million club option for ’22.

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And here’s one more reason it could make sense: Although last year’s use of the designated hitter in NL games has not been carried over, there’s always a chance that could change – either at the last moment before the season or beginning next season as part of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Bradley, 30, is a left-handed hitter with a .239/.321/.412 slash line over eight seasons in Boston. He had a solid season in 2020, with a career-best .364 on-base percentage as part of an .814 OPS.

So far the Brewers’ biggest move this offseason was signing second baseman Kolten Wong to a two-year, $18 million contract. The Brewers did get deep into negotiations with free-agent third baseman Justin Turner before he signed a two-year, $34 million deal to return to the Dodgers.

Did that leave enough payroll space for the Brewers to add another bat? At the moment their Opening Day player payroll appears headed for the neighborhood of $85 million to $90 million.

“I think each investment decision we look at individually, and we continue to stay in regular contact with our ownership group discussing available possibilities and alternatives,” Stearns said in a Q&A with MLB.com before the start of Spring Training. “And if the right opportunity presents itself, I'm certain [Brewers principal owner] Mark [Attanasio] and the rest of his group will be supportive, as they always have been.”

In the immediate term, how would Bradley fit, presuming the Brewers’ other outfielders remain? Yelich isn’t budging from left field, that is certain. That would mean some combination of Bradley, Cain and García in center and right, which would dramatically improve the Brewers’ outfield depth. The extra outfielders on the 40-man roster include homegrown prospects Tyrone Taylor and Corey Ray and recent organizational additions Billy McKinney (claimed off waivers from the Blue Jays last September), Tim Lopes (waivers from Seattle) and Derek Fisher (acquired from the Jays in a trade earlier this month).

Cain turns 35 on April 13 and is coming off a summer away from baseball, so the Brewers are already pondering ways to keep him healthy and productive. Their primary option to man center field on days Cain does not is García, who handled the job capably last year in Cain's absence.

With Cain’s return and the addition of Gold Glove Award winner Wong at second base, Counsell said, “We’re kind of putting our defense back in order. We’re going to get a really good center fielder in there and a really good right fielder [García] in there. … The other players that are in camp, the Derek Fishers and Billy McKinneys, those are players that we’re going to definitely take a look at. Tyrone Taylor obviously can play center field as well. Corey Ray. So that’s kind of where we’re at right now, but I feel really good with what Avi did in center field last year. He played a good center field for us, and he can be an option out there -- it’s the option we know about, is the best way to say it.”

Adding Bradley, however, would not help the Brewers with their most unsettled position: third base. They are bringing back Travis Shaw as a non-roster invitee to compete with 40-man roster players Daniel Robertson and perhaps Luis Urías or Orlando Arcia once shortstop is set.

The Brewers’ first full-squad workout is scheduled for Tuesday, and their first Cactus League game is on Sunday afternoon at the White Sox.