With JBJ, Crew confident OF mix can work

March 8th, 2021

PHOENIX -- and go all the way back to competing teams in the Cape Cod League as amateurs. In 2011, they were drafted 18 spots apart, Wong 22nd overall by the Cardinals out of the University of Hawaii and Bradley 40th by the Red Sox out of the University of South Carolina.

Their paths came close to crossing again in 2013, when both players made their big league debuts before their teams met in the World Series. But Bradley wasn’t on Boston’s postseason roster.

They continued their development on parallel paths, both winning Gold Glove Awards before hitting free agency at the same time this past offseason. Now they have landed together with the Brewers, who are betting they can win the National League Central with pitching and defense.

One month after they inked Wong to a two-year deal with a club option, the Brewers on Monday finalized a two-year, $24 million deal with Bradley.

“This team’s going to be really, really underrated,” Wong said. “It’s going to be one of those teams that people really need to look out for, because we’ve got it all. Our pitching staff is really good. We’ve got ‘Yeli’ [], who just knows how to flat-out hit. You’ve got coming back.

“To add JBJ to that, that’s going to be awesome. I played against him numerous years in the Cape and also got a chance to play against him in the Minor Leagues coming up, and we’ve built a pretty good friendship. I’m excited to get to play with him and get to do his thing.”

Said Bradley: “We’ve always had mutual respect. It’s something we always bring up and talk about, the good times. It’s going to be exciting. There’s a lot of defensive stalwarts out there.”

It was not the Brewers’ plan going into the offseason to focus on defense.

At the end of last year, when the Brewers made the postseason for the third straight year despite a sub-.500 record (29-31) in the shortened season, president of baseball operations David Stearns spoke of improving an offense that suffered in empty stadiums along with its star, Yelich. The Brewers had holes at first and third base that needed addressing.

But in the end, Stearns’ two biggest additions were a second baseman (Wong) and a center fielder (Bradley) who are known more for their defense. Wong’s arrival pushed promising hitter and suspect fielder to first base. Bradley’s arrival crowds an outfield that appeared set with Yelich in left, Cain returning from a season away in center, and in right.

Stearns is confident the Brewers can make it work.

“If we look at three outfield positions, conservatively there are 2,100 plate appearances,” Stearns said. “That’s a lot of playing time. That’s a lot of plate appearances. We want as good as players as possible to consume all of those. So now to, hopefully, be able to have four really, really good players consuming those 2,100 plate appearances, that puts us in a really good spot.”

It could take all four. Cain, who elected not to play in 2020 because of concerns about the coronavirus and a desire to reconnect with his faith, was shut down the past week by a right quadriceps injury. Yelich has some history of back issues and, with no designated hitter in the NL for now, will need some days off.

With Bradley in the mix, manager Craig Counsell will have many options. He already said that, “Lorenzo is our center fielder,” but even if Cain makes the majority of starts there, Bradley figures to see center extensively while splitting right with García, potentially based on matchups. Yelich and Bradley are left-handed hitters. Cain and García are right-handed hitters.

“We weren’t a good enough defensive team last year,” Stearns said. “Part of that improvement needed to come through some personnel changes, and part of it needs to come from players who were here last year having better defensive years. And then part of how the offseason unfolded, the best opportunities for us to improve our team largely revolved around defensive-oriented players.

“The other thing I’ll say, both Kolten and Jackie, yes, these are very talented defensive players, but they also provide some nice lineup balance swinging from the left side. So we do look at these guys as two-way contributors and they will impact our team on the defensive side of the ball. Our pitching staff’s going to enjoy having them out there.”

Bradley, coming off a .283/.364/.450 slash line in 2020 with Boston, arrived in the Brewers clubhouse Monday morning and said he had yet to talk to Cain. Earlier in the day, Cain said he welcomed Bradley’s arrival and insisted he didn’t view it as a threat to his status as the regular center fielder.

Bradley took a similarly laid-back approach to that question.

“I didn’t discuss all that or go into any details” with club officials before he signed, Bradley said. “I feel like as long as I can help the team win, I’m all for it. The guys who are out there with me are excellent ballplayers, and they can get the job done just as well, if not better. I have full faith in all of our capabilities. We’re all going to get our opportunities. I just want to take advantage of it.”

It remains to be seen whether Bradley’s stop in Milwaukee extends beyond one season. He reportedly is set to earn $13 million in 2021 and $11 million in 2022, but he has the right to opt out after the first year. It’s the first time the Brewers have included such a clause in a contract since Stearns took over as GM in the fall of 2015.

Stearns indicated he does not plan to make a habit of handing out such clauses, but for this “unique” player at this time, it made sense.

“Offense is always going to come and go. There’s not many guys who can do it for all 162,” Wong said. “But the one thing is that when your defense is there for 162, it makes every game a winnable game. With the pitching staff that we have, if you stack the defense like it looks like we’re doing right now, that’s all you need.

“When the playoffs come around and everybody clicks at the right time, that can take you to the World Series. I think we have a good mix that’s underrated because people don’t want to respect defense yet. But they’re going to.”