Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Offseason Signing: Milton Bradley

The Chicago Cubs signed Milton Bradley to a 3 year, $30M contract recently, causing baseball writers to make way too many horrible jokes about board games. I will try to avoid falling into the same trap, but I will point out that Milton's middle name is Obelle... ok, that didn't work out like I planned - I thought I'd find out that he had a normal middle name and then I'd ask why he didn't just decide years ago to go by his middle name, but Obelle isn't that much better, so I'll just move on to the analysis of his signing.

First of all, the basics: Bradley is a switch-hitting outfielder with very good power and plate discipline. In 2008 he put up a .321/.436/.563 line with 22 home runs for the Texas Rangers in 126 games.

Of course, those numbers lead us right into the negatives: Bradley seems to be a bit injury prone. Over his nine year career, he has only played more than last year's 126 games one time: in 2004 he played in 141 games for the Dodgers. In fact, he blew out his knee at the end of 2007 and played most of 2008 as the Rangers DH, which makes penciling him into the outfield for the Cubs a shaky prospect (he logged 20 games in the OF last year). You also have to consider that Bradley's 2008 numbers were put up in an extreme hitter's ballpark in Texas and they represent career bests in almost every important category.

The final negative piece of the Milton Bradley puzzle is his attitude. He has had dougout clashes with managers and teammates and on field clashes with umpires and fans. The Cubs will be the seventh organziation that Bradley has played for in his nine years, which seems to indicate that some teams may think that he is more trouble than he's worth.

So was he a good pickup for the Cubs? There are many factors that come into play when trying to make that determination. To start with, the contract seems a little long. The money isn't terrible (the Phillies signed Raul Ibanez to a contract for the same length and amount and he's six years older than Bradley and not as good - that is a terrible contract), but giving three years to a guy that can't stay in the lineup seems excessive.

The Cubs are apparently going to use Bradley in right field and move Kosuke Fukudome to center field, with Soriano playing left (in essence, he replaces Jim Edmonds' production down the stretch last year). Only time will tell if Bradley will be able to play the outfield with any level of competency after his knee surgery. Prior to the injury he was viewed as an above average fielder, but you would have to assume that his range has been compromised. That could mean that Kosuke Fukudome will be forced to cover a lot of ground in center field between two sub-par outfielders.

Another aspect is that this seems to close the door on Felix Pie's career in Chicago before it really got started. Pie is a young (will be 24 this season), lefthanded center field prospect that has flashed above average tools across the board in the minor leagues. He has failed to make those tools translate in the big leagues, though, and it appears that the Cubs have grown tired of waiting. A wrinkle to this story is that the Cubs have been trying to trade for Jake Peavy all offseason, using Pie as the centerpiece in the deal. Just prior to signing Bradley, the Cubs also traded Mark DeRosa to the Cleveland Indians for three pitching prospects. There has been speculation that the Cubs made that trade in order to add the pitching prospects that the Padres have wanted to get in return for Peavy. So, the addition of Bradley could be intertwined with the potential addition of Peavy, in that they knew they would have to sacrifice Pie and his potential so they went out and got Bradley.

When healthy, Bradley should be exactly what the Cubs lineup needs. All of the Cubs best hitters swung from the right side only: Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Alphonso Soriano, Geovany Soto. Fukudome is lefthanded, but the Cubs are wary of him after he fell off the map in the second half of last year*. Slotting a switch hitter with power and plate discipline in the middle of those right handed sluggers should help balance the lineup. He also will give the Cubs no less than five players in the starting lineup with on base percentages over .350 (and six if Mike Fontenot starts at 2B). That is outstanding and is a great recipe for scoring runs.

But when you compare the Cubs lineup in 2009 to their lineup in 2008, are they better? In effect, they are trading Mark DeRosa and Jim Edmonds for Bradley and an Aaron Miles/Mike Fontenot platoon. DeRosa is clearly better than the Miles/Fontenot platoon (although Fontenot's numbers always surprise me with how good they are), but Bradley is probably a better bet than Edmonds at this point in their respective careers. At best I think the tradeoff is a push and if you consider the blockage of Pie's potential, the team might even be worse off (and defensively they are almost certainly worse). So, while the Bradley acquisition makes sense, the DeRosa trade only seems to make sense if they are able to turn the prospects into Jake Peavy. [Note: I recognize that I got off track here - I was supposed to be talking about the Bradley acquisition and I got off on a little DeRosa trade analysis here, but the Cubs offseason might be the most interesting one outside of the Bronx, so I couldn't help myself. Sue me.]

The two biggest questions I come back to are health and attitude. With fiery Lou Pinella as manager, there is a serious potential for this acquisition to blow up on the Cubs. If Bradley is ineffective because he is in Pinella's doghouse or because he's injured, then this deal looks bad. If Bradley can give the Cubs 450 at bats (something he's only done once before) then he could be a big part of their 2009 success. If it turns out that his acquisition was one of the pieces to also acquiring Jake Peavy, then the Cubs might be looking at some real success (for once).

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