Bradley Jr. or Springer; Who Should Play Center Field For The Mets In 2021?

By Nick Wilson

The New York Mets enter the 2021 season likely looking for an upgrade in center field. Barring any 1 year $76 million dollar contracts to Trevor Bauer, they should have lots of cash to fill the vacancy. There’s just one problem: This years free agent class has a great deal of corner outfielders, but only a few center fielders. Of this few, two names stand out above the rest: Jackie Bradley Jr. and George Springer. So the question is: Should the Mets go all in for the incredible but expensive Springer, or should they opt for a much less expensive but defensively adept Jackie Bradley Jr.? Let’s take a look.

Jackie Bradley Jr.

Maybe it’s the 2018 gold glove award, the 99th percentile in outs above average in 2020, or his terrific throwing arm that makes it so easy to overlook Jackie Bradley Jr’s bat. The defensive wiz has mashed 94 home runs since 2015. This is good for 8th among center fielders with 2000 or more plate appearances at the position. Only Mike Trout, George Springer, Charlie Blackmon, Marcel Ozuna, Randall Grichuk, and Andrew McCutchen have more. In the same span, Bradley Jr. ranks among the top 10 Centerfielders in RBI, wOBA, WAR, BABIP, and SLG.

The not so good part:

A significant portion of Jackie Bradley Jr.’s power was improved by playing half his career games in Fenway Park. Baseball Savant’s “No Doubters” tool factors in park size and hit distance to determine which of a players home runs would have left the park. Going back to 2019 JBJ has launched 28 home runs, 13 of which would not have been hit far enough to leave Citi Field or another ballpark that fell within the 7 largest. This means Bradley Jr.’s power is likely to take a dip if he signs with the Mets.

Another issue with Bradley Jr. is his extreme tendency to hit ground balls to the right side. This happens 49.6% of the time, and the overwhelming majority of the time, the result is an out. This was the 18th highest rate in all of baseball in 2019. Take a look at these spray charts from Bradley Jr.’s 2019–2020 seasons. If you’ll notice, theres a big gray area on the right side of the infield.

Jackie Bradley Jr. Hit Type Chart via Fangraphs (left) Jackie Bradley Jr. Batted Ball Profile via Fangraphs (Right)

What’s not visible in the chart is Bradley Jr.’s 25.3% strike out rate. (39th worst in the majors since 2017). It’s highly concerning that the overwhelming majority of Bradley Jr.’s outs were weak grounders to the right side or strikeouts. This could indicate that Bradley Jr.’s .283 average in 2020 will regress to his career .239 mark. With the game on the line and 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th is this the player you want up?

Given that Bradley Jr. is a Boras client, he’s likely to get paid more than one might suspect he’s worth. If the $11 million dollar tab he was set to make pre- Covid is any indication of his value on the open market, I would stay away. So much of Bradley Jr.’s signability stems from getting his glove at an affordable price and not requiring multiple years. If multiple years or paying over $11 million dollars is required, it defeats the purpose of the strategy. Instead, names like Michael A. Taylor or Jake Marisnick could give you similar production for half the price. Or, you could just forget the whole thing and go with George Springer.

George Springer

The cost of George Springer would only be money, but it would cost a lot of it. With teams like the Mets, Cardinals, Nationals and White Sox all looking for help in the outfield, the thin market for center fielders could elevate Springer’s already high value.

While the 31 year old veteran does hold his own very nicely in Houston’s Minute Maid Park, the question is: do you really want to pay Springer $25 to $30 Million until he turns 36? The $76 Million dollars the Mets have to spend is quite a sum, but what about extending Conforto? Finding a starting pitcher? What about catcher? What about acquiring and extending Francisco Lindor? Quick math tells us that the Mets can not spend heavily to plug every hole. Across town the Yankees have been quite clever at supplementing their core with talented but expensive players via trade and free agency. Yet we see in 2021 they’ve got positions to fill, players that fans want to extend, and payroll that’s not going to allow them to do both. Does that seem like an appealing fate? As a small wise green Jedi once said, “Once you start down a dark path, forever will it control your destiny”. That is to say, the Mets would be wise to refraining from acquiring too many long term assets.

We know George Springer is a massive difference maker, but how gracefully will he age? Assuming Springer gets a contract in the 4–5 year range, the Mets would have him until his age 35 or 36 season. Given that Springer is already likely past his prime defensively, the Mets would be paying a very high price to watch him decline.

2005 Study by Nate Silver. (Courtesy of Baseball Reference)

Aging trends for center fielders are well documented, including this study conducted in 2005 by Nate Silver.

While it is fairly intuitive that most players beyond the age of 30 will decline rapidly, names in Kevin Keirmeir, Charlie Blackmon, and Lorenzo Cain show us that players age 30 and above are still capable of playing very solid defense. Springer has shown no dramatic decline in speed or defensive efficiency thus far, so perhaps he is a candidate to age well. Additionally, the Mets have no contracts on the books beyond 2023, (aside from a club option for deGrom) so in the event Springer ages out of center field, there should be plenty of time and payroll flexibility to adjust.

Other Options

If the Mets are wary of Springer’s price, there are still other viable options. They could sign a corner outfielder like Marcell Ozuna or Michael Brantley and an inexpensive but defensively masterful center fielder like Michael A. Taylor or Jake Marisnick. Thus creating a surplus of outfielders which the team can use to address another area of need via trade. There are currently several teams who at least on paper have an excess of starting pitching and could benefit from a young, cost controlled, lefty, on base machine in Brandon Nimmo. Namely the White Sox, Indians, Rockies, and Pirates.

Final Thoughts

The Sandy Alderson brain trust is unlikely to form their plans around any single player. Historically the forte of the 72 year old baseball executive has been to make decisions based on logistics, allocation of resources, and addressing every area of need. In all likelihood signing George Springer would mean not signing Trevor Bauer or Extending a Francisco Lindor if the team were to make a move for him. If the Mets do splurge in one area, austerity measures are likely to follow in another. Meaning, if the Mets want to splurge on Trevor Bauer, extending Conforto, and signing a high priced catcher, they’d be wise to sign a glove first center fielder. If they can fill other areas of need cheaply, then Springer is a relatively safe investment and the Mets should absolutely sign him. The best possible outcome would be to address all areas of need, but not break the bank for years to come.

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Loadedbasispodcast

Loadedbasispodcast

Frustrated by the lack of national baseball coverage, Nick Wilson and Alessandro DeGennaro created the Loaded Basis Podcast/blog. They focus on NY baseball.