The Milton Bradley traveling road show

While seemingly every team outside of New York had put the clamps on the money machine for player contracts this winter, the Chicago Cubs stepped forward this week to bestow a three-year, $30 million deal on Milton Bradley.

Texas was his sixth team in eight years, but Bradley, at age 30, enjoyed the best season of his career for the Rangers last summer. His .436 OBP led the league and his .563 slugging average was the fourth best mark in the AL. His .999 OPS was tops in the league by a wide margin, with Alex Rodriguez and Carlos Quentin tied for second at .965. It added up to 21 Win Shares and some MVP consideration at the end of the year. And with a base salary of $5 million last year, Bradley’s performance made him one of the best bargains in the game.

A career .280/.370/.457 hitter, Bradley clearly has solid offensive abilities. While 2008 may be difficult to top, (thanks in part to a .396 BABIP), several positive trends point to some sustainable, quality production.

For starters, his OBP has increased in three consecutive seasons while his slugging has improved the past two years. Plus, he’s always shown good plate discipline and his walk rate of 16 percent last year was the best of his career. Even more importantly, his wOBA has been climbing since 2004, before topping out at last year’s career best .423 mark. While he may not scale the offensive heights from 2008, he’ll certainly remain a factor with his bat for the next couple of years.

While Bradley long has been a quality offensive threat, it’s also undeniable that he benefited from playing his home games last year at the Ballpark at Arlington.

              PA        HR        BA       OBP       SLG       OPS
   Home      237        16       .358     .466      .629      1.145
   Road      273        6        .290     .410      .462      .872

While Wrigley Field isn’t the Ballpark at Arlington, it’s not too shabby when it comes to offense. It’s not unreasonable to expect that Bradley won’t be hurt too badly by his change of address. Like everyone else, he’ll hit a few more home runs when the wind is blowing out and he’ll have several fall for outs when the wind is blowing in. At Wrigley, the wind giveth and the wind taketh.

Offensively speaking, when comparing Bradley’s contract to the ones handed out last offseason to free agent outfielders such as Torii Hunter (five years at $90 million), Aaron Rowand (five years at $60 million) and Jose Guillen (three years at $36 million), the buyer’s market we’ve been discussing all winter comes sharply into focus. Marcel projects Bradley to post a line of .293/.392/.502 next season in 479 plate appearances, which would give him a wOBA of .384. While those numbers represent a decline from the heights he reached last year, there’s a larger problem with that projection:

Bradley has totaled more than 479 plate appearances twice in his career—and one of those times was last year when he was a full-time designated hitter.

The No. 1 question about Bradley has always been his durability. It’s even more important (if that was possible) now that he’s back in the National League, where he won’t have the luxury of sitting on the bench when not in the batter’s box.

As Matthew Carruth pointed out at Fangraphs, before last year Bradley was in the outfield in about 95 percent of his games played. Recovery from knee surgery and a move to the American League allowed him to become a DH and saw him appear in just 20 games in the outfield, or about 16 percent of his games played. While he actually made it onto the field last year, it’s worth noting that he appeared in the outfield only three times after July 1 and didn’t pick up a glove after July 21. I like looking at the percentages, but because he doesn’t necessarily spend the full nine innings in the outfield in those games, I find it necessary to investigate his total innings in the outfield.

   Year   Innings Played   Team Innings   % of Team Innings
   2002       749.1            1424            52.6%
   2003       838.2            1459            57.5%
   2004       1188.1           1453            81.8%
   2005        628             1427            44.0%
   2006       802.2            1451            55.3%
   2007       480.1            1464            32.8%
   2008       165.1            1442            11.5%
  Total       4852.2          10120            47.9%

Aside from one year in Los Angeles, where Bradley played in the field in more than 80 percent of his team’s innings, he’s had a difficult time staying on the field. We already knew that, but when you look at his real innings played as a percentage of possible innings played, it underscores just how fragile he’s been for his entire career.

The sad thing is, until his knee injury at the end of 2007, he had been a quality defensive outfielder, capable of playing all three spots when healthy. In 2006 (one of the rare seasons he actually spent more than 800 innings in the field) his UZR in right field was 8.7 and his +/- rating was a minus-seven. Obviously, that’s not a stellar +/- number, but his UZR would have ranked him fourth among all right fielders if he had played enough innings to qualify for the leader boards. As for 2008, since he played in the outfield for only 120 innings, it’s difficult to make an accurate judgment about how his surgery affected his mobility.

The Cubs have been on the lookout all winter for a left-handed hitter to fill a spot in the outfield, and the switch-hitting Bradley partially takes care of that need. I say partially since his lack of defensive playing time is an established pattern. It’s not too much of a stretch to figure that if Bradley remains in Chicago for the duration of his contract, Cub fans can expect to see him about half of the time. Although there’s no sure-fire way of keeping Bradley in the lineup on a regular basis, the Rangers found that using him as a designated hitter reduced the wear and tear on his body and allowed him to avoid a trip to the DL for the first time since 2004. True, he never officially went on the DL, but he still missed time after fouling a pitch off his right leg and with a sore hamstring in April, with a sore shoulder in May, with a strained left quad in June, with tendinitis in his knee in July, with strained left quad (again) and a stiff back in August and finally with a sore wrist in September.

Whew. Those injuries took their toll and he hit only three home runs after the All-Star break, but he still posted a .324 average and a .412 OBP from the beginning of August through the end of the year. While his power evaporated ,most likely due to the myriad injuries, he was able to remain in the lineup and accumulate more than 500 plate appearances for the Rangers—because of the opportunity to DH. And because of that, we have no way of knowing how his surgically repaired knee will withstand the grind of a full season in the field.

Giving him a base salary of $10 million for next year, the Cubs have doubled Bradley’s paycheck from last season. That kind of contract for someone of Bradley’s offensive skill represents a good deal for Chicago. However, the risk is very real that Bradley will give his employers only a year and a half of total service by the time his deal expires following the 2011 season.

Trying to estimate time a player will miss due to injury is an impossibility, but when you look back at that chart to see the actual amount of time Bradley has been able to use his glove over his career, coupled with the fact he can’t hide at DH, it’s fairly obvious that he’ll miss considerable time at some point during his tenure in Chicago. And depending on how much time he misses, his contract might not represent such a good deal for the Cubs.

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