Brewers' Jackie Bradley Jr. Deal Establishes a New Favorite in NL Central

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 5, 2021

Boston Red Sox's Jackie Bradley Jr. celebrates his two-run home run during the second inning of a baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays, Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

There's a new outfielder in Milwaukee, and he's just the guy the Brewers needed to separate themselves in the race for the National League Central title in 2021.

The Brewers agreed to a two-year, $24 million contract with former Boston Red Sox star Jackie Bradley Jr. on Thursday, per multiple reports. Though Bradley's a Gold Glove-winning center fielder, Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell stated that the 30-year-old will defer to fellow Gold Glover Lorenzo Cain at that spot.

In any case, the Brewers are going into 2021 with a team that Baseball Prospectus rightfully sees as having a better than 50 percent chance of winning the NL Central crown.

              

The State of the Brewers

  • Made playoffs in 2018, 2019 and 2020
  • 29-31 record in 2020 tied for the worst of any playoff team
  • Also outscored by 17 runs in 2020
  • Projected by Baseball Prospectus to win NL Central with 89-73 record in 2021
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Why the Bradley Signing Matters for Milwaukee

The Brewers weren't particularly good at anything last season, but one area where they had an especially hard time was with their outfield defense. Its minus-four outs above average tied for 22nd in MLB.

Well, now they have a Gold Glover at all three outfield spots.

Even if Cain and Bradley—who'll presumably play right field—only have two Gold Gloves between them, evidence of their defensive brilliance is clearly seen in their outs above average. Bradley has accounted for 62 OAA since the stat's inception in 2016. Even despite last year's early opt-out, Cain has him beat with 68 OAA.

Meanwhile in left field, Christian Yelich's defensive reputation has diminished since he won a Gold Glove in 2014. But at a time when there isn't a whole lot of defensive talent in left field, he doesn't stand out as being egregiously unplayable at the position.

This is to say that Milwaukee's outfield defense looks darn good on paper. And much more so than in prior years, that could be a game-changing advantage in 2021.

In what sure seems like a calculated response to the league's historically inflated home run rateEno Sarris and Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported in February that Major League Baseball is deadening the ball ahead of the 2021 season. This will likely result in fewer fly balls going over the fence.

Between that and the club's new-look outfield, the Brewers figure to be one of the best in the business at turning fly balls into outs in 2021. Their infield defense, for its part, was already good, and now it has two-time Gold Glover Kolten Wong at second base.

           

The Brewers Should Also Hit and Pitch Well in 2021

Another area where the Brewers had an especially hard time last season was in generating offense. They ranked ahead of only three teams with 4.1 runs per game.

But if nothing else, the Brewers can count on Yelich to bounce back after he went from batting .327/.415/.631 across 2018 and 2019 to just .205/.356/.430 in 2020. He's more than a year removed from the broken kneecap that ended his 2019 season, and he'll once again have access to in-game video in 2021.

So long as he can cut down on some swings and misses, Keston Hiura will also have a path back to his 2019 form. He hit 19 home runs in only 84 games that year, with a better hard-hit rate than even Yelich.

Aaron Doster/Associated Press

As a .288 career hitter, Cain is typically a solid offensive producer in his own right. Bradley's offense comes and goes, but his last five seasons suggest the Brewers can expect a respectable 100 OPS+ and 15 to 20 home runs out of him.

These four alone could be the solidifying force that allows the Brewers to at least finish in average territory with their offensive output in 2021. If Wong, Travis Shaw, Omar Narvaez and Avisail Garcia—the latter of whom figures to spell Bradley against lefties—also revert to their best offensive selves, even better.

Granted, there probably isn't any scenario in which the Brewers are one of baseball's top run-scoring teams in 2021. But with their pitching, they shouldn't have to be.

Leading their rotation is Brandon Woodruff, who's pitched to a 132 ERA+ over the last two seasons. Behind him is fellow right-hander Corbin Burnes, who went off for a 1.65 ERA and 64 strikeouts in eight starts after moving into Milwaukee's rotation last August.

The Brewers otherwise only need Josh Lindblom, Adrian Houser and Brett Anderson to eat innings. After posting by far MLB's highest strikeout rate in 2020, the club's bullpen should be able to clean up after them.

Young righty Devin Williams justifiably won the NL Rookie of the Year for 2020 after he allowed only one run while striking out 53 batters in 27 innings. And even if he was more hittable than usual, two-time All-Star Josh Hader still whiffed 31 batters in 19 innings.

Also in Milwaukee's pen are Justin Topa, who boasts a 97.5 mph fastball, and Brent Suter, who's racked up 37 strikeouts and only two walks in relief over the last two seasons. Throw in Freddy Peralta, who struck out 44 batters in 26.1 innings as a reliever last year, and the core of the Brewers' relief corps is up there with the best of 'em.

          

The Cardinals Question

Following a 93-loss season in 2019 and a league-worst 19-41 record in 2020, the Pittsburgh Pirates aren't a threat to anyone as they continue their rebuild in 2021.

For their part, whether the Chicago Cubs or Cincinnati Reds fall into the threat category is debatable.

The Reds' winter was marked by the losses of ace Trevor Bauer and closer Raisel Iglesias, with few additions to make up for it. The Cubs made a handful of upside plays on guys like Joc Pederson and old friend Jake Arrieta, but they also parted with Yu Darvish, Kyle Schwarber and Jon Lester.

Neither Baseball Prospectus nor FanGraphs projects the Cubs or Reds to finish ahead of the Brewers in 2021. While that doesn't mean they should underestimate either team, their obvious rival in the NL Central is the one that FanGraphs favors: the St. Louis Cardinals.

There is something to that, as the Cardinals went 30-28 last year and made arguably the winter's biggest splash when they acquired superstar third baseman Nolan Arenado. He and Paul Goldschmidt will carry their offense, while their pitching will revolve around young ace Jack Flaherty.

Yet even the Arenado-Goldschmidt duo might not be enough to rescue the Cardinals from a third straight year (see here and here) of offensive futility. Particularly not if Arenado struggles to adjust to life after Coors Field and if Goldschmidt, who'll be 34 in September, can't reinvigorate his power after hitting only six homers in 2020.

The Cardinals also have a lot riding on a shaky rotation. Flaherty couldn't sustain his 2019 breakout last year. Adam Wainwright will be 40 in August. Two years have passed since Miles Mikolas broke out in 2018. It's been even longer since Carlos Martinez was a viable starter.

In the background of all this is the writing on the wall that the NL Central probably doesn't have a team capable of going toe-to-toe with the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres, Atlanta or the New York Mets in October. Indeed, it's the weakest division in MLB.

Nevertheless, it should be fun to watch the Brewers and Cardinals duke it out for the division crown. And between the two, the edge belongs ever so slightly to Milwaukee.

           

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.