March 3, 2009
Taking a Spin
According to a report at MLB.com, Milton Bradley is set to return to the Cubs' lineup Wednesday afternoon as the DH. It will be his first appearance since February 26, when a problem with his left thigh forced him from a Cactus League game.
That's not a bad solution for March 4, but it won't do much for the team come April 6. The Cubs play six games in the regular season with the DH rule, and 156 without it. Coming off of a career season in Texas in which he got more than 80 percent of his plate appearances as the DH, Bradley will have to find his way onto the field much more than he has in recent seasons to justify the $10 million per-year commitment that the Cubs have made to him.
In a vacuum, Bradley appears to be exactly what the Cubs need: a switch-hitter, strong from the left side, someone who balances the lineup and provides excellent OBP and some power. Once a good defensive outfielder, he's slipped a bit in that regard due to a series of nagging injuries. However, the Cubs play home games in a park with a fairly small outfield, and with their high-strikeout pitching staff they rely less on their outfield defense than other teams do. The Cubs haven't prioritized outfield defense of late, and if they can make the postseason with an aged Jim Edmonds patrolling center, they can clearly suffer some mediocre range on the pasture.
Bradley, however, has no recent track record of staying on the field at any level of skill. Since establishing himself in the majors in June of 2002, Bradley has played in 62.6 percent of his team's games. He's played in more than 100 games just three times, and in more than 100 games in the field just twice. Let's repeat that: Milton Bradley has played in 100 games in the field just twice since becoming a full-time major leaguer. That, and not his temper, is the biggest reason to be wary of how this story ends. The Cubs have signed him to do something that he has little track record, and no recent track record, of doing. Bradley played 165 innings in the field in 2008; he played 480 out there in '07, and 803 in '06. Stop me when I get to full-time play. In 2005, he played 628 innings afield. You have to go all the way back to 2004 to find a season in which Bradley stayed on the field for two-thirds of his team's innings.
That's why this signing was a mistake. It has nothing to do with Bradley's anger-management issues, ones that have defined his career. It has nothing to do with Bradley's skill set as a hitter. It has nothing to do with the money, which was in line with what Adam Dunn and Raul Ibaņez signed for. No, the problem is that the Cubs signed a player to do a job that he's not capable of doing. Signing Milton Bradley to be an everyday outfielder is like signing Mark Prior to make 34 starts, or trading for Carlos Delgado to be your catcher, or bringing in Will Carroll to endorse hair-care products. You're asking people to do things their bodies long ago stopped being able to do, and that's a recipe for failure.
In discussing Orlando Hudson, I'd mentioned the difference between chronic and traumatic injuries. Hudson suffered injuries on a head-first slide in 2007, and while reaching for a throw in 2008, neither of which reflect issues with conditioning or health. It's just bad luck, the kind that J.D. Drew and Jeff Bagwell have had in the past. Bradley, on the other hand, has a history of injury to many parts of his body that indicates a corpus that cannot hold up to the rigors of everyday play. It was a hand and a knee in 2005; an oblique strain, shoulder problem, and twisted ankle in '06; back and hamstring problems in '07, plus a torn knee ligament that ended his season; quad and wrist problems last year.
The day you sign the contract, everyone is optimistic. The day you come to camp, well, everyone's in the best shape of their life. Usually, you get to ride that wave for a while. Unfortunately for Bradley and the Cubs, reality has set in early, and there's not much they can do to run from it. The strong likelihood is that the team will be lucky to get a half-season of play from Bradley. That they didn't factor his health history into the decision to sign him-which certainly would have led to a decision not to sign him, given the absence of the DH rule in the NL-is a big mistake by a team that has avoided the big mistake in recent years.