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September 21, 2009

Prospectus Today

Bradleygate?

by Joe Sheehan

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In something of a surprise, the Cubs have suspended Milton Bradley for the rest of the season for conduct detrimental to the team. There are about two weeks left in the season, so in the midst of the big pile-on, I'd like to ask one question: Who the hell has ever been suspended for two weeks for what they said to the media? This is a severe and unwarranted overreaction, a cynical public-relations ploy designed to curry favor with fans and the media and distract both groups from a Cubs season that is ending with a whimper.

The interview, published in Saturday's Arlington Daily Herald, certainly wasn't a high-water mark for Bradley. When asked if he'd enjoyed his time in Chicago, he said he hadn't, he pointed out that it's a media-saturated environment and he connected what he perceived as a negative atmosphere to the Cubs' inability to win a World Series for a century. He clearly hasn't been comfortable in Chicago, and coupled with the perception that he's played poorly and a few incidents in which his notorious temper has gotten the better of him, he's become a lightning rod for blame.

His comments in the Herald weren't particularly new or enlightening, and they didn't attack any individual. They weren't profane or notably inflammatory. For this, he gets sent home for two weeks. By doing so, Hendry is blatantly pandering to the disgruntled fan base and the local media, as Carrie Muskat reported as far as Hendry's comments on the subject for MLB.com:

"I'm not going to let our great fans become an excuse, I'm not going to tolerate not answering questions from the media respectfully."

Really, now. This is why you've suspended one of your best players for two weeks, because it's mission-critical that your players respect the fans and treat the media well? That's nonsense, and the rush to back up Hendry and tear down Bradley is yet another example of the co-dependent relationship between baseball teams and the free media they rely upon. Players don't take two-week suspensions for being rude, and they don't take two week suspensions for the content of their quotes. Come to think of it, players don't take two-week suspensions; the last non-drug-related suspension of this length was Albert Belle's, and he threw a baseball at a fan who was heckling him from the stands.

Hendry can do this because he's the general manager of a team that woke up on Sunday 11 games out of first place and seven games out of the wild-card race, effectively eliminated from contention. Let's be very clear that this suspension would not be happening if the Cubs had continued their late charge to the fringe of the race, or if they had any kind of chance of making the postseason. Let's also be very clear that this suspension would not be happening had Bradley's stats been comparable to last year's. Bradley isn't being suspended because of what he said; he's being suspended because he did so with a .240 batting average and the Cubs are buried in the standings.

Here's what really bugs me, also from Hendry:

"The only real negativity here is his own production."

I expect the sports-radio mongrels and the beer-swilling casual fans to be unable to look past a .240 batting average and 40 RBI, to evaluate Bradley using the same metrics they did Andre Dawson and Ernie Banks and Hack Wilson. I expect more from Hendry, who should recognize that those figures don't do Bradley justice. The outfielder hasn't played to expectations, but those expectations were unrealistic-last year was a peak season and involved lots of DH time. Moreover, Bradley has played more than he has in almost any season, and despite a low batting average has been a productive member of the lineup. Bradley is fifth on the Cubs in Runs Above Replacement Player, and tied for third among their regulars with a .271 EqA. His .378 OBP has been a significant asset for a team that carried three OBP sinks in the lineup for most of the season.

The big surprise is that for all the questions about whether he could, Bradley has mostly stayed in the lineup, starting 107 games in the field and playing 915 defensive innings. That's the second-highest mark of his career, and the most he's played afield since 2004, when he was 26.

Bradley can do three things: he can hit, he can play in the field and he can stay in the lineup. As his entire career has shown, though, he can do just two of those things at any one time, and for Hendry to have been surprised by this-in fact, for him to throw the player under the bus for it-is ridiculous. Bradley played about as much as could reasonably be expected for a player of his known physical limitations. He posted a .378 OBP in the process. His batting average and power suffered, and he didn't play a particularly good brand of right field, but he played. If he was a disappointment, it was a case of excessive expectations-or not remembering that the Cubs can't use the DH-as much as it was a problem with his performance.

Moreover, the Cubs aren't all that far from where they were supposed to be. They're on pace to go 83-79; I had them going 87-75, and I still think that was pretty realistic. The Cubs are four games off that projected pace, which seems so much worse because the Cardinals are 15 games ahead of theirs. The Cardinals resurrected Joel Pineiro, got a mostly full season from Chris Carpenter, and traded for Matt Holliday, none of which has anything to do with Milton Bradley or the Cubs. The Cubs are off their feed because Aramis Ramirez missed time and was replaced with zeroes, because the bullpen was even worse than expected, because Alfonso Soriano was awful, and yes, because Milton Bradley didn't hit for as much power as was expected. He's part of the picture, but far from the entirety of it.

I expect Jim Hendry to know these things, but if Hendry were to admit that Bradley has played about as well and as often as could reasonably be expected, then he'd have to answer the question, as valid today as it was nine months ago, as to why he was signing a player who was a poor fit for his roster and his league. I expect Hendry to realize that much of last year's success was built on players who had no place to go but down, but I suspect he doesn't. So it's much better to turn the spotlight on to Bradley's mouth and hope no one looks too carefully at the original decision. Signing Bradley was a mistake at the time, not because Bradley has a temper, but because he can't do all three things at once.

As far as Bradley is concerned, I feel much the same as I do every time he gets himself into this kind of situation: he shouldn't talk to the media. He doesn't have any ability to be circumspect, to speak in clichés, to say something without saying anything. I don't necessarily mind this quality in people, but it's a recipe for disaster in today's sports world. There are going to be microphones and notebooks and cameras, and he's simply never found a way to co-exist with them. It doesn't help that, because of his past, he's an attractive target for reporters; if you talk to Bradley, there's a chance that you'll end up with a story, a chance that isn't there with, say, Ryan Theriot or Kosuke Fukudome. It's similar to what would happen to Barry Bonds, where reporters would interact with him just so they could write their standard "Barry was rude to me" tale of woe. It really shouldn't be a story any longer that Milton Bradley has a temper, or speaks out of turn, or even that he isn't terribly happy in Chicago or with the Cubs, but it is.

Even if it is, suspending him for two weeks for expressing those thoughts is disproportionate to the point of ridiculousness. If it's considered fair game to suspend a player for what were fairly measured (if critical) comments, I shudder to think what kind of doors this opens up for player discipline. Milton Bradley may or may not have been out of line here, but Jim Hendry definitely was.

--

I don't have another place for this, so I'm going to put it here because it kind of is the intersection of the Cubs and reliever usage, the latter topic being a regular theme here of late. A couple of weeks ago Lou Piniella moved Kevin Gregg out of the closer role because Gregg's performance had cost the Cubs a lot of games. Gregg's tateriffic tendencies-a homer allowed every five innings or so-are one reason why the Cubs have fallen short of expectations this season. So it would make sense for Piniella to keep Gregg out of game-critical situations.

So how is it you don't want the guy closing out games, but you think it's a good idea to have him face Albert Pujols with a runner on first, two outs, and a one-run lead in the seventh? That's the situation in which Piniella brought Gregg into the game last night. It makes absolutely no sense to me that you would choose Gregg, the most homer-prone reliever on the staff, to pitch to one of the best home-run hitters in baseball in a spot where a home run could lose you the game, and all other outcomes are survivable.

This is where we've gotten with reliever usage, where the number attached to the inning is all that seems to matter. That was the ballgame, right there, and Piniella chose the pitcher he's already decided he doesn't want pitching in high-leverage spots to get him out of it. Set aside that it worked and just consider the thought process that got him to that point. What's the path through the decision tree that makes you decide a guy is unfit for protecting ninth-inning leads but suited for pitching to Albert Pujols in the game's biggest moment?

The way in which the industry uses relief pitchers is broken, and needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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