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Does an Encarnacion for Bradley Jr trade make sense?

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USA Today Sports

Rumors are once again circling that the Boston Red Sox have been trying to move outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. this offseason for a power bat. First the Dodgers tried to cajole Boston to take on right fielder Yasiel Puig in a move that made little sense for the Red Sox; Puig, of course, is back in the news for being dropped as a client by the Wasserman Group for an unspecified behavioral reason. Even had Puig returned to his glory days of 2013 and 2014, it’s hard to imagine he’d have been a good culture fit in Boston.

A newer rumor makes more sense for both sides: The Cleveland Indians approached the Red Sox about dealing 1B/DH Edwin Encarnacion to Boston for Bradley. Of course, “newer” is a relative term given that these discussions happened earlier in the offseason and are apparently dead for the moment, but it’s still worth asking:

Is that a trade that makes sense for Boston?

The ongoing story of the Boston offseason is the Red Sox’ pursuit of right fielder J.D. Martinez, the top bat in free agency and a guy with a market of two teams: Boston and the Arizona Diamondbacks, where he played out the back half of last season. It seems inevitable that some kind of deal will get done with the Red Sox eventually, but even assuming Martinez slots into the middle of the Boston lineup, the Red Sox still need another power bat. The only real move Boston has made to address the two traditional power positions in a major league lineup — first base and designated hitter — has been to bring back Mitch Moreland on a two-year deal. Moreland’s a decent enough player at $6.5 million a year, but he’s not a power hitter and the Red Sox lineup desperately needs some oomph.

Boston has had no incumbent DH since the retirement of David Ortiz after the 2016 season. Hanley Ramirez is penciled into the position heading into camp given that he can no longer play the field, but Ramirez has dramatically fallen off at the plate since turning 30; it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see him designated for assignment by the Red Sox early in the upcoming season. That means Encarnacion, one of the league’s best power bats over the past five or six years, would stand to be a substantial upgrade in an area where Boston is sorely lacking.

Encarnacion, however, is a year older than Ramirez and declined last year, too — though he didn’t have as bad a season as casual fans might think. His atrocious start to the 2017 season was league-wide news, while his excellent back half of the year (.252/.381/.533 in 302 PA) garnered significantly less coverage. That’s something Boston fans would have to live with if the team dealt for him: Encarnacion has very slow starts to seasons, with a .756 career OPS in March and April against his .853 career OPS. Every year for the rest of his career, people are going to wonder if this is the time he won’t bounce back and put up a monster June. But he’s a much more attractive option, all told, than hoping against hope that Hanley’s stroke returns after three years of unimpressive hitting.

Paying Ramirez $22.75 million each of the next two years to ride the pine or play for someone else while taking on Encarnacion’s remaining $45 million (he has two more years on his deal near $20 million AAV and a team option for a third with a $5 million buyout) is no one’s idea of efficient.

And? Who cares?

The Red Sox are a ludicrously rich franchise that just got a massive payout from Disney’s purchase of BAMTech and has no interest in becoming luxury-tax compliant this offseason. The Ramirez contract is what it is and no one’s going to take it off the Red Sox’ hands, so they might as well try to win. Martinez is a major and necessary step in the right direction, but he needs another power threat to complement him in the lineup if the Sox are going to hang with the Yankees’ new offense. They didn’t last year, and New York just added the reigning National League MVP for scraps.

But we already know what the Red Sox think of the swap: They turned it down, valuing Bradley Jr. too highly to make the trade. That’s fair enough; JBJ is a valuable player for reasons well beyond his artificially deflated salary, and Boston would be wise to give him another year to see if he’s going to be more like his 2016 or 2017 self. Bradley losing almost 100 points of slugging off his line was a big part of the Boston power outage last season.

Still, the Red Sox have to do something besides continue to snipe at Martinez’s agent in the media. A more reasonable trade target with relatively similar financials and higher upside would be Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun, who has had trouble staying healthy recently and could use a move to an American League team that can hide his defense at designated hitter. The Brewers have an outfield crunch as it is, so Bradley won’t be high on their list of priorities — though who knows what Boston’s willingness to trade Bradley will look like if and when Martinez signs, and there are four outfielders for three outfield spots on the Red Sox roster.

At that point, with Martinez in the fold, maybe the Red Sox will come back to the idea of acquiring Encarnacion. Whatever Boston does, it should do it quickly. Spring training starts soon, and everyone — fans, players, media — is running out of patience at MLB teams’ reticence to improve their clubs.

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Jonathan Bernhardt lives and works in the Baltimore area. He has previously covered Major League Baseball for Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, VICE Sports, and The Guardian.

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