Cleveland Indians: The Bobby Bradley conundrum

In the Indians’ farm system resides a hitter with game-changing power. But could Bobby Bradley‘s plate approach complicate his future with the Tribe?

Cleveland Indians prospect Bobby Bradley has the ability to hit the types of home runs that cause onlookers to drop what they’re doing when he comes to the plate. Unfortunately, half the battle in hitting the ball over the fence is… hitting the ball in the first place.

Bradley’s minor league career has been marred by exorbitant strikeout rates, including a 33.8% mark in 453 plate appearances at Triple-A Columbus in 2019. In an extremely brief stint at the MLB level this past season, Bradley struck out 20 times in 49 chances.

The strikeout tendencies of Cleveland’s promising young thumper have been a concern for some time now. Even as he continues to crush 25-plus home runs at every level of the minors, his boom-or-bust plate profile is a long way off from being well-suited for Major League pitching.

Factoring in that Bradley also has at least two major roadblocks in between him and regular MLB playing time, it’s fair to ask the question: what should the Indians’ long-term plan be with their left-handed power bat?

Someone who has never watched baseball before could take one look at Bradley’s 225-pound frame and deduce that he was a professional first baseman. The Indians’ current first baseman, Carlos Santana, is coming off a career year in which he appeared to be rejuvenated by a reunion with his former teammates. Santana is creeping toward the back half of his 30’s, but another season as productive as his 2019 campaign is going to make it difficult for Cleveland to justify declining his $17.5-million option for 2021.

Bradley is staring down at least one more year, and potentially two, of not having a place in the Indians’ defensive alignment. As for the other lineup spot for which he’s well-suited, he doesn’t have a clear path to a regular DH role, either.

Franmil Reyes is only one year older than Bradley, and is under control through the 2024 season. Despite rumblings that Reyes could see time in the outfield going forward, the more cut-and-dry way to view his long-term role with the Indians is as a designated hitter.

Meanwhile, Bradley and his power bat are gathering moss in the minors, which isn’t helping the Indians any in the present. Cleveland could simply choose to ride out Santana’s tenure and turn first base over to Bradley in 2021 or 2022. In the meantime, any strides he can take in terms of cutting down on strikeouts would be a most welcome improvement.

An option in the short term would be to platoon him against right-handed pitching at some point in 2020, but such an avenue then begs the question of who he is fit to split time with. Any platoon involving a right-handed outfielder would then require Reyes to play out there regularly, which is less than ideal. A split between Bradley and Reyes takes the latter’s bat out of the lineup more than half the time. It’s a clunky road at best.

Is Bradley’s best-case scenario in 2020 that of a bench bat who occasionally spells Santana and Reyes in the starting lineup? Can keeping him in the minors for another year or two while he slugs .567 be regarded as getting the most value out of him?

Or could there be a team or two out there willing to bite on his power potential in a trade? At 23, he’s more than young enough to shore up his plate approach, and, perhaps more importantly, he could be viewed as a tempting piece in a trade package going back to a rebuilding team.

Regardless of how the Indians navigate Bradley’s future, there is some risk involved. If Bradley transforms into a more well-rounded hitter, he is a lock to take over as the Tribe’s first baseman of the future. If he continues along the path of a guy like, say, Adam Dunn, then there are obviously going to be drawbacks no matter how many big flies he hits.

By the same token, the last thing the Indians want is for Bradley to turn the corner in his development with another team. If events were to unfold that way, it would not be the first time.

At the moment, the Indians aren’t in a position where they need to feel compelled to expedite his timeline in one manner or the other. There are worse problems to have than the knowledge that a hitter with 35-homer upside is going to join the MLB club before long, even if Cleveland might have to live with the all-or-nothing results. Still, it’s worth wondering what that path might look like, or if it’s even guaranteed to happen.