Mark Shapiro is oddly attached to a dubious Milton Bradley anecdote

Mark Shapiro really wants you to know that he got rid of Milton Bradley. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Mark Shapiro really wants you to know that he got rid of Milton Bradley. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Last week, Mark Shapiro gave an interview to a business magazine called Fast Company and told the following story:

In 2004, we traded a guy named Milton Bradley. Milton was our most talented player, but he had multiple challenges with our manager and staff, as well as off the field. Finally, down in spring training, he gave a noticeably poor effort running out a pop-up. Our manager talked to him, but Milton just picked up his equipment bag, walked out of the dugout, and took a cab back to town. At that point, we were faced with the difficult decision of how to handle him. We arrived at a decision to trade him.

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Now, there is a lot to unpack there, and we’ll get to that. However, what’s particularly interesting about this yarn is that it’s one Shapiro spun in a piece that appeared in this space on Aug. 1:

The talent versus culture debate is a dilemma Shapiro remembers facing very early on in his tenure as general manager of the Indians. In 2003, Cleveland was coming off its first losing season in over a decade and headed towards a rebuild. Outfielder Milton Bradley, the most talented player on the roster at the time, was removed from a spring training game after failing to run out a pop fly. Shapiro decided he needed to trade Bradley right away, but was met with resistance from different parts of the organization...

This is not a coincidence. The interview process didn’t happen to be similar enough to elicit the exact same 15-year-old anecdote. Shapiro made a conscious effort to put this story out there. But, why?

Well, given what we know now, it’s clear Milton Bradley is not a good man — and that seems to be putting it lightly. He’s faced multiple charges for domestic battery and has served time in jail for those crimes. Positioning oneself as someone who distanced themselves from Bradley for character reasons is a good look.

The anecdote also speaks to some sort of principle about team building. Shapiro is trying to say that character matters to him — even more than talent at times — and he can prove it. The PR value of that stance is more ambiguous, but it’s at least understandable.

It’s clear the Blue Jays president believes this story shines a positive light on him, but under closer inspection it’s less clear that it does. First, there’s the baseball side of it.

The Indians traded a 25-year-old star centre fielder making just $1.7 million in his first year of arbitration coming off a 4.1 WAR season for outfield prospect Franklyn Gutierrez and reliever Andrew Brown. Gutierrez was a highly-ranked prospect (No. 31 by Baseball America), but it was a light return for a player of Bradley’s calibre at the time.

Gutierrez actually paid off years later and provided a couple of strong years in the Indians outfield in 2007 and 2008 where he totalled 5.5 WAR, while Brown only pitched 10 innings in his Indians career.

Meanwhile, Bradley played a crucial role with the Dodgers in 2004. By WAR (3.1) he was the third-best position player on a team that went 93-69 and won its division. The next year he hit a sturdy .290/.350/.484 before getting injured. The next time he had a full healthy season — a rarity for him — he made an All-Star Game with the Texas Rangers in 2008. Because of Bradley’s injuries, this trade is approximately a wash, but it didn’t look like it was going to be.

The more interesting side of this is the “character” part. In order to examine this element we need to separate what we knew about Bradley in 2004 from what we know now, allowing for the fact Shapiro would probably have had more information than the public. In 2004, Bradley was known as a difficult character: he’d spit gum at a Double-A umpire, spent a couple days in jail for refusing to accept a speeding ticket, and it was clear he had a temper. This is what Dodgers GM Paul DePodesta said about Bradley when he traded for him:

When we traded for Milton, I think we knew everything that
came along with it. We knew the past, we don't
necessarily think that everything's going to be completely
different because he came to a different place. That's fine. I
would take nine Milton Bradleys if I could get them.

Although he was considered a difficult personality, there were also reasons to believe in him as a guy as well. DePodesta pointed out at the time of the deal that Bradley did more community service than any other Indians player. In fact, he went on to be the Dodgers’ nominee for the 2005 Roberto Clemente Award given to a player who “demonstrates the values Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente displayed in his commitment to community and understanding the value of helping others.”

Bradley wound up walking a dark path in his life, but that was far from a forgone conclusion in 2004. Based on what Shapiro has said recently, he moved the outfielder after he didn’t run out a popup. Clearly, there was more to it than that, as he said this at the time:

“The majority of his time here he was a good teammate and a good member of our organization. There were moments in time that he compromised the standards and expectations that we communicated to him -- not one time, but a pattern of times.”

Even so, it’s worth repeating the person Shapiro is describing is not the person we know Bradley to be now. We are talking about attitude issues here, not the crimes he’d ultimately commit.

With the benefit of hindsight, Shapiro is telling the story of a time he jettisoned a truly unsavoury but talented individual in order to prioritize the right kind of culture. The prospect he got back ended up doing OK and Bradley didn’t have the career many expected.

That’s a convenient oversimplification, though. Based on what he knew at the time, he was giving up a potential franchise cornerstone for a fairly uninspiring return based on what seems like a series of relatively minor incidents.

If Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or Bo Bichette have some anger management issues or don’t hustle quite enough, the hope would be that wouldn’t be enough to chase them out of town. It’s hard to equate anyone to Bradley, who was a highly unusual case, but the moral of the story is that if you don’t fit the culture Shapiro envisions, that could be it for you. There are certainly whispers that much of the reason Marcus Stroman wasn’t extended by the Blue Jays and ultimately traded was culture related.

Prioritizing the character of the people you have in the building is all well and good, but its relationship to winning is fuzzy, while the relationship between talent and winning is clear. Also, putting an enormous stake in the former assumes you’re a great judge of character, which is arguably even harder to be than an elite baseball evaluator.

Ultimately, Shapiro’s tenure in Toronto will be judged by the amount the Blue Jays win, not by the cast of great dudes they assemble. Telling stories about how much he cares about the latter probably won’t fill fans with confidence about where his priorities lie.

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