THE NEWBERG REPORT — DECEMBER 10, 2007

In this club’s playoff years, the outfield was never a question. Although completely different players, Juan Gonzalez and Rusty Greer were lineup fixtures, and in center field Darryl Hamilton and Tom Goodwin gave the Rangers solid defense and, on occasion, a spark offensively.

Since then, the Rangers outfield has been nondescript and largely ineffective, presenting an annual off-season issue to address.

John Hart arrived after the 2001 season. Each winter since then the club has brought in at least one veteran to nail down a key spot in the outfield and the lineup, and every time there were questions with the acquisitions:

Before the 2002 season: Carl Everett. Makeup and health issues headlined every story the day after Texas acquired Everett, an unquestioned talent, from Boston for Darren Oliver. Turns out he was a model citizen here, praised by some for being an early mentor to Mark Teixeira when Rafael Palmeiro eschewed the role. Produced in his year and a half here before being traded to the White Sox for Frankie Francisco, Josh Rupe, and Anthony Webster.

2003: Doug Glanville. In almost every way the opposite of Everett. A makeup star, a perfect health history, but three unproductive years in a row. In Texas he got off to a fourth straight bad year, missed almost two months due to a hamstring tear, and was shipped to the Cubs at the trade deadline for a minor league soldier.

2004: David Dellucci and Brian Jordan. Both were coming off of injury-marred second halves, punctuating disappointing seasons. Dellucci’s history with Buck Showalter apparently factored into his decision (and the club’s) to strike the one-year deal. Dellucci and Jordan combined for a great moment on September 23, 2004, but otherwise only half of this pair of moves worked out.

2005: Richard Hidalgo. The 21 home runs he hit in the final three-and-a-half months in 2004 with the Mets disguised what was otherwise a bad year, raising concerns that a career decline had begun. The Rangers were hoping for a little bottled lightning. They didn’t get it.

2006: Brad Wilkerson. The widespread perception was that this was a relatively young, virtually anonymous, versatile player ready to break out. Lots of pressure for him to do so, since he was the key return for Alfonso Soriano, who was the key return for Alex Rodriguez. Whether it was the pressure or the bad shoulder or something else, Wilkerson’s stay here was a monumental disappointment.

2007: Kenny Lofton, Frank Catalanotto, Sammy Sosa. All three past their prime years, Lofton was solid offensively but not very good in center field, Catalanotto was bad in the first half and good in the second half, and Sosa did a lot more offensively than expected (on a club where very few players did that) and was good in the clubhouse, but overall didn’t have a great season. Lofton begat Max Ramirez, Catalanotto’s strong finish makes him a candidate to start at first base in 2008, and perhaps Sosa helped Texas advance its effort to reestablish its presence in Latin America.

In what category does Sunday’s agreement with Milton Bradley on a one-year deal (reportedly $5 million plus incentives, pending a physical) fit?

Can he be Everett, not only producing here but shaking the character and injury questions while doing so?

Can he be Dellucci, a player who comes here, at least in part because he wants to play for the manager, and finally puts it all together for a full season?

Or will Bradley’s time here ultimately be marked by his inability to get and stay healthy and his lack of production when he does manage to get on the field, like Glanville and Jordan and Hidalgo and, to a large extent, Wilkerson?

Or will he end up somewhere in the middle, offering good and bad like last winter’s three outfield pickups did?

Bradley has suited up for six teams, but before you start to think of him as a Lofton-esque vagabond staving off retirement every winter by finding one more team to give him a job, realize that Bradley is actually seven months younger than Joaquin Benoit, eight months younger than Marlon Byrd, 10 months younger than Wilkerson. He’s a year and a half older than Francisco, and Gerald Laird. This is not an old player.

But he has been a fragile one. He’s missed time in his career with injuries to his left oblique, left hand, right quad, left eye, right hamstring, abdomen, lower back, left ankle, right shoulder, right ring finger, left knee, right knee, left shoulder, left hamstring, and right calf.

In that way, he’s sort of like Gonzalez and, maybe more on point, Greer, going all-out on every play with virtual disdain for the physical consequences.

The torn ACL that Bradley suffered with a week to go in the season last year took him out of San Diego’s playoff push and endangers the beginning of his 2008 season. Texas knows that and plans to administer a physical before making the signing official (someone on the 40-man roster will have to be dropped to make room), and even if he passes there’s a possibility that the right knee won’t be healthy enough for Bradley to make the Opening Day roster. Even when he is ready to go, he might have to DH for a month or more before the Rangers entrust an outfield spot (likely right field) to him.

Theoretically, that could mean Nelson Cruz has until Bradley is defensively healthy to fend off a designation for assignment, as the Rangers are out of options on Cruz and likely just about out of patience. The Bradley signing could mean one last audition, lasting a month or two, for Cruz.

I’m not sure what it means for Jason Botts, who has also exhausted his final option.

Despite the ugly incident in which Bradley tore the knee ligament — during a heated argument with umpire Mike Winters, who by most accounts said some things to Bradley that he shouldn’t have to get the altercation started (Winters was suspended by the league thereafter) — the Padres didn’t decide to cut ties with the 29-year-old. On Thursday there were reports that San Diego and Bradley had agreed in principle on a one-year, $4 million contract, but for whatever reason that deal didn’t get finalized and Texas swooped in and reached the tentative agreement.

The Padres didn’t offer arbitration to Bradley — meaning the Rangers won’t surrender a second-round pick for the Type A outfielder — but they wanted him back. He was a key factor in the club’s second-half lineup, having been acquired from Oakland on June 29 for minor league righthander Andrew Brown. In 42 San Diego games, he hit .313/.414/.590, with a sturdy 11 home runs and 30 RBI. He fanned only 27 times while drawing 23 walks.

The switch-hitter, historically better from the right side though solid from both, is a lifetime .273/.358/.439 hitter, including .289/.380/.470 since his breakthrough 2003 season (a span in which he’s never had an on-base percentage lower than .350) — and .307/.399/.494 on the road over those five seasons, as he played most of his home games in pitchers’ parks.

Bradley has played more center field than the corners in his eight-year big league career, but the last time he spent a considerable amount of time in center was 2005, when he split the season evenly between center and left for the Dodgers. He did appear 15 times in center for Oakland in 2007, but at this point he’s probably more of an emergency center fielder than a starter there.

Texas is obviously counting on Bradley to play more than 101 games for just the second time in his career. He’s immediately the best outfielder on the roster and someone who could very well hit third in this lineup, sliding Michael Young back up to the two slot.

As for the character issues, this will be a test for Ron Washington, who has said this winter that Bradley, who was with him in Oakland in 2006, is someone he believes he can handle. There have been well-publicized arguments with managers and teammates, confrontations with fans, domestic violence allegations (though no charges filed), and a couple run-ins with the police. Yet surely the Dodgers weren’t kidding when they nominated Bradley in 2005 for the league’s Roberto Clemente Award, given annually for outstanding community service.

There are a dozen ways the Bradley story could play out here. But given the upside that he brings as a healthy player, and the idea that the off-field issues are something that the manager here is equipped to manage, and the modest contract (and lack of draft pick) that it’s costing to get him, I can’t see how this is a risk you don’t take.

You can read more from Jamey Newberg at www.NewbergReport.com.

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