On July 7, 2008, the Cleveland Indians traded CC Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers for Matt LaPorta, Zach Jackson, Rob Bryson, and a player to be named later. Three months later, on October 3, Michael Brantley became that PTBNL, and by far the best player the Indians received in that trade. Nine seasons later, with two All-Star game appearances, and a serious MVP run, it may be time for the Indians front office to say goodbye to Dr. Smooth.
The Cleveland Indians shouldn’t pick up Michael Brantley’s $11 million dollar option,1 and they should make this decision now.
I Love Michael Brantley, the “Doctor of Smooth,” and a man whose baseball IQ is as high as any player I’ve ever watched play the game in an Indians’ jersey. I’m convinced that the mold in which Brantley is cast is utilized by this front office in their search for both draft picks, and in free agency. But sometimes the performance, either because of deteriorating skill, or because of health skills, drops enough to make the value on the field not equate to the value of the contract.
What Brantley provides/provided?
What Brantley does at the plate when he’s healthy is unquestioned. From 2011 through 2015, Dr. Smooth was not only the most consistent offensive player for the Tribe, but by 2014, he had become a legitimate MVP threat, finishing third in the A.L. voting that season, to go along with his first selection to the All Star game.
Brantley averaged a 3.0 WAR season for his five hundred-plus game seasons, and his 151 wRC+ in 2014, and 133 in 2015 showcased a player that offensively, was taking steps into the elite.
But where Brantley really separated himself was his contact rate, and as I mentioned before, this is where the Indians’ front office may have taken note, and began to try and model and mold Brantley’s style of at bats.
Through 2015, Brantley’s contact percentage never dropped below 90%, and even in his two injury filled seasons in 2016 and 2017, with limited at bats, that contact rate stayed at an elite 89.6% in 2016, and 88.8 in 2017. While Brantley has never walked a tremendous amount, when you see his contact rate outside the zone at a career 81.1%, and his zone contact at 96%, you can see what’s made Brantley so successful. He has an uncanny knack for making really good contact.
Brantley also saw a spike in power in 2014 and 2015, rifling doubles off the walls, and ramping up his home run stroke. His slugging was near or above .500 for those two elite seasons, making Brantley a player that would have been coveted across the league. If there was anyone who was going to understand the value of launch angle, it was Brantley, who clearly has always taken that ‘Ted Williams’ approach to hitting. He was a student of the game, and consistently showed improvement in all facets of his game from season-to-season.
Even part-time Brantley is maintaining that impressive contact rate, and while his power is hard to evaluate in such a short sample size, his .444 slugging suggests that when healthy, that skill-set hasn’t diminished. These skill-sets still make him valuable while he’s on the field, even if it’s in a part time role.
When you combine Brantley’s elite offensive skill with his locker room presence, which some “insiders” have compared to Corey Kluber in the sense that players tend to model their behavior in planning and attack after the Indians’ left fielder. You can’t measure it, it’s certainly a feasible skill. I believe players like Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor were valued because of a skill set offensively that was similar to Brantley’s, it’s pretty clear that at least pieces of their game are modeled after the nine-year vet, either by design, or simply because the Indians were looking for that “contact profile.”
There are three main concerns; two which are rooted in fact, and another which is rooted in potential rumors and innuendo.
Obviously, Brantley’s major issue is his health. Over the past two seasons, Brantley has played in less than a third of the total games, coming in at 101, not counting his playoff DH stint. How many of those 101 games has seen a healthy Brantley at the plate is unknown.
When Brantley first injured his shoulder, way back on September 22, 2015, it was believed that the slight labrum tear could get healthy with a simple shoulder program. He still felt discomfort, still tried to play a week later, and was shut down after two games. Brantley, the competitor, wanted to avoid surgery at all costs, hoping that rehab would help the shoulder. Unfortunately, it didn’t improve, and he had shoulder surgery in November of 2015, costing him over a month of rehab time.
Now, the blame game has been thrown around here a ton. Was it Brantley’s fault because he waiting. Was it the Indians’ fault because they let him. But in the end, these are things that tend to happen in every organization. You live and you learn from them… or at least that’s the theory. Since then, Brantley has hopped on and off the DL train thanks to the shoulder, his back, his ankle, and seemingly everything in between.
Baseball is a fickle beast, and Brantley’s injuries, whether they are random and not connected, or whether they are a domino-effect because of the player/team’s desires to get him back on the field… isn’t really important. The only thing the roster or the team should care about is his actual health. While throughout Brantley’s career, he’s been one of the only outfielders with an elite-level skill, there are currently a few Indians’ youngsters knocking at the door.
I’m not saying they are better than elite Brantley. I’m not even saying they are better than 60% Brantley offensively, when playing. What I am saying is that as a team, this is something that needs to be fleshed out, and with Brantley hanging on, and whatever forces that be saying, “he’s good enough to play,” it’s hindering the team’s ability to figure out what they have with their youngsters. Hindsight is 50-50, but Brantley sure looked like he was wasting a roster spot in the ALDS. Would a regular Greg Allen have been better?
Maybe… maybe not. But the real concern isn’t in 2017. That season is over. The real concern is 2018, and that option.
The other piece to all of this, and this is the murky area, is Brantley’s clubhouse presence. I personally believe that his quiet leadership is somewhat important. But… there have been some rumors not of discontent, but of Brantley’s lack of desire to move away from left field.
I have no clue if this is true. I’ve heard the rumors from a variety of sources, but they’re all second-or-third-or-fourth hand sources. You hear the fantasy bookers out there: Michael Brantley would be a better first baseman at this point in his career (arguable) than in left. Now, was he asked to move to first, and did he say no? Is this why they made a major push to sign Edwin Encarnacion?
All of that is conjecture, but when you see a guy like Jason Kipnis volunteer to move to center, and while it likely irritated him, his public face never strayed away from, “what’s good for the team, is what I’ll do.” While Kipnis in center is a whole different topic, the desire, much like Carlos Santana’s desire to try third and the outfield ring of players that are winning over the clubhouse.
Should Brantley play in left? Is there a desire for him to stay in left? Is it hurting the club? I’ll let you answer all those questions for yourself.
Which leads me to my third point, and that’s the defensive side of the equation. Sure, Brantley, in his prime, could play in center and left. Sure, there were moments in which he looked good in left, and so-so in center. But, he’s not a good outfielder. In his best days, he was average, and those days seem to be long gone. Sure, he makes a fantastic play on occasion, but those fantastic plays are far outweighed by the head-scratching “how did he not get to that” plays.
And now he can’t kick this ankle injury.
I know this “is he good in left field” commentary is going to bring about some fan disdain, but just watch him play out there this year. Go back and look. How many balls drop in front of him that a guy like even Austin Jackson would make a play at, let alone Greg Allen or Bradley Zimmer, or even Lonnie Chisenhall. He’s not a good defender, and I’d argue that you can’t expect him to be a good defensive first baseman either.
While Kip made some great plays in center, watching him trying to figure it out was at times painful. No, first base isn’t center, but Brantley hasn’t ever played the infield in the big leagues. Can he do it adequately? Do you want him trying to field throws he’s never dealt with before? Can he?
When you have a season like you did from Carlos Santana, I’m not sure you can answer that with a straight face. Santana has turned himself into a pretty stout first baseman. Brantley would be a step down, and that’s if he’d even agree to make the move.
Saying goodbye to Brantley?
Here is the real question. What is Brantley’s market value? If you were to use straight fWAR, and use the $7-$8 million dollar value associated with WAR points, you could argue that his salary would be right around $11 million next year, thanks to his 1.6 fWAR. Of course, that’s not taking into account the fact that he only played in 90 games last year, and has had two injury-riddled seasons in a row.
Brantley has averaged 50 games a year over the past two, so you really have to take the WAR valuation with a grain of salt.
You simply can’t play a guy who hasn’t been healthy in two years $11 million dollars. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to say goodbye to Brantley.
In 2011, the Cleveland Indians had a similar situation on their hands with Grady Sizemore. Sizemore had a $9 million dollar option, which the Indians declined in late October. The Indians expressed interest in re-signing their center fielder however, and kept the dialogue going, before offering Sizemore a $5 million dollar base contract, with incentives that would pay him his full $9 million. Now, that contract was somewhat controversial at the time, both because of his injury issues ($5 million is a ton to pay a guy who isn’t playing), and because of the price tag after three years of averaging only 70 games per. Sizemore ended up hurting his back, had micro-discectomy surgery in the spring, and his 8-12 week prognosis turned into forever. Sizemore wouldn’t return to the Indians, or the Big Leagues until 2014.
Now, Brantley isn’t Sizemore, but you should always take a close, hard look at a cautionary tale like Brantley’s. While $5 million isn’t a huge deal, in Cleveland, even now, it is. Back then, it was a pretty large contract for the Indians, but even more importantly, it kept the Indians from going after a player that could have replaced him from the get-go. Who ended up in center that year?
So would the Indians have to say goodbye to Brantley? Nope. But, is he worth the incentive gamble that the Indians played in 2012 with Grady Sizemore?
So…what kind of money should the Indians give to Brantley, and in the end, is it worth it?
Let’s just get this out of the way. The Indians have some players to look at heading into the 2018 season. Should they sign Carlos Santana (yes) or Jay Bruce (yes)? Would signing both affect Brantley (yes)?
If you believe the Indians should sign Santana and Bruce, do they even have to sign Brantley? Well, they don’t, but just for kicks and giggles, let’s say they do have to sign Brantley. What would that deal look like?
Well… it would sorta look like this:
OK… OK… I’m joking here. Jackson only cost the Indians $1.5 million dollars, and with injuries and platooning, he only played in 85 games, which was only five games less than Brantley. No, I’m not suggesting the Indians offer Brantley minor league scruff money, but what do you think Austin Jackson would cost, and would he be a better option than Brantley?
So again, what would a Brantley deal, if they signed him to a one-year deal… look like?
The Oakland A’s signed Rajai Davis to a $6 million dollar deal last year based on his 2016 performance with the Indians. Davis was a 1.9 fWAR player in 2016, in 134 games, and obviously has a completely different skill-set, but I think that $6 million would be a likely starting off point. You could give Brantley that $6 million dollar base, with $5 million in incentives, and maybe throw a $500,000 dollar kicker in there for comeback player of the year, which he probably would have won with Rajai’s 134 game total in 2017.
Now, before you jump on the bandwagon and say, “Pshaw Jim (does anyone say that)! That’s idiotic and offensive!”
Who is going to give Brantley more than that next year on the free agent market? Hell, I think $6 million on the open market for an injured skill set would be likely, but one of those waiting games that players in their fringy, 30+ year seasons play. Brantley will be 31 in May.
I’m not sure the Indians HAVE to even do that, if they legitimately want to sign Bruce, Santana… and hell… what about this guy again?
It’s tough to say goodbye to players that are a part of our roots… our souls. Dr. Smooth is one such guy. Through two degrees of separation, Brantley takes us back to 2001, as the lasting piece of the Sabathia deal. He’s part of our Cleveland Indians blood.
We love Michael Brantley.
And Michael Brantley might not be done yet! But, there are days when you have to ask yourself this simple question: Is it worth taking an $11 million dollar gamble for a player who is entering his age 31 year, is injury prone for two years running, and is at best, a question mark to return to form for 100+ games? It’s sorta funny to think that Brantley went 0-2 against Sabathia in the ALDS, the player he was traded for in 2008. Which player looked closer to the end? I know… it’s way too early to think that about Brantley, but it does put things in perspective.
Is he worth the gamble when you have players just as important who can fill that position? Will a 50% Brantley keep some of the youngsters from developing, or worse, will he fill a slot in meaningful playoff games, keeping the Indians from fielding their best team? Will his $11 million dollar option keep the Indians from filling a hole, that they’ll have to use up assets to fill at the deadline, because he’s injured?
Sometimes it’s hard to say goodbye to team anchors, or even to accept part time roles, or be okay with new positions, but in the end, what’s best for the team in the long run has to have more weight than what’s important in our hearts.
Let’s hope that Tito Francona and the Indians’ brass make the right call on Brantley’s future, and the teams, as it heads into this important hot stove season.
- $12 million dollar option, but there is a $1 million buyout. [↩]