The Risk Heavy Decision to Pick up Michael Brantley’s Option

As of Friday, November 3, 2017, the Cleveland Indians picked up a one year, twelve million dollar option on Michael Brantley.1 Michael Brantley has had a splendid career in Cleveland, the ultimate competitor and tireless worker, Brantley was often unmatched in preparation. Indeed, Terry Francona once said of Brantley “first in at bats, first in defense, first in the hearts of his compatriots”.2 For a detailed review of Michael Brantley’s time in Cleveland as well as the emotional complexity of evaluating this option decision, one can not do better than what Jim Pete wrote:

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.

Brantley was the first in a line of hitters with elite contact skills who the Indians were able to assist and ultimately add significant power; Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez being cast in the mold of Brantley’s power development.

Of course, the Indians are going pay Brantley, the Indians seventh most valuable position player in 2017, the most of any position player not named Edwin Encarnacion in 2018. One could argue that the Indians can afford to make a gamble with Brantley because of the insanely cheap contracts of Ramirez, Lindor, Carrasco, Kluber, and others.

Thrown about is the idea that the Indians could not have substituted a player of Brantley’s caliber for the cost of 12 million dollars. Perhaps. Yet, the danger of Brantley, despite his serviceable, slightly above league average 2017 campaign is that the Indians have no idea what 2018 Brantley will look like except for the addition of more injury risk and likely skill diminution.

A brief review of the past two and a half years of Michael Brantley’s playing career.

Between Fall 2015 and Winter 2016, Michael Brantley would undergo three surgeries to remedy the shoulder and elbow damage which were caused by an injury sustained in September 2015. Finally, healthy, Brantley was able to play 90 competent games before injuring his ankle, only to return at 50% during a playoff performance that left Indians fans wanting more. Now Brantley faces another major surgery on his ankle which is poised to have him entering another spring training not at full strength.3

From a pure injury risk basis, Brantley is burdensome having had numerous setbacks in recovery from both his serious shoulder and ankle injuries. Of course, even playable or “healed” will have age and injuries take their toll. Perhaps the cruelest truth is that time comes for us all, and formerly athletic outfielders are no exception.

In 2017, Brantley surprised by posting 1.6 WAR, but Brantley’s skill package is somewhat nerve wracking. A significant portion of Brantley’s value in 2017 was tied to his base-running value, which is rarely improved upon following ankle surgery. Indeed, one wonders how  his fringe-average foot speed will look when he returns from surgery this off-season and whether he can remain passable in left field. Further, Brantley’s offensive style is more traditional and does not appear to be changing with the times:

While Brantley runs high-BABIPs with an absurdly high ground ball percentage, his contributions in terms of contact authority are lacking, thereby diminishing the value of his offensive profile in the “juiced-ball” era.

Finally, there is the issue of risk in the context of this Indians roster. These are not your father’s Indians. They will enter 2018 as one of the five most talented teams in baseball and firmly in pursuit of a title. Further, the Indians remain a small market team who just made a large commitment to Edwin Encarnacion as well as experiencing rising salaries of late-arbitration and post-arbitration players.

In 2017, the Indians had a total adjusted salary of $139 million according to Spotrac. If you project the payroll to remain in the same ballpark, the Indians are expending close to 10% of their payroll on a player who is recovering from major surgery and has not played in 100 games since 2015. Perhaps Brantley will play the 100+ games necessary to make the contract worthwhile. Perhaps there will be no significant skill decline despite his most recent experience with extensive surgery. Yet, what is scary is that the probability band of him significantly outperforming his 12 million dollar option is incredibly narrow, and the risk of under-performing significant.

For a team in the pursuit of a World Series, this seems like a very brash gamble. For the sake of this Indians team, hope for improbable.

  1. Option included a one million dollar buyout therefore more effectively considered an 11 million dollar option []
  2. Awful historical jokes are my only outlet for humor. []
  3. His announced rehabilitation schedule has him returning in mid-March. []

  • jpftribe

    Well stated piece Mike. It’s not a right or wrong equation yet, it’s a risk. Safe to say everyone down on the move is rooting for it to work.

    One of the things that really bothers me about this is that it seems to depart from a formula that has worked for them. If Brantley was an FA coming from the Brewers, I don’t think they sign him for $11M. Napoli, Davis, Bruce, Crisp, Jackson all came with risk, but at reasonable costs. Rewarding a guy for terrific work ethic, clubhouse presence and vet leadership is a noble endeavour, just not sure it wins baseball games. The 16 Indians went to the Series without Brantley, won 22 straight games in 17 without Brantley and lost a five game playoff with Brantley. I think there is a little more to that than mere serendipity.

    If it truly has zero bearing on their ability to sign players this offseason, then kudos to Dolan and Antonetti for splurging the cash. We’ll see if that is truly the case.

  • mgbode

    A good add-on point. We decided not to sign Napoli, Davis, Crisp (also Kazmir) once their price caught up to their risk. Brantley’s opt-in seems to be more about loyalty, which the fan part in me loves. I just have worries.

  • jpftribe

    Maybe I’m just jaded as I get older, but to me as a fan loyalty has little to do with it. It’s not like these guys are getting laid off from a $60K a year job to collect unemployment. Someone is going to pay Brantley millions to rehab and play baseball next year. And plenty of guys have walked in their prime for big money elsewhere.

    The crux of the issue is how the Indians view the cash for the option. If this is truly just pay him the money with zero impact on the ability to fill both outfield and infield corner positions, great. Love it. It’s just hard to accept that with a historically small market club budget restraint.

  • Frank

    I think it was a bad gamble to take. Even when healthy he isn’t that good anymore, as the article mentioned.

  • Josh Borton

    Worth the gamble for the Indians. Even though he only played 90 games he provided 1.6 fWAR or 2.1 bWAR. Hopefully he comes back healthy and rakes.

  • JM85

    He hasn’t been healthy since 2015. Having said that, if we get the old, healthy Brantley then it’s a great move. But if he is hurt again and they lose Santana and Bruce, then it’s not a good move.

  • Steve

    “Yet, what is scary is that the probability band of him significantly outperforming his 12 million dollar option is incredibly narrow, and the risk of under-performing significant.”

    Welcome to the free agent market. You rarely get deals after they accumulate six years of service time.

    “Finally, there is the issue of risk in the context of this Indians roster.”

    In my opinion, the best argument for picking up the option. The Indians don’t need a safe, reliable one to two win player to stave off the … Twins, I guess? We have some room to play with here. Take a shot on some high upside guys.

  • MartyDaVille

    If I’m Tito, I tell him, “Michael, unless it’s a close score in a crucial playoff game, I never want to see you leave your feet or hit a wall while you’re in the outfield. And even then, think about it first.”

  • Steve

    He was worth about 3.5 WAR per 150 games when healthy. Thats very good.

  • Mike Hattery

    Steve, I think we disagree on the remaining upside in Brantley. I think the upside has been curtailed by skill diminution via multiple significant injuries. If you think he still has 6 WAR upside, I understand your position, I simply do not think that player remains in his body.

  • Steve

    4 WAR upside was shown just last year. That’s what I’m looking for.

  • Mike Hattery

    Disagree as to the notion that he showed that upside. Further, even if you operate under the assumption that is true, what odds do you place on him reaching 4 WAR? 10%?

  • Steve

    Sure, 10-20% sounds about right. I expect him to be worth about 1.5 WAR, right in line with our spending.

    He put up 2.1 bWAR in 90 games, thats 3.5 per 150. I’m more talking about having a four WAR type player out there when he’s healthy. I’m not expecting him to play 150, even if he is healthy, they should give him plenty of time off just to play it safe. But I want boom or bust type additions to this roster. The Twins aren’t catching us. Try to find yourself some Charlie Mortons.

  • Josh Borton

    He showed 2.7 or 3.5 WAR per 150 games for fWAR and bWAR respectively this year. 3 war is about his potential at this point in his career imo. He has to stay healthy to do so and there is no guarantee he even starts the year on the opening roster following his ankle surgery. Having said that, his option still makes sense to pickup. $12 MM is worth about 1.5 WAR on the open market. Brantley could still provide surplus value.

  • paulbip

    You are basically getting rid of Santana for Brantley.

  • Steve

    You’re not, because the chances of keeping Santana were low to begin with.

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