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:
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.
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:
Also, I have a soft spot for air-ball guys. Brantley seems stubbornly resistant to idea of launching juiced ball into air
— Travis Sawchik (@Travis_Sawchik) November 3, 2017
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.