Michael Brantley and the Wait ‘n See Approach

brantley22

brantley22As surprising as the Indians off-season spending spree was, I still think the club’s basic strategy is unchanged: develop a young core of players internally and dip into free agency when you need it.  It just so happened that they needed a lot of help this past off-season, and there was a bit of a perfect storm of available money, available talent, and a protected draft pick.

More often than not though, that sort of approach isn’t going to happen here.  Mostly, the team is going to have to sink or swim with players who come up through the system.  That’s why, of course, they have to draft well and lead the way in the international amateur market—to make up for what will often be paltry free agency spending.

And while developing good major leaguers is a wonderful thing, it’s also nice to have a front office that has some strategy for keeping them beyond their first six or so seasons (MLB players cannot elect free agency until they’ve served six years).  The Indians teams of the 1990s were largely built around GM John Hart’s ability to lock up his young talent beyond those first six years, and it’s become clear that Chris Antonetti and Mark Shapiro learned their lesson.

The problem over the last several years hasn’t been that the Front Office doesn’t recognize the sound strategy of locking up young, core players to affordable contracts; it’s that there just haven’t been a lot of players worth investing in.  After all, do you want a cost-controlled Matt LaPorta for the next five years?  How about Lou Marson for a few million?  Maybe I could interest you in a late-model David Huff or Jeremy Sowers?

Didn’t think so.

But the team finally is starting to churn out something resembling major league talent, and the front office is already making some moves to lock some of them up.  Last April, Carlos Santana signed an extension that added one year of team control in the form of a 2017 club option.  Word is that this Spring they approached Vinnie Pestano about a longer-term deal.

More recent rumblings have the front office approaching Michael Brantley about an extension.  It’s kind of hard to believe, but Brantley will be arbitration-eligible after this season, which means one way or another, he’s about to become more expensive. I say it’s hard to believe because Brantley is still so young  (he just turned 26; Yan Gomes is the only position player on the active roster who’s younger) and still seems to have a decent amount of development and projectability to him.  On the other hand, he’s basically been our everyday center fielder since Grady Sizemore blew his knee off in a tragic hunting accident, which seems like forever ago.1

Anyway, back in Spring Terry Pluto had it buried in his notes that the Indians would be approaching Brantley about a contract extension before camp broke.  I assume that Pluto’s comments here, as they typically are, were well-sourced.  It also seems to jibe with the general philosophy of locking up young players to deals that extend team control in exchange for some financial security.  It all makes pretty good sense, right?

The only thing I’m wondering: why do they want to lock up Michael Brantley?

You’ll remember that Brantley was one of a quartet who came over from Milwaukee in the CC Sabathia trade of 2008.  The youngest of the haul, he was known for his speed and batting eye, but was still a good way from the majors.

Over Brantley’s MiLB career, he had the sort of numbers you could really dream on.  A .388 on base percentage and a .303 batting average.  162 stolen bases to only 39 caught stealing (81%).  All this while playing young for his level almost every year of his career.  And even though scouts didn’t universally praise his defense, there was little question that he’d stick in center due to his speed and smarts.

Fast forward to today.  Brantley has played almost every day for three seasons, compiling more than 1,800 plate appearances along the way.  He has a career OPS of .704 (98 OPS+), a career OBP of .331, and has stolen only 44 bases while getting caught 22 times (67%).  In other words, he has below average power, costs his team on the bases, and is around average at getting on base.  His full-time defense in center field was lacking enough that the Indians got not one, but two everyday center fielders this past off-season, moving Brantley to the second-easiest defensive position on the diamond.  Among 16 qualified AL left fielders this year, Brantley ranks 10th in walk-rate, 15th in slugging percentage, and 12th in OPS.

This isn’t to say that Brantley is a worthless player—far from it.  According to my Frankenstein jWAR calculations, he’s been worth anywhere from one to three wins above replacement in each of his full seasons, which would make him something resembling an average everyday player.

No, it’s not that I think Brantley is without value.  It’s that I don’t understand choosing to invest in his potential when you still have plenty of time left to see if he’s actually going to reach it.  If Brantley continues to develop and becomes a premium on-base guy who can change the game with his legs (this is becoming increasingly unlikely, as players don’t typically become faster with age), then he’ll likely do it in the next three or so years.  Guess what?  He’s ours (and relatively cost-controlled) until 2017, so long as we want him.

I guess I just can’t wrap my head around the logic of locking him up now.  Despite what we witnessed last season, average left fielders shouldn’t be impossible for a reasonably creative front office to secure.  And while it’s true that there is non-zero chance that Brantley becomes much more than that, we don’t have to pay to see that card just yet.  I know the Indians organization prides itself on never going to arbitration, but Brantley seems the perfect sort of player to continue to take on a year-to-year basis.  He may develop into what we’d always hoped.  But in his current form, he’s just not worth a long-term deal, especially when we can get the proverbial milk without one.

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Footnotes:

  1. May not actually be what happened to Grady Sizemore’s knee. []
  • The_Real_Shamrock

    And to think Brantley was basically a throw in for that deal with Milwaukee too. Three words: lock him up!

  • Harv 21

    I think the issue for the Tribe is that he seems to be steadily improving and they have no exciting minor league outfield prospects. And they’re scared that while in the last decade they’ve poached three good outfielders that other organizations have considered excess (Grady, Choo, Brantley), their ability to draft/develop their own outfielders is zippo, zilch, nada. [Which is kind of hilarious. How over like 15 years do you draft absolutely no one that can play outfield at the ML level? Maybe they'd blame having to move Kipnis to the infield, because they also couldn't draft too many infielders since Brandon Phillips. But no one - at all?].

    But thought there was also a subsequent report last spring that Brantley didn’t want to talk extension just yet, maybe sensing an advantage to waiting with no farm prospects knocking on the door.

  • Rick Manning’s Response Runs

    A Obie Cabrera esque .690 OPS, and here I thought that Giambi was brought in to hook these guys up with some good roids. Ugh, if only Brantley could hit for a little power he would be such a likable player, but Im still very blah about it. Competent in a lot of areas but not really good at anything.

  • Garry_Owen

    If Left Field is the easiest position to play, how come the 2012 Indians made it look so damn hard?

  • Kildawg

    I’d like to think that they basically had to throw DHs out into LF. DET has DHs at 1B AND 3B maybe SS as well.

  • Kildawg

    Phillips was a big part of that Colon deal in 2002 that also included Cliff Lee and Grady Sizemore.

  • mgbode

    the reason to lock up Brantley right now is that you can get an extra year or two after his arbitration seasons included. it is a calculated risk because if he does bust out to fully utilize his skills, then we will not be able to afford those post-arbitration seasons.

    it’s not like Stubbs is tearing things up in the other corner. we’re talking about locking up our 2nd best OFer with very little coming up through the system soon to replace him.

  • Kildawg

    Plus Brantley can also play a solid CF as well (he’s the 3rd CF on this team behind Bourn and Stubbs; played there last year). Brantley is a high contact hitter with gap power, giving a manager lineup flexibility as well.

  • Harv 21

    You are right, of course. Totally forgot that. So lemme amend that: since Richie Sexson.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Lee Stevens on line 2!

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Difference there is Detroit’s DHs, as you call them, are both All-Stars and one is a Triple Crown MVP winner. Just a little bit of a difference.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    What he said!

  • mgbode

    I remember the days when we threw DH’s in the corner OF slots. Those were some fun days at the plate.

  • mgbode

    yes, positional and lineup flexibility are both in play with him as well. I agree w/ Jon’s main point on Brantley (he isn’t particularly good at any one thing), but his slightness above average across the board makes him a very useful player to have on the team.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    He’s no Brent Lillibridge I’ll say that!

  • Harv 21

    make him wait. I’m still waiting on him.

  • mgbode

    that guy was fantastic about having both 3 I’s and 3 L’s in his last name and mostly clumped together. Proper writing of his name = lIllIbrIdge

  • Garry_Owen

    Stubbs isn’t tearing it up, but he’s probably the one guy (Kipnis being the next best) that I want on the base paths when it matters (see the other night). To your point, though, getting him on those paths is the perpetual problem.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Lillibridge’s legacy is legendary!

    #Justsaynoillibridge

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    He needs more Roger Dorn in him, take one for the team!

  • mgbode

    note: the above comment works or fails depending on your font selection.

  • mgbode

    yes, agreed. though Bourn is pretty instinctive on the base-paths and might deserve the 2nd nod.

  • Garry_Owen

    For sure. Kipnis just seems to always be “heads up.” What he lacks in speed (in comparison to Bourn) he seems to make up for in awareness.
    But, I’m also amazed that Bourn’s BA is as good as it is. I always seem to miss his hits, for some reason, so I’m also probably missing a lot of his running.

  • Garry_Owen

    For sure. Kipnis just seems to always be “heads up.” What he lacks in speed (in comparison to Bourn) he seems to make up for in awareness.
    But, I’m also amazed that Bourn’s BA is as good as it is. I always seem to miss his hits, for some reason, so I’m also probably missing a lot of his running.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I’d like to see Bourn start stealing some bases soon!

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I’d like to see Bourn start stealing some bases soon!

  • mgbode

    as long as he doesn’t hurt himself doing it.

  • mgbode

    as long as he doesn’t hurt himself doing it.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    He wasn’t stealing 1b though.

  • mgbode

    he sure looked like it though. someone needs to teach him to run through that bag.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    If Matt Thornton didn’t have such big feet Bourn would have escaped injury free but I agree leave the first base slides to Jason Giambi!

  • Natedawg86

    And their DHs can actually hit! haha

  • Ezzie Goldish

    I think you’re underrating the impact of an average player, especially one they can likely lock up at reasonable rates. I don’t think Brantley will get any worse, even if his upside is more limited. He’ll be an average player, but that’s fine – let’s lock up guys who aren’t holes in slots we need. The biggest killer to teams with good players are the bad players around them. Slotting in someone like Brantley gives you a dependable, flexible player in the daily lineup and outfield to build with.

  • woofersus

    I think you are mistaken in looking at career averages for a young player who just turned 26. Excluding the current season, (not that he’s regressed horribly, but it’s still in progress and the team just came off particularly rough stretch) his BA, OBP, SLG, and OPS had all increased each year since 2010 when he first spent around half the year in the majors. His BA increased at least 20 points every year, and a couple of the averages increased even more than that. 2012 was his best offensive year at .288/.388/.402/.750 (respectable for any major leaguer if not all-star caliber, and certainly capable of making arbitration dangerous) and on a team that couldn’t hit lefties if they were little leaguers his splits weren’t horribly lopsided either. His WAR increased from -1.1 to 3.3 during that time. He’s never been asked to steal all that much, but he does have decent speed, (10 for 12 on steal attempts in 2011 wasn’t too bad) and while he’s not an all star caliber center fielder he is above average in left and is capable of playing all three spots adequately.

    The point is that he’s already average to above average in most respects and still getting better. Locking him up now entails some risk, but wading into his arbitration years also presents a significant risk. He may not be the most exciting prospect to come out of our system, but it seems like locking up an already-pretty-good 26 year old with some untapped upside remaining is exactly what the Tribe should be doing.