Trend Spotting: Michael Brantley's value conflict
One of the many ideas emphasized throughout the Indians offseason was that the front office truly believed that it had developed a core group of players that they could build around in order to compete for division titles.
Of course we know that the acquisitions of players like Swisher and Bourn expand the core or at least its supplement but the question becomes what players specifically makeup the principal group going forward?
This year while compelling so far, is more interesting in terms of the direction it will point the franchise specifically surrounding the management of “core” guys as well as defining who they are as the season progresses.
In my mind the core contains a combination of the following depending on how each person values players: Carlos Santana, Justin Masterson, Jason Kipnis, Asdrubel Cabrera, Cody Allen, Corey Kluber (Probably too soon but worth inclusion) Zach McAllister andMichael Brantley. The order does not in any rank the value of the assets moving forward.
Obviously a few decisions must be made in the very near future in order to maintain or replenish the current group, the most pressing decisions being possible extensions for Masterson and Cabrera.
These situations are strewn with any number of solutions and considerations be it Francisco Lindor’s development or Justin Masterson’s interest in staying Cleveland long term to name a few.
The second set of key decisions, however, takes place over the next year and a half, regarding the extension of players after just a few full seasons. This strategy of signing long term extensions early was employed successfully by John Hart in Cleveland in the early nineties and later by Rays executive Andrew Friedman.
The Rays were more audacious at times as they signed Evan Longoria to an extension before he played even a month in the big leagues. What this does is it shares risk between the player and the team, offering the player security while the team gets a very manageable contract if the player produces at the big league level.
For small to mid-market teams these sorts of deals are a necessity as is the importance of signing and extending the right guys.
Which brings us to the laid-back, always professional, Dr. Smooth. Brantley on the surface is a rather nondescript entity which makes discussing an extension a practice many would believe to be akin to a fool’s errand.
Site Editor Steve Orbanek in his highly enlightening weekly column took on the same endeavor some time ago and his thoughts are worth your time. Digressing to Brantley, a now displaced outfielder who is playing a position where traditionally his power or production in general might be scorned.
In 2012, Michael Brantley’s WAR was 2.6 which was middle of the pack as centerfielders go and his transition to left field has absolutely hurt his value but he is still an interesting piece.
(* The sample is limited enough that the usability of data from this year is limited)
Many forget that Brantley is just twenty-six years old and that a majority of his adjustments have come at the big league level because of the Indians seeming carousel of outfielders over the past four seasons.
Brantley’s ability to continually improve in his first three seasons is an immense positive as he is the type of professional who continues to work and adapt to his competition as they adjust to him.
Much has been made about Brantley’s professionalism as well as the quality of his at bats but these things cannot be overstated. One of the best examples of Brantley’s ability to see the zone and control the bat head is that he consistently hits between 80-100 points above league average when down in the count 0-2 or 1-2.
Francona has expressed that even at his young age Michael has immense value in terms of his ability to lead and influence guys in the clubhouse. However, no metric can measure that effect which is some part of Brantley’s intrigue.
When looking at Brantley’s slash line, past the continual positive improvement we see a few other things some of which concerning, surrounding his value. First, he has below average power especially for a corner outfielder. Now these sorts of ineptitude can be covered when the team has plus power coming from generally powerless positions a la Santana, Cabrera and Kipnis but the flaw still exists.
The second threat to his value is that outside of his hit-tool/OBP all of Brantleys tools play out as average or below average. One of the real disappointments so far in his career has been basestealing.
Brantley as a fast athletics player with the ability to get on base yet he has been neutralized as a runner so far. Michael highest MLB total was thirteen steals while he reached forty-six one season in triple-a.
Lastly, as a final threat to Brantley’s value is the fact that defensively he is below average or average in centerfield. In terms of UZR Dr. Smooth is an above average leftfielder but with his meek offensive nature an extension becomes tough for Brantley who lacks leverage.
Brantley has his weaknesses be it the lack of power, marginal defense or lack of speed but he also has his strengths. Which most notably is his OBP. Brantley gets on base at a solid clip, that is except when he leads off and so a lineup spot has been difficult to discern for Michael.
On the surface, Brantley’s profile screams classic two-hole hitter because of his ability to handle the bat and consistently set the table. Of course this depends on how you think the two-hole should be filled, recent research suggests that a team’s best hitter should hit 2nd or 4th.
So the question returns, what is Michael Brantley worth and should the Indians extend him?
The answer is that statistically Brantley is a league average guy, someone who projects to have a WAR near 2.0 each and every year for the next three years. It seems so despicable to throw the phrase league average on a guy like Brantley but unless one or two of the tools improve that is simply the case.
Perhaps, Brantley’s adjustments can continue and he can get to 12-14 homeruns a year or reach 20 stolen bases in a season but I am not betting on it.
Brantley is the exact type of guy any team would want around the organization, hardworking and an altogether affable player. However, Michael is just not the sort of player worth extending because he is not incredibly costly to replace unless he returns to center or a need for his return arises.
The question, was raised because of my optimism about Brantley, perhaps blind faith but I think this season he will continue to improve as it is a very important season to monitor because we will see whether he reached his production ceiling or whether a fourth consecutive season of improved production is in store.
Because, if it is, he will have shifted the entire conversation.
Interact with Michael by email at email@example.com and on Twitter @MichaelHattery
Between other prospects that didn't pan out (Ben Francisco), prospects that never developed (Nick Weglarz), or veterans that didn't perform as expected (David Dellucci, Jason Michaels), the Indians have not done well with the LF spot since the days of Wil Cordero, Richie Sexson, and Ellis Burks (i.e. late 90s, early 2000s).
The future options in LF are who? Chen? Aguilar? Moncrief (probably more of a RFer)? Fedroff (probably won't match Brantley's hitting ability and production? Brantley is a surer bet for 2013-2014 at least, possibly longer.
I'd try to keep him- I doubt he would cost THAT much, as he's more of a complementary player rather than a true cornerstone, but when he's going well, he brings stability and contact ability that a lot of hitters don't bring. As for not fitting the ideal LF profile, keep in mind that Choo didn't fit the typical RF profile either, and while Choo had more pure power than Brantley, Brantley isn't usually prone to the long slumps/strikeouts Choo was. Plus Brantley can better handle lefties (the one hitter who could in those years that the Indians were bothered by LHP).
Therefore, I would look to resign him for the next 3-4 years at reasonable dollars - in other words, not cheap, but not extravagant either.