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Tribe Happenings: Brantley should be in MVP talk

Tribe Happenings: Brantley should be in MVP talk
Michael Brantley (Photo: AP)
July 21, 2014
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Some news, notes and thoughts from my Indians notebook…

Brantley for MVP?

The Indians lone All Star representative outfielder Michael Brantley is having a season to remember in his breakout campaign with the Indians.

Long considered a player who many felt would be a solid third outfielder and long time pro, Brantley is changing that perception as a solid everyday guy into a legit star in the league. With his clutch hitting, professional approach, good play in the outfield and emerging power, he is starting to put himself into the upper echelon of bats in the league.

Last season, Brantley had a nice year hitting .284 with 10 HR, 73 RBI and .728 OPS and had a nice year the season before in 2012 when he hit .288 with 6 HR, 60 RBI and .750 OPS. He also had a near 1:1 walk to strikeout ratio both seasons and has done the same this season, and was an above average offensive performer with a 112 wRC+ in 2012 and 106 wRC+ in 2013 (he has a 155 wRC+ this season).

Over those two seasons Brantley established himself as a reliable bat with the ability to play anywhere in the outfield and with a knack for coming through in the clutch with big hits, but this season he has become a legit force in the middle of the Indians lineup. He is currently hitting .326 with 15 HR, 63 RBI and .905 OPS, and already has eclipsed his previous career high in homers (10) and is close to doing so in RBI (73) with over 60 games remaining. He is also on pace to have a career high in stolen bases, outfield assists, and just about any advanced stat you can come up with.

With as good a season as Brantley is having, I think it is important to note how his performance grades out against his peers around the league. Currently he is tied for 4th in the AL in batting average (.326), 11th in RBI (63), 4th in hits (120), 11th in doubles (24), 18th in homers (15), 6th in on-base percentage (.386), 9th in slugging percentage (.519), 6th in OPS (.905), 5th in wRC+ (155) and 3rd in WAR (3.9). He also has the 3rd best strikeout percentage (8.1%) among qualified hitters and his 10 outfield assists are top three in the league.

What we are seeing is a campaign starting to come to the forefront for Brantley to be in the discussion for AL MVP. If he can continue his strong play and finishes high in some key traditional stats like batting average, RBI and homers, but also continues to rate well in the advanced stats like OPS, wRC+ and WAR, he has a very good case to be named MVP.

What would really help is for the Indians to make another late season drive to the playoffs as that along with Brantley continuing to carry the load offensively might be enough to really sway some momentum in his favor. When you add in the fact that he impacts the game much more than just with his bat as he runs well, makes key plays in the outfield, is such a clutch performer and has makeup that is off the charts, well, the possibilities are endless.

We have seen it happen before where a player may not have the best overall stats or eye popping numbers, but that he was elected the MVP because of how important he was to their team’s success. That could be the case this year with Brantley if he and the Indians take care of business the final two-plus months of the season.

Lefty problems

The Indians have come out of the All Star break playing well and won a key four-game series with the Tigers on the road and were in a position to sweep on Sunday but fell short. Still, they accomplished their goal to win the series and gained two games on the division leaders in the process and will continue their trip to Minnesota and then Kansas City this week.

But even with the series win an issue continues to plague the team, and that is the struggles they have when they face left-handed pitching. The lack of a regular right-handed bat in the lineup and the presence of too many left-handed bats in the lineup has been a sore spot for me for some time, and it showed itself again on Sunday when the Tigers started Drew Smyly against them and they scored one run.

The Indians are now 13-17 when a lefty starts against them, but it is not the poor record which is alarming. It is the rather notable decline in their performance when they face left-handed pitching, especially when you consider they are rather pedestrian against right-handed pitching:

vs RHP .261 .330 .417 .748 .156 8.8% 19.4% 0.45 111
vs LHP .245 .312 .362 .673 .116 8.2% 17.5% 0.47 91

The numbers may not look that different, but consider that only one team (Toronto) has a worse batting average and one team (Seattle) has a lower OPS in the American League against left-handed pitching.

In a nutshell, the Indians are a rather mediocre offense when they face right-handed pitching and some days are an above average unit when things are clicking, but they are often a below average lineup when a lefty takes the hill. That’s not a good place to be with a lineup that is pushing for a playoff berth, especially when the division has so many lefty starters.

While all the talk of late seems to be about shoring up the bullpen and starting pitching, perhaps some attention should be made to really shoring up the lineup. I agree that the Indians should tinker with the bullpen and rotation to try and solidify them, but to me the more glaring need continues to be in the lineup. Right now the Indians have potential in house solutions to their needs in the bullpen and rotation, but that is not the case at all with the lineup.

The Indians have some bit pieces in the minors that are of the complementary variety that could help some down the stretch and in the near future, players like Jesus AguilarJose Ramirez, and Tyler Holt. But other than Francisco Lindor there are no true impact or everyday options that are ready to help this season or next on a daily basis. That is why help needs to be acquired from outside the organization.

The problem here is the Indians have kind of backed themselves into a corner with the lineup as there is little flexibility with which to add a regular everyday bat. With Michael Bourn out injured it helps create an opening, but when he is healthy almost every position is locked in with a big dollar and/or long term contract player. Jason Kipnis is at second base, Yan Gomes at catcher, Nick Swisher at first base, Carlos Santana at DH, Asdrubal Cabrera at shortstop, Michael Brantley in left field and of course Bourn in center field when he is healthy.

Add to that Lonnie Chisenhall needing to play every day and playing third base and David Murphy in right field on a regular basis, and there is nowhere to insert an everyday bat. Someone would have to go or a role would have to change in order to make such a change, and to me the most obvious choice would be to limit the plate appearances of Murphy to mostly right-handed pitching only.

Murphy is a pro’s pro and a great guy, plus he has had some clutch hits, but he should not be playing regularly against left-handed pitching. He had some good at bats earlier in the season, but his season to date and his career to date show that he is a guy who should be limited to facing left-handed pitching on an occasional basis.  And really, he is showing why he probably should not even be a regular in the lineup against right-handed pitching either as he has an 88 wRC+ (.667 OPS) against righties compared to an 86 wRC+ against lefties (.655 OPS).

But the Indians gave Murphy a sizable deal in the offseason and unfortunately because of that contract are forced to be stubborn continue to insert him into the lineup. It has proven to be a poor signing to date and is the one area in the lineup they can look to add an everyday bat (aside from swapping out Cabrera for Lindor at shortstop).

The trade options are limited as far as outfield bats go - at least options to impact and play every day - so the Indians may be limited to finding themselves a right-handed bat with good platoon splits against lefties they can mix in either in the outfield or at the corner infield spots as well. That was the job that Ryan Raburn was supposed to have nailed down this year after his good performance in such a role last season, but he has been a big disappointment this season and at this point it is time to consider other alternatives.

Yes, the Indians woes offensively and their overall inconsistency at the plate would probably not be as much of a big deal if Kipnis were performing up to par and key lineup cogs like Santana, Bourn and Swisher were playing up to their capabilities, but they still lack stability in the lineup. Finding a right-handed bat to plug into the middle of the lineup will not only help stabilize the lineup but also provide some much needed balance to the way the lineup is set up to begin with.

Now is probably not the time the Indians can address that huge hole in the middle of the lineup, but it is something they should keep in the back of their mind in trade talks with teams to maybe pry away a player to fill that need now or potentially in a deal this offseason. Either way, whether they just throw some spackle on the problem for now with a low-key right-handed pickup for the stretch run, it is a problem they need to begin to address now with any means necessary.

Rotation shenanigans

For all of the talk of the Indians needing to acquire a starting pitcher before the deadline, one thing the Indians need to see is if they have the means to fill that need in house with the collection of arms they currently have on the roster.

That is one big reason why Danny Salazar is slated to be called up on Tuesday to make a spot start for the Indians in Minnesota. No plans have been made to keep him in the rotation beyond that one start nor to send him back down to Triple-A Columbus after it, so it really will be a showcase outing for him to show manager Terry Francona and the rest of the Indians decision makers that he belongs in Cleveland. Who knows, it may also be a showcase for other teams inquiring into him as a piece to a big deal, though I still think it will be tough for the Indians to part with him in any deal at this point.

Salazar has been getting a lot of good reports out of Columbus for the past three to four weeks. Indians personnel have raved about his showing and how his reworked delivery has helped him keep the ball down in the zone more consistently and that the pop to his fastball has returned and that there have been some strides made with the slider.  If he goes out on Tuesday and shows the dominant stuff that excited the Indians so much last season and made him a shoe in for the opening day rotation, you would have to think that he sticks around for some time in the rotation.

The Indians are also recalling T.J. House from the minors to make a start tonight (Monday) in Minnesota. He has been solid in the limited time he has been up with the Indians this season and adds a dynamic from the left side that no other starter can provide, which makes him an interesting option from a strategic standpoint with the rotation even as their fifth starter.

The Indians also have Justin Masterson working through a rehab stint in the minors and Zach McAllister can be recalled to start on Friday if needed. He was just optioned out on July 15th and would be eligible to return on July 25th (the spot start as the 26th man on Saturday does not affect that timeline). Provided Masterson checks out after his five inning outing in Columbus on Sunday you would have to think he will be the one to get the call.

With all of these starters moving in and out of the rotation it looks like the Indians are trying to assess all of their options leading into the July 31st deadline and perhaps even showcase some guys for a trade. It is a convenient way for them to do two things at the same time and perhaps enhance some value for their guys both internally and externally. This will allow them to have a better understanding of what they have as the deadline nears so they can better manage their needs and what they do from a potential acquisition standpoint.

If anything, it at least looks like the Indians are setting themselves up for the return of Masterson and Salazar to the rotation for the stretch run and then deciding which one of Josh Tomlin, House and McAllister they can rely on as the fifth starter. With Tomlin’s struggles of late and McAllister looking strong and House providing a left-handed quirk to the rotation, a change there is not out of the question. And of course, a trade for a starting pitcher is not out of the question either.

Parting shots

The annual Competitive Balance Lottery takes place on Wednesday at 2pm ET. The Indians are one of 15 teams eligible for the right to one of the six supplemental first round picks and six supplemental second round picks. The Indians last year were awarded a first round supplemental pick and the year before a second round supplemental pick. … The 2014 Draft signing deadline came and went on July 18th and the Indians ended up inking 30 of their 42 draft picks. They signed their top 15 picks and 25 of their top 26 picks. They ended up going over their bonus pool by $121,200 so will pay a 75% tax on the overage – though will not lose a draft pick since they were less than 5% over their bonus pool limit. … Michael Bourn has started running exercises in his rehab and is working on an anti-gravity treadmill to reduce the stress on his legs. He is expected to resume light running soon and has joined the team in Minnesota, but he is still not expected back until the end of July or early August.

Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.

User Comments

July 21, 2014 - 11:59 PM EDT
The hitting has been the biggest problem all year. Not even close. We now have like 45 games with 3 or less runs. Just way to many guys having sub par years still into later july. Other than Brantley who puts any fear in the opposition??

Don't know if Santana ever figures it out offensively with his looong swing. He has to shorten it up.

Hope I'm wrong but Salazar still needs work in AAA.

July 21, 2014 - 8:29 PM EDT
Smoke Signals will be back tomorrow!
July 21, 2014 - 7:58 PM EDT
Brantley definitely the MVP in the central. If not for him the Indians would be in last place. By the way, When would be the next version of Smoke signals? Hoping for tomorrow?

July 21, 2014 - 5:57 PM EDT
Brantley very much is in the running for MVP. Sure, a guy named Trout likely gets it this year.....but I don't see a player in the AL Central more vital to their team and having as good a season. Shoot, by WAR alone Brantley should be third in the MVP voting.
July 21, 2014 - 5:19 PM EDT
Tony, I would personally not want to move zac mac or house. That means what could Tomlin bring us and he does have options left. He is a finessse pitcher but way too inconsistent with the home run rate way too high!! I was hoping after TJ he would have a few mph's to the (heater) parenthesis for reason,but he is exactly where he was in 2011. Not sure whether a team would want him enough to give up excess RH bat to play right and platoon with Murphy at least thru 2014. The extra 25 million (cabbie, masty, and axford may get us substantial free agent rh bat. I wish it could be a DH but with nick becoming brittle we need him to be full time DH. Every so often you get a break such as baltimore got with davis and years ago Toronto got with Bautista, he had been with other teams and was not considered a star years ago. JT Mart turned out right for the tigers. There has to be other guys out there. I am not a scout but i am sure we have some scout that might see that option. Moncrief maybe in 2016 will be the answer.
July 21, 2014 - 4:46 PM EDT
-Lefty's are a problem when Ryan Raburn, Nick Swisher and Carlos Santana, the core of the RH hitters are being counted on.. The three of those guys together are hitting just barely above the interstate. Either that changes or guys like Jesus Aguilar, Giovanny Urshela and others will be getting short looks at what they can do with an opportunity. Give a minor leaguer an opportunity that he exploits.. and someone will be out of a job..a la Wally's happened before...

-Brantley is the MVP of the Indians, only..He's not the MVP of the American League Central Division..He's not the MVP of the American League.. Reality.. try it on for size.. you might like it.. smh...

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