Baffling Michael Brantley Extension Talk

If you thought the Chase Headley/Padres extension rumors were exciting, just wait until you get a load of the Michael Brantley situation! Cleveland has been rumored to be talking to Brantley and his representatives about an extension during the off-season. Despite things changing a bit since the signing of Michael Bourn, and Brantley himself saying he has not heard anything about ongoing talks, apparently a potential agreement is still on some people’s minds.

I have no idea whether or not talks are still ongoing between Brantley’s representatives and the team. The question I have is whether it makes sense for the team to give him an extension at this point.

Brantley is not a bad player. He originally came to Cleveland from Milwaukee as part of the big CC Sabathia trade of 2008 (the main “get” at the time was Matt LaPorta…). Brantley is going to be 26 this month, and he will be eligible for arbitration for the first time after this season. Brantley had a good year at the plate in 2012, hitting .288/.348/.402 (106 wRC+) while playing mostly center field, and he ended up accumulating 2.6 Wins Above Replacement — slightly above average. He is off to a somewhat similar start with the bat this year, although he will move back to left field once Michael Bourn comes off of the disabled list.

Obviously Brantley has his uses. But he really a good extension candidate? It depends on what sort of money and years are in play, and I do not want to get into that speculation. But the “story” (such as it is) struck me as sort of funny from the beginning, and even more now that it being brought up again. Unless Brantley gives the club a really fantastic discount, beyond what is usual for players with his service time and status, I just do not see what the point would be for Cleveland.

Over 1672 major-league plate appearances, Brantley has hit .275/.331/.376 (95 wRC+). It must also be said that much of that was in his early 20s, so that could develop into something more. Still, it is hardly an impressive line upon which to build. Bourn has very little power. Although he did hit 37 doubles last year, that was the highest of his career, and doubles-hitting does not correlate year-to-year as well as home run hitting. In that department, Brantley fares poorly, never having hit double-digits in home runs in any year of his career, even in the minors.

Power isn’t everything, and Brantley is far from being a hacker at the plate. However, his disciplined approach has not translated into much in terms the best predictor of walk rate: walk rate itself. Brantley has actually been slightly below average in that respect. Brantley’s main skill at the plate seems to be making contact, which has resulted in good (although not elite, other than 2012) strikeout rates.

This approach may be part of the reason my colleague David Laurila believes “Brantley is a batting-title contender in waiting.” I have a great deal of respect for Laurila’s opinions, but Brantley’s career batting average is still just .275. Brantley so rarely hits a ball out of play, he is going to have to be exceptional on balls in play to win that title, and he has not shown that he is — he has a pretty pedestrian career .306 BABIP. This is not to say that no one has ever lucked into a batting title, but that is not in itself a reason to be excited about Brantley’s bat.

While Brantley is slightly on the young side in terms of typical hitter aging curves, the emphasis should be put on slightly. Brantley is at a point at which most hitters see just marginal overall improvement. There is not much to build on, either, in terms of power. His speed is unlikely to ever be better (and despite some of his minor-league performances, he has become a 10-15 steals-a-year runner in the majors). His low strikeout rate is probably about at its best, as his skill on balls in play. Yes, different sorts of hitters age differently, but Brantley has not shown himself to particularly exceptional in a way that would lead one to think that he will ever be much more than a league-average hitter. The projection systems see him that way, with both ZiPS and Steamer currently projecting him to have a 97 wRC+ for the rest of the season.

League average hitters can be very valuable, especially if they are, for example, slick-fielding shortstops. A good defensive center fielder with a close-to-league-average bat is also a nice bonus. The problem is that few of even those who would dismiss fielding metrics would mistake Brantley for Willie Mays in center. More germane to Cleveland’s current situation, they are paying Michael Bourn big money to play center field for them for the next four years, so when Bourn is around, Brantley will be in left. He is better in left, naturally, but not many think he is mind-blowingly good over there, at least not in a a way that makes up for the insufficiency of his bat in that position.

At best, Brantley projects as something like a league-average player. He is in what is typically a hitter’s prime. That is useful and sometimes goes for a lot of money in free agency. But Cleveland is hardly in a position where their hand is being forced. After all, Brantley is still under their control (in arbitration) for the next three seasons. Why not wait things out year-to-year in arbitration? Yes, Brantley might improve and have a big year, which would cost them more in arbitration or in a later extension. On the other hand, he might also get hurt or get much worse. As alluded to earlier, a hitter Brantley’s age is usually as good as he gets, and likely starting a very slight decline. Brantley’s arbitration years would be during his prime. What would be the advantage of guaranteeing them? Getting a couple of years of his likely early-30s decline? If Brantley is average now (which might be generous), I do not see why a team would want to lock him down for seasons when he is likely to be below average.

As mentioned, whether or not an extension for Brantley is a good idea for the team would depend on the specific terms. Some ridiculous buyout of his arbitration years and a bunch of club options is just about always a no-lose situation for teams. That is a situation not worth analyzing. However, there seems to be little reason for Cleveland to feel forced into an extension like those given to, say, Cameron Maybin or Curtis Granderson. They already have a lot of money invested in a Bourn in center. And while Brantley still has a bit of potential for improvement, he has not shown evidence of being much more than a (healthier and slightly faster) Ryan Sweeney.

It would not surprise me if Cleveland’s front office was thinking along similar lines, which is why things have been quiet (other than writers speculating about it) since the Bourn signing.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

12 Responses to “Baffling Michael Brantley Extension Talk”

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  1. Pat G says:

    this is littered with typos

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    • Pat G says:

      and by littered, i mean two, i should’ve read to the end before i projected forward.

      But he really a good extension candidate? should have an is in there

      and in paragraph 5 a bourn should be a brantley

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  2. murphym45 says:

    In paragraph 5 you say “Bourn has very little power.” This confused me for a moment because while I was pretty sure you meant Brantley, the statement on its own is true and I thought it was possible you were using Bourn as an example of how a player can have value without power.

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  3. Biran L says:

    The first key here, as you point out well, is that its only worthwhile to extend him at a great price, since its not like there’s a lot of potential upside to capture if you sign him at a value matching his current performance level. The other point, also made but more subtly, is why would they want to lock him up as the LF for the foreseeable future, since they have Bourn who’s likely not moving from CF? So if they can extend him at a great price, they should only do it if they’re not committing to him, as most extensions seem to be. If they can extend him on favorable terms, I think it only helps his trade value, at which point they look at it as a fine player to hold down the position for the price, with potential to trade for some value if they come across a better LF option. The problem is that extensions seem to always imply commitment, a trend that the Indians should buck in this case.

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  4. Trotter76 says:

    This is so under the radar that the originating article states: “Michael Brantley says he hasn’t heard anything about contract negotiations with the Indians, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not going on.” Matt here alludes to the fact that no one’s really talking about it except the Cleveland beat writer in his last paragraph. I would imagine the signing of Bourn put a kibosh on any Brantley extension talk in the Cleveland front office.

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  5. clevelander says:

    In style of play Brantley always struck me as a bulkier Jody Gerut. Perfectly nice player, but probably a 4th OF on a playoff team.

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  6. Trader says:

    I would think, if contract negotiations were even going on anyway, that this is a situation similar to the one recently seen with Alcides Escobar. That is, locking up a very useful but otherwise unspectacular player at a team friendly cost so you don’t need to worry about the possibility of replacing him later when it might be difficult. And similar to the case with Escobar, doing so before a possible BAbip spike increases the attention he gets is probably a good idea for the team.

    If Brantly could be signed for 3-4 MM per season over 3 or so seasons, I think this would be a fine move and something the team should pursue if possible

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  7. isavage30 says:

    While I agree it doesn’t make a lot of sense to lock up Brantley long-term, I think this is reading a bit too much into the Plain Dealer article. The whole “locking up our young players” thing is a big deal in Cleveland, since the fans are still upset about trading away Victor Martinez, Cliff Lee and Sabathia, and since they somewhat pioneered the whole idea of locking up young players through their first free agent year in the 90s. So with any marginally good young player you get this talk in the Cleveland media. A lot of fans, or at least Cleveland fans, don’t actually understand how arbitration works, and thinks that if a player isn’t on a long-term deal, they’re going to lose his services.

    I would assume the Indians would always have discussions with players of Brantley’s ilk about locking them up through their arbitration years, trying to get a favorable deal, doesn’t mean anything’s going to come of it though other than some random Plain Dealer article.

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  8. kiss my GO NATS says:

    I am confused. I have been reading this site daily for years now, maybe I have misunderstood what I read before. You say Brantley is just now turning 26. I am under the impression that players often have big performance jumps at age 26 and even often at 27, but tend to maintain at ages 28 to 32. Big declines tend to wait until a player is 35. He does not have “old guy” skills like Dunn, so he is not likely to decline sooner than average. So he should see improvement this and next seasons and that improvement could be significant. Rarely a player peeks at 26. He should reach his topmost performance around 28-29 and keep that performance into his very early 30s. So based on those numbers Brantley is likely to be slightly above average (3 WAR or so) on average overall until he is 32 years old (below average bat with well above average defense). At a decent price, that is worth locking up as guys of that ability do take some time and some resources to develop.

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  9. Ed says:

    “He is off to a somewhat similar start with the bat this year, although he will move back to left field once Michael Bourn comes off of the disabled list.”

    Wow, I hate to be rude but I really don’t understand how someone could write an article like this and not check basic facts. Brantley has played 235 of his 239 innings in left this year so he can hardly return to a position that he never left. Drew Stubbs is the one covering center while Bourn is on the DL, not Brantley.

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  10. maguro says:

    Generally agree that buying out the arbitration years of averageish players is a bad idea. The Tabata extension in Pittsburgh is an example of how it can go badly wrong. If a guy is just average, it doesn’t take a big loss of ability for him to become pretty much worthless.

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  11. bbboston says:

    Contract aside, for a moment. It strikes me generally that this article is perhaps too hard on Brantley. Right now, I’d say Brantley is a guy that has a potential power spike in him. Entering his 27th year; coming two years off wrist surgery; finally comfortable in having a position and in his MLB preparation. Moreover, at some level it seems he’s being underutilized on the base paths. The speed is there to be 20+ steals, but the opportunity to date is not. He may be a guy who never gives you more than a pretty good BA. However, going forward, I can easily see him regularly having years with 12-17HRs, 20-25 steals and a .290+ BA. That to me is pretty darn attractive. Also, don’t dismiss the fact that Cleveland seems to slot him all over the line-up with success and view him as a player who can deliver as a professional hitter, even without a big power profile.

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