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.


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