Coming into the 2011 season, the Indians’ return on the CC Sabathia trade had been disappointingly small. Not only had centerpiece Matt LaPorta failed to make an impact at the major-league level, but Zach Jackson washed out early, Rob Bryson still toils in the minor leagues, and the second-biggest piece, Michael Brantley, had struggled mightily in his short time with the big club, compiling a .291 wOBA and -1.2 WAR in his first two seasons (100 games, 446 plate appearances) as a Cleveland Indian. As has been the way with seemingly everything in Cleveland in 2011, though, Brantley has turned it around. The 24-year-old center fielder carries a .349 wOBA into Monday’s action, and it appears that he may finally be here to stay at the MLB level.
Brantley never showed the profile of an elite MLB hitter at the minor-league level, but he did show promising signs, particularly for an athletic and quick center fielder. At every single level, Brantley showed tremendous plate discipline and contact skills: from Low-A with the Milwaukee Brewers system up to the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons, Brantley walked more times than he struck out. Power was nonexistent — Brantley only hit 16 home runs from 2006 to 2010 in the minor leagues — but that kind of skillset can create a successful MLB player. Marco Scutaro and Yunel Escobar, for example, have managed to put together average (or slightly better) MLB numbers with a similar skillset.
Prior to 2011, Brantley’s contact skills were there — he only struck out in 12.8% of at-bats in 2010 — but the walk rate never materialized. This year, through 149 plate appearances, Brantley’s numbers are right in line with his minor league lines — 15 strikeouts and 15 walks. Brantley’s three home runs is a relative explosion, as double-digit home runs would be a shock for him. But it appears that Brantley has developed into the player the Indians coveted in 2008. In the absence of Grady Sizemore (yet again), the Indians will need a capable center fielder to hold on to the AL Central lead. After paying his dues in the Major Leagues for the past two seasons, Michael Brantley appears poised to be just that.