As surprising as the Indians off-season spending spree was, I still think the club’s basic strategy is unchanged: develop a young core of players internally and dip into free agency when you need it. It just so happened that they needed a lot of help this past off-season, and there was a bit of a perfect storm of available money, available talent, and a protected draft pick.
More often than not though, that sort of approach isn’t going to happen here. Mostly, the team is going to have to sink or swim with players who come up through the system. That’s why, of course, they have to draft well and lead the way in the international amateur market—to make up for what will often be paltry free agency spending.
And while developing good major leaguers is a wonderful thing, it’s also nice to have a front office that has some strategy for keeping them beyond their first six or so seasons (MLB players cannot elect free agency until they’ve served six years). The Indians teams of the 1990s were largely built around GM John Hart’s ability to lock up his young talent beyond those first six years, and it’s become clear that Chris Antonetti and Mark Shapiro learned their lesson.
The problem over the last several years hasn’t been that the Front Office doesn’t recognize the sound strategy of locking up young, core players to affordable contracts; it’s that there just haven’t been a lot of players worth investing in. After all, do you want a cost-controlled Matt LaPorta for the next five years? How about Lou Marson for a few million? Maybe I could interest you in a late-model David Huff or Jeremy Sowers?
Didn’t think so.
But the team finally is starting to churn out something resembling major league talent, and the front office is already making some moves to lock some of them up. Last April, Carlos Santana signed an extension that added one year of team control in the form of a 2017 club option. Word is that this Spring they approached Vinnie Pestano about a longer-term deal.
More recent rumblings have the front office approaching Michael Brantley about an extension. It’s kind of hard to believe, but Brantley will be arbitration-eligible after this season, which means one way or another, he’s about to become more expensive. I say it’s hard to believe because Brantley is still so young (he just turned 26; Yan Gomes is the only position player on the active roster who’s younger) and still seems to have a decent amount of development and projectability to him. On the other hand, he’s basically been our everyday center fielder since Grady Sizemore blew his knee off in a tragic hunting accident, which seems like forever ago. 1
Anyway, back in Spring Terry Pluto had it buried in his notes that the Indians would be approaching Brantley about a contract extension before camp broke. I assume that Pluto’s comments here, as they typically are, were well-sourced. It also seems to jibe with the general philosophy of locking up young players to deals that extend team control in exchange for some financial security. It all makes pretty good sense, right?
The only thing I’m wondering: why do they want to lock up Michael Brantley?
You’ll remember that Brantley was one of a quartet who came over from Milwaukee in the CC Sabathia trade of 2008. The youngest of the haul, he was known for his speed and batting eye, but was still a good way from the majors.
Over Brantley’s MiLB career, he had the sort of numbers you could really dream on. A .388 on base percentage and a .303 batting average. 162 stolen bases to only 39 caught stealing (81%). All this while playing young for his level almost every year of his career. And even though scouts didn’t universally praise his defense, there was little question that he’d stick in center due to his speed and smarts.
Fast forward to today. Brantley has played almost every day for three seasons, compiling more than 1,800 plate appearances along the way. He has a career OPS of .704 (98 OPS+), a career OBP of .331, and has stolen only 44 bases while getting caught 22 times (67%). In other words, he has below average power, costs his team on the bases, and is around average at getting on base. His full-time defense in center field was lacking enough that the Indians got not one, but two everyday center fielders this past off-season, moving Brantley to the second-easiest defensive position on the diamond. Among 16 qualified AL left fielders this year, Brantley ranks 10th in walk-rate, 15th in slugging percentage, and 12th in OPS.
This isn’t to say that Brantley is a worthless player—far from it. According to my Frankenstein jWAR calculations, he’s been worth anywhere from one to three wins above replacement in each of his full seasons, which would make him something resembling an average everyday player.
No, it’s not that I think Brantley is without value. It’s that I don’t understand choosing to invest in his potential when you still have plenty of time left to see if he’s actually going to reach it. If Brantley continues to develop and becomes a premium on-base guy who can change the game with his legs (this is becoming increasingly unlikely, as players don’t typically become faster with age), then he’ll likely do it in the next three or so years. Guess what? He’s ours (and relatively cost-controlled) until 2017, so long as we want him.
I guess I just can’t wrap my head around the logic of locking him up now. Despite what we witnessed last season, average left fielders shouldn’t be impossible for a reasonably creative front office to secure. And while it’s true that there is non-zero chance that Brantley becomes much more than that, we don’t have to pay to see that card just yet. I know the Indians organization prides itself on never going to arbitration, but Brantley seems the perfect sort of player to continue to take on a year-to-year basis. He may develop into what we’d always hoped. But in his current form, he’s just not worth a long-term deal, especially when we can get the proverbial milk without one.
May not actually be what happened to Grady Sizemore’s knee.