During spring training after the arbitration cases have been settled, general managers will try to sign young budding players to long term contracts. Chris Antonetti came into this camp trying to do just that with Cleveland Indians second-sacker Jason Kipnis and recently relocated left-fielder Michael Brantley. While extending Kipnis beyond his arbitration season is an absolute necessity, Brantley is a different question.
This is not to say that Brantley does not have value but that he likely has more value to another team than the Indians. Last season Brantley progressed and was thought by many to have been a lone bright spot in an otherwise torturous season. Brantley had a .288/.348/.402 slash line while playing average to slightly above-average defense.
On the surface it appears that Brantley does indeed have an some role in this teams five year window. However it is not that simple, especially since the surprising signing of elite center-fielder Michael Bourn. With Drew Stubbs set to play right and Bourn playing Gold Glove level defense in center; Brantley was forced over to left-field. The shift from center to left created a dynamic shift in his league value and most drastically with the Indians.
Brantley’s willingness to shift is admirable because it has the potential to cost him millions of dollars when he, Antonetti and Dolan sit down to make a deal. There are three main reasons why Brantley as a left-fielder has less value to the Indians:
1) As a center fielder Brantley’s immense lack of power was acceptable but in left field he represents a void in a power-focused position. In terms of the team this can be offset by power from other positions which usually don’t produce it, like shortstop Asdrubel Cabrera or catcher Carlos Santana. However, one should only try to offset negatives for so long and with Bourn signed for four years to play center Brantley becomes expendable.
2) Brantley has shown promise in terms of base stealing in the minor leagues but never anything special at the major league level. Last season Brantley stole only 12 bases despite having an above average on-base percentage and logging 149 games. What this and the first point are really clarifying is that Brantley really has one above-average tool, which is his hit tool. The hit tool is basically offset by his lack of power which leaves us with just a league-average type player.
3) Lastly, Brantley’s inability to hit lead-off is a legitimate flaw, his splits hitting first compared to any other spot in the order show his lack of comfort at the top of the order. Prior to Bourn’s arrival it was clear that Brantley had the skills most commonly attributed to lead-off hitters: Gets on base, some speed and little power. Once again upon acquiring Bourn, Brantley became displaced and with little power he does not really fit any other lineup spot than say eighth.
The best course with Brantley would be to sign him through his arbitration years in order to stabilize salary without extending beyond those years. If the Indians have the intention of trading him, then extending him to a fair deal could improve his value if that team could move him back to center where he is at his peak in terms of reaping benefits. One team that could use a young club-controlled center fielder (really any outfielder they can find) would be the Mets. One thing is clear: Brantley is not a cornerstone piece worth making a risky long-term investment in.