Can the Indians Extend Brantley Through Arbitration?
Laurel Wilder | On 08, Nov 2013
After a surprising 2013 Cleveland Indians season the organization has higher expectations for 2014 than any season dating back to 2008. The Indians and their fans will expect a playoff team and World Series contender. For the month of October, we’ll look at the how the Indians became a contender, but most importantly, How Do the Indians Reach the Next Level?
Throughout the season, Michael Brantley was one of the Indians strongest overall players. He demonstrated an ability to hit anywhere in the lineup, proved to be a dominant left fielder, and simply played with ability and heart. Brantley was frequently referred to as Doctor Smooth, a moniker speaking to his ability to make difficult plays seem routine.
For all of Brantley’s effortless fielding, however, the not-so-simple to execute question of his future comes into question. Brantley is eligible for arbitration for the first time this season and is projected to earn approximately $3 million in 2014. His rights are held by the Indians through 2017, though as long as the Indians do not have him on a long term contract he stands to receive a considerable pay increase each season.
The Indians spent around $86 million on last year’s roster, which is likely near the same amount they will spend this year. However, with the current salaries and expectations for the 2014 squad, there may not be a lot of room to offer Brantley a long-term contract extension without significantly raising the overall payroll.
Should the Indians bring back the same team in 2014 that they fielded in 2013, their payroll would be upwards of $110 million. Granted, with the release of players such as Chris Perez and the free agency of others on the team, spending this high of money is not in the cards moving forward. This does, however, still leave the option to extended multi-year deals to a number of the Tribe’s current players.
Would it be worth it to try to extend such a deal to Brantley? He is assuredly one of the Tribe’s most consistent and promising players. At 26, he is in the peak of his career and have had what many referred to as a season leading into a All-Star season on the near horizon.
Brantley hit .284 in 151 games in 2013. He hit a career-high 10 home runs and 26 doubles and batted in 73 runs. He had a .728 OPS, however, and a .396 slugging percentage. Brantley hits well, but not necessarily for power. He stole 17 bases this season, a career high, but not an outstanding number.
However, some of Brantley’s true talents lie in his ability to perform is clutch situations. Although he batted an average .277 overall, Brantley hit .311 with runners on base and .375 with runners in scoring position. With runners and scoring position and two outs, he hit .364 with a .932 OPS. He hit five home runs with runners on base and batted in 59 runs when runners were in scoring position. He hit best either hitting eighth in the lineup (.455, .455/.667/1.122) or third (.353, .389/.529/.918).
It’s not often that a player can deliver so consistently in situations where delivery is imperative. Brantley’s ability to drive in runs makes him a strong asset to the Indians lineup. He can play the wall well in left, as well, and has an accurate arm. It seems like the makings of a player with whom the Indians could build a strong future.
Since Brantley is already 26, it seems that his most promising seasons are immediately in front of him. The Indians can retain Brantley during what will likely be his strongest seasons and, upon contract expiration in 2017, it is hard to say what kind of player Brantley will have evolved into. He has stolen 56 bases and gotten caught in 24 instances (57%). This number is nothing to write home about and does not give Brantley the same strength once he gets on base as he has when batting or fielding. As he’s only getting older, it is unlikely that Brantley will get faster, thereby continuing to diminish his value as a base runner.
Should the Indians want to extend Brantley, they will have to decide if he will be worth the longer deal further down the road. Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana are two other players eligible for arbitration this season, and Kipnis at least strikes me as a stronger candidate to receive an extension. He is coming off an All-Star season and has only shown signs on improvement throughout the season.
Brantley is the Indians reliable player. He delivers when he needs to and does not disappoint in the field. However, is consistency enough for the Indians to offer a contract extension? Is Brantley the sort of the player that should actually be evaluated year-by-year, assessing his improvements or decline in the coming seasons?
The challenge with Brantley comes into play when looking at him from different angles. From a sabermetrics stance, Brantley is an average to below-average player. He has a 2.7 WAR this season, ranking him as an average replacement player.
However, when looking at his abilities on the field and judging him through a more “old school” approach, Brantley is the sort of player that teams look for, one that does not disappoint, delivers when needed, and, overall, does what he has been drafted to do – play baseball. His value is likely higher to the Indians front office than it would be to other teams, meaning shopping Brantley in the trade market to see what sort of results would be found is probably not the most beneficial idea for the team.
Has he peaked, or was the Brantley of 2013 only the beginning? Either way, we have him for the next few years, which means Dr. Smooth is not going anywhere for now.
If the Indians are looking to retain consistent players that can deliver in imperative situations, Brantley is their guy to attempt to extend through arbitration. However, if they are looking for a true game-changer and players who will revamp the roster, the best scenario would be to take Brantley on a year-to-year basis and decide from there. Will he be with the team past 2017? Obviously, only time will tell, just as time is the only thing that will prove where Brantley’s abilities truly lie.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images