Brantley Has Come a Long Way From Being Player-To-Be-Named
Craig Gifford | On 30, May 2014
In 2007, the Cleveland Indians got to within one victory of reaching the World Series and seemed to be on the verge of another little run reminiscent of the late 1990s.
It was not to be. As is well documented in Tribe Town, the team failed to live up to lofty expectations the following season. Less than a year removed from nearly reaching the Fall Classic, the ace of that 2007 rotation had been traded away. On July 7, 2008, with the Indians floundering, C.C. Sabathia was shipped off to the Milwaukee Brewers for Matt LaPorta, Rob Bryson, Zach Jackson and the notorious player-to-be-named later.
The prize of the deal was to be LaPorta. It was believed Cleveland had turned its all-star, left-handed starter into its cleanup hitter of the future. Bryson and Jackson were throw-ins. As for the player-to-be-named, those rarely seem to work out well.
Fast forward six years. All three players the Tribe received via the initial portion of the deal are out of Major League Baseball. That is no shock when it comes to Bryson and Jackson. LaPorta famously fizzled and became the poster-boy for players who have glory in the minor leagues and can not carry that up to the big league level.
Right there is a bust of trade if ever there was one. Except for one thing – that player-to-be-named. On October 3, 2008, the final piece to acquisition was added in the form of little-known, Double-A outfielder Michael Brantley. He had had success at Huntsville that summer but it was hard to get excited about a skinny, weak-hitting kid who may or may not reach the majors any time soon.
While LaPorta was at the forefront of a trade that raised the ire of Cleveland fans, Brantley was very much the afterthought. What a difference half a decade can make.
Brantley is now the Indians best player. If he does not reach his first Major League All-Star Game this summer, it would be a major shock. The best part is, he deserves to be mentioned among baseball’s top players when it comes to going to the Mid-Summer Classic. He is not just deserving because the Tribe has to have someone, per baseball’s antiquated rule.
The Tribe left fielder leads Cleveland in every single offensive category. He is hitting .310, with nine home runs and 39 RBI – all team highs. He also is pacing the team with eight stolen bases. Through 54 games, those numbers translate out to roughly 25 bombs, 100 RBI and 25 steals. That is the stuff of being in the conversation for MVP honors should the Tribe get itself turned around and contending for the postseason.
The 27-year-old is not just blazing the trail for the Indians, he is also in or near the top 10 in the American League for the Triple Crown categories. Brantley entered Thursday ninth in the A.L. In batting, seventh in RBI and 12th in homers. He has certainly become one of the better players in the Junior Circuit.
Brantley’s ascension from trade-deadline throw-in to Cleveland’s No. 3 hitter and best offensive threat did not happen overnight. It was quite gradual. Despite a ho-hum first year at Triple-A Columbus, Brantley earned his Major League debut in 2009 and played sparingly.
In 2010, Brantley split time between Cleveland and Columbus. However, it was his work with the Clippers that finally opened the eyes of the Tribe’s front office.
During the 2010 campaign, Brantley batted over .300 at the highest level of the bush leagues. Entering 2011, he was viewed as a likely candidate to open the season in Cleveland. He did and began a year of ups and downs, batting-wise. He did well enough to remain with the Indians, but was not quite counted on to be an everyday player, appearing in 114 contests.
2012 finally saw Brantley’s rise into the regular lineup. He spent the last two seasons hitting .282 and .284. They were decent numbers and a sign the young player was just starting to come into his own. Last year, Brantley’s numbers reached career highs in batting, as well as home runs (10), RBI (73) and steals (17). More importantly, he proved he could bat anywhere in the lineup and have success.
The power numbers last year were not great, but were a sign of a guy starting to enter his physical prime. Brantley was always known as a player who could run and hit for a decent average. Now, entering his prime, Brantley appears to have put it all together. He is hitting for a good average and appears to have developed some power to his fluid swing.
Brantley seems like a throwback player in that he came from modest beginnings – drafted in the seventh round of 2005 – nothing was handed to him and he has worked hard to improve.
No longer and afterthought, Brantley has become the crown jewel of the wheeling and dealing Cleveland did in 2008 and 2009. Now having better seasons than Sabathia, that once-hated trade is looking better and better for the Indians.
Cleveland did the smart thing in March, locking Brantley up for the foreseeable future. The bought the beginning of his best years, extending him through the 2018 season. The 2018 season has a club option for $11 million. It is not a back-breaking contract, especially for a guy who could continue to improve.
Brantley is now Cleveland’s MVP and, if all continues to progress, could be in future conversations as the league’s MVP. Not bad for a player-to-be-named who is now a player-to-be-reckoned-with.
Photo: Mitchell Layton/Getty Images