Building Around Brantley

Today continues DTTWLN’s three week examination of the Indians’ 2014 season and where it fell short of the playoff expectations established last winter. The staff will examine where the season went wrong and the challenges the front office faces to make the Indians contenders in 2015.

Where would the Cleveland Indians have been in 2014 if not for the breakout season of Michael Brantley?

A legitimate guess would be a whole lot closer to the bottom of the American League Central Division than they finished at the end of September, when they concluded a third place 85-77 season and ended three games out of a Wild Card spot.

The Tribe’s 27-year-old Brantley had a career year in 2014 in his sixth season in the Majors. While appearing in a career-high 156 games, he established new personal bests in plate appearances (676), at bats (611), runs (94), hits (200), batting average (.327), on-base percentage (.385), slugging percentage (.506), doubles (45), homers (20), RBI (97), and stolen bases (23).

The Indians’ full-time left fielder became the first Indians player since Kenny Lofton in 1996 to reach the 200 hit mark in a season and just the second in the era of Jacobs/Progressive Field. He became the first player in club history to hit over .300 while getting 200 hits and registering 20 stolen bases, 20 homers, and 40 doubles or more.

Not bad at all for the “player to be named later” in the often criticized C.C. Sabathia trade with the Milwaukee Brewers back in 2008.

At the time of the trade, Brantley was a relative unknown, maybe best known as the son of former short-term pro baseball player Mickey Brantley. Michael was one of several prospects rumored to be the player to be named later in the trade, later revealed to be infielder Taylor Green. Then-Indians general manager Mark Shapiro had also reportedly pushed for third baseman Mat Gamel or shortstop Alcides Escobar, but was not able to include one of them in the deal.

Brantley was drafted in the seventh round of the 2005 June Amateur Draft. He split his first minor league season between the Arizona League Brewers and the Helena Brewers, both rookie level clubs for Milwaukee, while hitting a combined .343 with just six extra base hits in 54 games. He spent the entire 2006 season at Single-A West Virginia of the South Atlantic League, hitting .300 in 108 games while again displaying a minimal amount of extra base power with ten doubles and a pair of triples during his season. He began 2007 still with the Single-A Power before a promotion in June to the Double-A Huntsville Stars, but struggled with a .251 average in 59 games there. He remained at that level for the entire 2008 season, hitting four home runs and 40 RBI while batting .319 in 106 games.

His minor league production made him an easy player to overlook in the trade, as the future star that was supposed to come in the exchange was Matt LaPorta, a power bat and former seventh overall pick from the 2007 First-Year Player Draft.

By now, all are well aware that LaPorta’s star potential fizzled out in an anticlimactic blaze of obscurity. The then 23-year-old, thought to be the Indians’ first baseman or left fielder of the future and the big bopper from the right side of the plate the club had lacked since the day Manny Ramirez left town, struggled during extended looks at the MLB level over four different seasons and, after five years at the Triple-A level, announced his retirement from baseball after being cut by the Baltimore Orioles in spring training prior to this year and after spending the first two months of the season playing with the Campeche Pirates of the Mexican League.

LaPorta was last in the news in July, when it was announced that he was awarded 18 franchises of “Pie Five” pizza fast food chains, to begin operation in the Tampa area in 2015.

While LaPorta failed to meet the lofty expectations placed upon him by being the integral piece of a high profile exchange involving a reigning Cy Young award winning pitcher, Brantley has been able to grow and develop into an excellent player, both at the plate and in the field, without the bright spotlight burning on him.

It may be unfair to call Brantley a star yet, but his numbers this season did grant him star-level status when he was named to represent the Indians on the AL roster in the 2014 All-Star Game for the first time. On a team devoid of true star players, Brantley is as close as they come and has become more of a household name, especially with the undeniably appropriate moniker he has earned, “Dr. Smooth”.

Brantley played himself into Most Valuable Player consideration this season but, as is the case with Indians starting pitcher Corey Kluber in the AL Cy Young race, his lack of name recognition across the country, especially when compared to the likes of Mike Trout, Victor Martinez, or Miguel Cabrera, will hurt his case. But Brantley’s big season has put him on the radar around the league as he has become a player Cleveland can build around for the future.

As for that future, Brantley is cemented in it, thanks to the four-year, $25 million contract extension with an option for 2018 that he signed in February. Along with other young roster mates, including Carlos Santana, Yan Gomes, and Jason Kipnis, this most recent youth movement is tasked with the unenviable mission of making the Cleveland Indians a repeat contender for years to come.

Brantley’s importance to the lineup was evident across his statistical contributions. He not only led the Indians in most offensive categories this season, he was at or near the top of the list with the best of the best in the AL.

He led the Indians across the board in all primary offensive categories with the exception of triples (two) and homers (20), where he was third on the team for each. He was second on the team in walks with 52 and had an impressive 1.08 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

His .327 batting average trailed only Houston’s Jose Altuve and Detroit’s Martinez in the AL. He was also third in doubles, fourth in on-base percentage, sixth in runs scored, seventh in OPS, ninth in slugging percentage, eleventh in stolen bases, and twelfth in runs batted in. Of qualified batters, he struck out just 8.3% of his plate appearances, trailing just Altuve and Martinez. In stealing a career-high 23 bases, he was caught stealing just one time.

It continued a consistent progression offensively for Brantley, although the spike in power numbers was undoubtedly a pleasant surprise. Historically much more of a doubles hitter, Brantley had a combined 67 extra base hits this season, a significant jump from the 39 he had in 2013 and 20 better than his career best of 47 in 2012.

Brantley entered the 2014 season with a career batting average of .277 and had hit .284 last year. The 50 point jump in his batting average this season, compared to that career mark, was much appreciated.

He hit .353 at home at Progressive Field. He hit .326 when he was ahead in the count, but fared even better with a .344 clip when the pitcher had the advantage in the count. With runners in scoring position, he hit .376, the top mark in the AL of batters with at least 34 at bats in that situation. With the bases loaded he had a .545 average and drove in 19 runs in 17 trips to the plate. Against the Wahoos’ chief competition in the division, he batted .405 each versus Detroit and Kansas City.

He hit in 15 straight games two different times, once in May and again in September. He had an on-base streak of 28 consecutive games, with a walk sandwiched between a twelve-game streak started at the end of August and the latter of the 15-game streaks in September. He had ten hitting streaks of five games or more and six streaks of nine games or more. Sixteen different games he had at least three hits.

His longest hitless games stretch was four games at the end of April.

Brantley has stabilized a left field position that was a reoccurring issue for the Indians in years past. Those who have been fans of the Tribe in recent years will no doubt recall the nightmare experiments that were Johnny Damon, Shelley Duncan, Ezequiel Carrera, Russ Canzler, Vinny Rottino, and Aaron Cunningham in that corner outfield spot, just to name a few.

Making Brantley even more of an asset is his ability to play a reliable and defensible center field. With the oft-injured Michael Bourn manning the green pastures in the middle of the outfield, Brantley’s flexibility and versatility become that much more valuable.

Brantley has been a model of consistency with his glove, regardless of where he has lined up in the outfield. During the 2013 season, he broke the Indians team record for consecutive errorless games for an outfielder, surpassing Rocky Colavito’s mark. That streak ended on April 3rd this season, but not before he amassed a streak of 247 games without a flaw. That error, the lone blemish on his defensive scorecard for the season, did not come without its asterisk, as a miscommunication with Ryan Raburn, playing in left field where he logged just 85 innings of work the previous season, led to the ball popping just out of Brantley’s mitt for the E8.

His arm has continued to impress. After setting a new best with eleven outfield assists in 2013, he produced one better this season, with ten assists and a pair of double plays turned from left field and two more assists from center. His .996 fielding percentage was fifth-best amongst all AL outfielders. The ten assists in left were third-best amongst left fielders and his two double plays were the second-most turned in the league.

Taking an overall look at his performance, his 7.0 wins above replacement was fifth best in the AL and fourth best amongst position players, after removing Kluber, who was top of the list for AL pitchers.

Brantley is a man with the right attitude for the Tribe’s young dugout. Think of a baseball cliché and Brantley may just embody it. He’s a gamer. He’s a grinder. He’s cerebral. He’s unselfish. He’s a team player.

“I’m just here to help the team in any way I can,” Brantley shared at the press conference announcing his contract extension back in February. “I always believe team comes first. I’m a team player first and foremost. I want to pick up my teammates as well as they pick me up.”

Brantley is a player that the fans can get behind. More importantly, Brantley is a player that the Cleveland Indians front office can and will build around. Signed through at least the 2017 season and possibly even 2018, Brantley and his fellow colleagues locked in on long-term extensions will be expected to carry the team to the postseason.

A fan base in dire need of a player to rally behind needs a player of Brantley’s smooth ilk. Continued MVP-caliber seasons from Brantley and having his name associated with the chase for the batting title will not only make himself a favorite star amongst the fans, but it will ensure the Tribe’s continued success and more frequent winning ways into 2015 and beyond.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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