Cleveland Indians fans, it might be safe to say at this point that you do have an every day player at superstar status. At least the baseball world seems to think that.
Outfielder Michael Brantley was unable to break the teams long drought without a league MVP, as the last Tribe player to earn the honor was Al Rosen in 1953. However, he came a lot closer than anyone would’ve guessed when he signed his four year extension in the spring.
Last week, Brantley was named one of the three finalists for the American League prize, along with Detroit’s Victor Martinez and Mike Trout of the Angels. The great Trout took home the hardware. However, Brantley has proven that his name deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as those other superstar players in the league.
The Indians left fielder had a season that saw him transform from solid, all-around player to All-Star, MVP candidate. He had career highs in all three triple crown categories, finishing the 2014 season with 20 home runs, 97 RBI and .327 batting average. He had 200 base hits. All of that and he still found the time to steal 23 bases. He was the heart of Cleveland’s offense this year and, at times, the entirety of it. He carried the lineup some nights.
Brantley has always been praised for his versatility. In 2013 he proved he could bat anywhere in the lineup and hit. He found a home in the three-hole this past season as he became one of the league’s better hitters.
With all Brantley did for an Indians team that went into the season’s final weekend with playoff aspirations still alive, he certainly deserved strong consideration for the A.L. MVP trophy. It took an unmatched hitter like Trout to keep his hands off the award.
Trout will certainly win more MVPs as this was his first, at the tender age of 23. However, if Brantley keeps improving the way he has over the years, one of his own seems to be within his grasp.
No one could have imagined that Brantley would be at this level back in 2008. That summer he was the player-to-be-named-later in the infamous trade that saw the Indians send reigning A.L. Cy Young C.C. Sabathia to the Brewers for a package actually centered around first base, power-hitting prospect Matt LaPorta. Brantley was viewed as a guy who could potentially be a good player in the majors, but not really a future star.
Brantley’s career in Cleveland, since, has been a gradual improvement. In 2010 and 2011 he was a steady part-time player who provided a decent bat off the bench. He finally got a chance to play every day in 2012 and proceeded to hit a career-best, at the time, .288. In 2013, he hit .284 and added some power, for the first time, with 10 long ball. This past season, Brantley finally put it all together.
The gradual steps forward combined with the fact that Brantley will still be 27 when then 2015 season begins says that 2014 was probably not a fluke. Brantley has been getting better and better until the point of finally hitting All-Star status. The age of 27 is around the normal time for players to really enter their prime.
Last spring, when the Tribe gave Brantley a four year extension it insured the team that the outfielder would be around into his 30s, at the very least. The deal also raised some eyebrows on the home front, as some wondered if Brantley had yet done enough to warrant a deal that would keep him under team control through 2018.The 2018 season is a team option year at $11 million.
Now the deal looks like a steal. Brantley will be paid $5 million next season, $6.5 in 2016 and $7.5 million in 2017. That is very cheap for a guy who was in the MVP conversation this year and very well could be the remainder of the contract with the Indians. Even the 2018 salary is looking like a great discount for what could be a multiple-time All-Star by then.
What the Indians did with Brantley was take a gamble. Much as the early-90s Indians did, this management group pegged young guys it thought would blossom over the next several years and help the team remain competitive for more than a year or two. Cleveland’s front office believed Brantley was ready to take another step up and the organization hit a home run on that one.
The team did similar extensions with Yan Gomes and Jason Kipnis, who both have short track records but the promise of good things going forward. Gomes, Kipnis and Brantley, along with Carlos Santana and Corey Kluber represent the cornerstone of a team that should be together for at least four seasons.
Brantley, with new Cy Young winner Kluber, has become the leader of the pack in the core group. He may not have been the MVP of the American League, but he is the MVP for the Cleveland Indians.
Brantley has grown a lot in the last six years and Cleveland fans will get to see continued growth for at least four more summers. For Tribe fans longing for real stars to see every day at Progressive Field, you certainly at least have one in Michael Brantley.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images