Orbiting Cleveland: Extending Michael Brantley

There are so few constants in life, but thankfully for the Cleveland Indians, Michael Brantley seems to be one of them.

Plain and simple, Michael Brantley is a joy to watch.

The left-handed hitting outfielder is a great throwback to an era of baseball that time seems to have forgot. He’s a great teammate, hard worker and excellent defender — a true pro’s pro.

With all of the Tribe’s new offseason acquisitions, a great deal of pressure has now been taken off the shoulders of Brantley — and it shows.

Brantley is currently in the middle of a breakout season as he’s hitting .306/.362/.388 with six doubles, one triple, two home runs and 24 RBIs. He’s also been especially effective in the clutch as he’s hitting .359.426/.513 with runners in scoring position and .364/.417/.591 with two outs and runners in scoring position.

Of course, for every yin there is a yang, and Brantley’s success seems to bring about a new dilemma for the Indians — contract negotiations.

With Brantley under team control through the 2016 season, it would appear as if now is the time for the Indians to entertain the possibility of a contract extension with Brantley. However, this is obviously a task that’s easier said than done.

As a center fielder playing a corner outfield position, it’s almost impossible to get a read as to what kind of contract Brantley could be due. Brantley is far from a power hitter, but he does still stroke plenty of doubles, and his value to the team cannot be denied.

Brantley played the 2012 season as a center fielder, and Baseball Reference has his WAR estimated at 3.3. Fangraphs was not as generous but still had Brantley’s value estimated at 2.6 wins.

It’s likely that Brantley could surpass both of those numbers by the conclusion of the 2013 season. According to Baseball Reference, he’s been worth one win so far while Fangraphs has his value at 0.7 wins.

All the numbers do point back to the type of value and consistency that Brantley brings to the club, but it’s still incredibly difficult to come to any type of conclusion as to what type of extension Brantley deserves. While he is now in left field, Brantley is still a center fielder by trade, and he should probably be paid somewhat accordingly.

His numbers appear to be below-average for a corner outfielder, yet his numbers are actually quite solid for a center fielder, so how do we go about figuring out an appropriate contract?

It’s tough to find the appropriate answer to this question as there are simply so few players that can compare to Brantley. However, one possible starting point can be found if you go back to the end of the 2007 season.

Detroit Tigers center fielder Curtis Granderson was coming off his second full season and had hit .302/.361/.552 with 23 home runs and 74 RBI. For his efforts, the Tigers signed Granderson to a five-year, $30.25 million deal with a club option for 2013. With the team option, it’s ended up being a six-year deal worth $43.25 million. Considering that Granderson was worth a whooping 7.6 wins the previous season, this extension appeared to be the bargain of the century.

With the new deal, the Tigers were able to gain two years of free agency of a five-tool player, who provided plus power in center field. These types of players are not easy to come across, and they’re especially not easy to wrap up for this type of money.

However, the Granderson deal is also indicative of the type of dilemma that the Indians’ front office finds itself in now. Unlike Brantley, Granderson has power — loads of it.

He also had already proven that point and was fresh off a tremendous season, so his extension offer was almost modest when you consider his skill set. This was also six years ago, and inflation does need to be accounted for, but it’s hard to think the Indians could even offer Brantley as much as what the Tigers had offered to Granderson.

Compare Brantley’s 2012 to Granderson’s 2007. Granderson was nearly worth more than twice as many wins, so it seems somewhat ignorant to suggest that Brantley should get anything close to Granderson money.

But then what is actually a reasonable price point for Brantley? Is there one? Just how difficult is he to resign when you consider his unique skill set combined with his lack of power and now banishment to left field?

Also, if the Granderson deal is the ceiling in regard to what the Indians could expect to pay Brantley for an extension, then what’s the floor?

There may be no better comparison than Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Jose Tabata. Like Brantley, Tabata is essentially a center fielder who has been forced to play a corner outfield spot because of better alternatives.

In August 2011, the Pirates resigned Tabata to a six-year, $15 million deal with three options tacked on at the end, which could bring the deal all the way to nine years worth $37.25 million.

When the deal was signed, Tabata was in the midst of a season in which he ended up hitting .266/.349./.362 with 18 doubles, one triple, four home runs, 21 RBI and 16 stolen bases in 91 games.

While it was not exactly the same, there are noticeable similarities between that season and the one Michael Brantley had in 2011: .266/.318/.384 line with 24 doubles, four triples, seven home runs, 46 RBI and 13 stolen bases in 114 games.

With that in mind, it seems reasonable to suggest that had the Indians approached Brantley about a contract extension two years ago, then a Tabata-like deal may have been appropriate and also could have got done. But what about now?

Brantley now is clearly a far superior player than Tabata was when he signed his deal in 2011. According to Baseball Reference, Tabata was worth merely 0.3 wins during the 2011 season and still look at the contract he received.

Thus, it’s fair to assume that Brantley would be in for a decent raise should the Indians decide to go this route.

Of course, the Indians also have to decide if this is something that they do indeed want to do. Since he’s only 26 years old and not even in the prime of his career, it seems like a no-brainer, but it’s not so simple for a small market team like the Indians.

The Tribe just committed a total of $104 to Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn this past offseason. Would they even have the assets to extend Brantley at this point?

The other thing to consider is Brantley himself. Everything looks good so far, but what if he is truly nothing more than a fourth outfielder in disguise?

It’s probably quite likely that the Pirates are now having second thoughts about the Tabata deal, and he was player deemed very similar to Brantley less than two years ago. Tabata has since signed his contract extension and watched his value plummet. The Indians would need to ensure that a similar situation does not happen with Brantley.

However, it does seem as if a Brantley extension is a much safer move than the Pirates’ resigning of Tabata. When Tabata was resigned, he had less than two full Major League seasons under his belt. Also, his 2011 season was noticeably worse than his 2010 campaign, so there may have been some signs that an extension was a tad premature.

In comparison, Brantley has watched his value increase every year. In 2010, he hit .246/.296/.327 before hitting .266/.318/.384 in 2011, which was of course followed by last season’s breakout of .288/.348/.402.

Brantley’s also off to the best start of his career so far, which can only be considered a positive.

There is still one question that remains though. If it’s now been concluded that the Indians should indeed resign Brantley, then what should the extension be worth?

With using the Granderson and Tabata deals as a reference point, here is the happy medium that I developed.

A nice number to me would be 5-years, $25 million with a sixth-year club option worth $10 million, which would bring the overall value of the deal to $35 million. The deal would be backloaded, so the majority of the contract would be paid in the latter years.

The contract would also kick in for the start of the 2014 season, so it could potentially keep Brantley in Cleveland through the 2019 season.

We know that Brantley is not the player that Granderson is — not even close. But he also is a much better talent than Tabata, whose performance has not matched the extension that he signed years ago.

A deal like the one proposed seems to benefit all parties involved. Brantley can get some further security from a team that honestly probably values him more than others anyhow while the Indians are able to lock up a core member of both its offense and defense.

Anyway you look at it though, it just seems hard to imagine the Indians going any higher in their contract offerings. Resigning a player is much easier said than done though, so it will ultimately be up to Brantley and the Indians to come to an agreement. $20 million? $25 million? $30 million?

Let’s just hope the price is right.


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