Re-signing Brantley could bog down Indians finances

All-Star outfielder should command $10+ million per year

Alex Hooper
October 18, 2018 - 11:51 am
Aug 9, 2018; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians left fielder Michael Brantley (23), center, celebrates his game-winning single in the ninth inning against the Minnesota Twins at Progressive Field.

© David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Categories: 

Cleveland, OH (92.3 The Fan) – With the Cleveland Indians likely up against their salary threshold, President Chris Antonetti admitted the team will have to continue to challenge themselves to be creative to improve their roster.

Without significant overhaul in the outfield alone, it will take a lot to even replace their current output, let alone improve upon it.

Franchise stalwart Michael Brantley is a free agent for the first time in his career, and at 31 with a recent injury history, it will likely be his last chance for a relatively large pay day. The left fielder made $12 million in 2018 under a club option on the back end of a 4-year, $25 million deal signed in February of 2014.

Since that deal was signed, Brantley has made three All-Star teams despite injuries ravaging his 2016 and 2017 seasons. The outfielder’s 130 wRC+ since 2014 fits in just below 2018 NL MVP candidates Christian Yelich and Matt Carpenter at 131. His 15 WAR sits 48th in that time despite time missed, and .4 shy of 21.6 million dollar man Edwin Encarnacion

This author recently estimated that the Indians have between $10- and $15 million to play with after arbitration raises and guaranteed contracts. That number is based on the team’s current record payroll.

Regardless of what they have available, it would be be safe to assume that the team will offer the $17.9 million qualifying offer to Brantley. Given his history and the unlikelihood that his market value would increase next off-season, it would seem unlikely that the 31-year-old would take a single-year deal. 

Spotrac.com estimates that on the open market, Brantley is worth around $19.2 million on the open market based on contracts given to similar players in the past. These contracts include Yoenis Cespedes and J.D. Martinez, who each received big money deals from the league’s biggest markets, and also generate considerably more power than Brantley.

Maybe the better comparison in Spotrac’s regard is Justin Turner, who signed a deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers at 32-years-old for 4-years at around $16 million per turn. That deal came on the back of a .945 OPS season.

Brantley’s offensive exploits have never been to the degree of Turner’s best seasons. Turner is also an above average defender at third, while Brantley is below average at a much less important position.

For those reasons, it is also easy to see Brantley perhaps factoring in to a yearly salary near his $12 million rate from 2018, with a three- or four-year guarantee. That would also soak up all of the Indians’ projected cap space, leaving little to maneuver for a hole in right field, and multiple holes in the bullpen.

That being said, Milwaukee signed CF Lorenzo Cain to a 5-year, $80 million contract last offseason, an average salary of $16 million per. Though he signed at age 32, Cain provides elite defense at a premium position and is a comparable hitter to Brantley.

Given the drop off in the free agent market, and a potentially continuing downward trend, Cain’s deal may actually be bad news for Brantley.

Being that Jay Bruce is similarly one-dimensional, his 3-year, $36 million back-loaded deal may be the best comparison of all.

Such a deal would give the Indians about $2 million to maneuver with before likely considering declining Brandon Guyer’s $3 million player option or making a trade.

Making the decision more difficult is that there is not a simple replacement on the market. Atlanta Braves All-Star Nick Markakis will be available, and at 35 will command less money and fewer years, affording the Indians more flexibility. Spotrac values the outfielder as worth a shade under $15 million, but can likely be had for less.

Markakis also has enough of an arm to man right field for the Indians so that they can shift Jason Kipnis or Yandy Díaz to left – both scenarios that Manager Terry Francona hinted at during exit interviews.

By that same thought, the team could just choose to rely on Tyler Naquin in right, while still making those shifts all for free, and allocating found money to the bullpen.

Even in a best case scenario, retaining Brantley would tie up around 67% of the team’s available money. Given the organization’s fiscally conservative approach, such a move would seem out of character, but Brantley is not just another player.

The organization holds Brantley in high regard, which they showed in picking up his option last off-season, saying they bet on the veteran’s work ethic. The front office also often glows about Brantley as a teammate.

“We talk about what it means to be a good teammate and a great competitor and a great leader; Michael embodies all those things,” Antonetti said Wednesday.

“As we told him when we met with him yesterday, he and a couple other guys helped re-establish for us what it means to be a great teammate. And it’s always easy to be a great teammate when things are going well, but no matter what adversity Michael or Josh Tomlin or Cody Allen ever experienced the past few years, they we’re just as good a teammate if not a better teammate when they were personally struggling than when things were going well. I think that speaks to their character and who they are as people.”

All would indicate that the team wants Brantley back, though more than anything, money and actions speak louder than words.

Brantley’s words also indicated that he would love to be back, though he said the team would be in good hands should he leave. The outfielder said he would talk to his family, as well as his teammates before making a decision, but was also thankful for his time.

"This has been an honor,” Brantley said. “It's been an honor to wear that uniform, it's been an honor, every player I've played with in this organization, for all the help everybody gave me, it was always appreciated. It will never be forgotten."