As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who is likely to be on the Cleveland Indians’ Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we turn our attention to the Tribe’s probable starting center fielder: Michael Brantley.
Background: The Milwaukee Brewers picked Brantley, now 24, out of high school with their seventh-round selection in the 2005 MLB draft. Never considered an elite prospect, he nonetheless impressed scouts with his contact ability and speed. He came to Cleveland as the player to be named later in the 2008 CC Sabathia trade and made his MLB debut a year later.
Last year: Brantley hit .266/.318/.384 (93 wRC+) with 7 home runs, 46 RBI, 63 runs scored, and 13 steals in the closest he’s ever come to a full MLB season. He showed signs of increased power (.118 ISO), but it came with a corresponding spike in his strikeout rate (15.3 percent, up from 11.7 percent in 2010). There was a wide range of estimations for how valuable he was: Baseball-Reference had him at an above-average 2.2 wins above replacement, while Baseball Prospectus put him at a dismal 0.6 WARP in 114 games (FanGraphs took the middle ground with 1.4 WAR).
Key factor: Improvement. More power, a higher walk rate, better defense—doesn’t matter, we need to see him take the next step somewhere. He’s still young and he’s yet to play a full MLB season, but after spending parts of three years in The Show the honeymoon is over. An outfielder whose only plus skill is making contact can still be a useful player, but he needs to add another dimension to his game in order to become more than just a complementary piece for a contending team.
In his age-25 season, we should start to find out whether he’s just a building block for a contending team or a core player around whom the rest of the team is built. For the last few years we’ve been talking about Brantley as the latter; it’s time for his on-field performance to show it.
The projections have spoken, and the consensus is clear: Brantley isn’t expected to take much of a step forward this season. Each projection system sees him making at least small improvement with regard to plate discipline (walk rates between 7.1 and 8.6 percent, strikeout rates between 12.1 and 14.8 percent) but none expects him to match the modest power he showed last year, let alone build on it.
Best-case scenario: Brantley shows improvement in each facet of his game—mostly, he hits the ball harder. He ups his power to near-league average levels and (partially as a result) increases his walk rate to the 9-10 percent range. His BABIP rises as he makes better contact and he becomes a worthy top-of-the-order hitter. His range improves with more exposure in center field and even when Grady Sizemore returns he stays in the middle of the big green. He’s no All-Star, but he takes a big step in the right direction and gives himself a strong place to build from as he enters his prime.
Worst-case scenario: Brantley’s strikeout rate continuing to rise and his ISO dipping back below .100 are both possible scenarios to worry about, but barring major injury or crisis of confidence the real worst-case scenario is that he doesn’t show any real improvement. If his power and plate discipline plateau or decline in 2012—essentially, his Marcel projection—it will be hard to project anything close to stardom for Brantley down the road.
Most likely scenario: Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I say Brantley makes some strides in 2012. I expect he’ll take modest but significant steps forward in his walk rate, ISO, and (as a result) BABIP. He’s at least an average hitter and a slightly above-average overall player. He might never develop into the stud leadoff man we envisioned when he first came up, but he shows us that his career path is still on an upward trajectory.