As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who will be on the Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we kick off our trip around the outfield with the Indians’ starting left fielder: Michael Brantley.
Background: The Milwaukee Brewers picked Brantley, now 25, 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 took some noticeable steps forward in his first true full season in the big leagues, hitting .288/.348/.402 (per wRC+, he was six percent better than a league-average MLB hitter) with 6 home runs, 63 runs scored, 60 RBI, and 12 stolen bases. He made some incredibly encouraging gains in his plate discipline, bringing his walk rate up to just under 9% while his strikeout rate fell below 10%—both career bests. FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference estimated his value at 2.7 and 2.9 wins above replacement, respectively, while Baseball Prospectus took a much harsher view of his defense and put him at just 0.9 WARP.
Key factor: Power. Brantley’s got plus contact ability for sure and he made some real gains in plate discipline last year, but he lacks pop in his bat. Last season was the first time his slugging percentage had ever topped .400 (and just barely so!), and he’s never had an ISO over .118. It takes a truly exceptional talent in another area of hitting for a player to be a true standout without more pop, so unless he bulks up—and as he enters his age-26 season, he very well could—Brantley’s probably just about reached his ceiling.
The consistency here is just remarkable. Apparently Brantley is a pretty easy player to project. (That or everyone is equally wrong.)
Best-case scenario: Brantley shows improvements across the board. He finally hits .300, he gets his walk rate over 10% while keeping his strikeouts down, and he grows into at least league-average power. His OPS tops .800 and he makes a run at the 15/15 club while playing stellar defense in left field and earns a spot as an All-Star reserve.
Worst-case scenario: The plate discipline gains of 2012 were a fluke and Brantley’s ceiling is what we saw from him in 2011. A decent contact hitter with no power and an unremarkable glove isn’t really cut out to be a starting corner outfielder for a contending team; given their versatile roster it won’t be much trouble for the Indians to replace him in the lineup.
What to expect: The above projections come to a pretty clear consensus, but what’s interesting is that it represents a step back from where Brantley was last year. Given his age and general progress over the last couple years, look for him to make some slight improvements on his 2012 numbers, not to take a step back.
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