Should the Indians Extend Michael Brantley?

In 2008, the Cleveland Indians were coming off of a season which saw them fall one win shy of reaching the World Series for the first time since 1997. After taking a 3-1 series lead over the Boston Red Sox in the 2007 ALCS, the Tribe lost the next three games of the series and were eliminated by Terry Francona’s club, who went on to defeat the Colorado Rockies in the World Series.

With a lineup featuring Victor Martinez, Grady Sizemore, and Travis Hafner, and a pitching staff led by CC Sabathia and Fausto Carmona (now known as Roberto Hernandez), the Indians were expected to return to the playoffs with an eye on the World Series that they were denied the previous season.

But injuries to Hafner (who only played in 57 games) and Martinez (73 games) left the Indians struggling in 2008, so the team chose to sell at the Trade Deadline.

The big trade the Indians would make that summer was dealing ace Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers in early July for a package headlined by minor league slugger Matt LaPorta.

Being ten years old at the time, I remember meeting LaPorta after he was assigned to AA Akron and was signing autographs for fans. He fooled my mom by wearing a curly wig and asking her to touch it. My mom obliged and was impressed by his hair, not knowing it was fake. (I also caught a ball thrown to me by outfielder Bronson Sardinha, so I’d say that was a great day for me.)

Will the Indians lock up Michael Brantley to a long term deal? Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Indians also received pitchers Zach Jackson and Rob Bryson from the Brewers, as well as a player to be named later. At the time, that player was rumored to be third baseman Taylor Green, who was named Brewers Minor League Player of the Year the previous season. The Indians passed on Green, however, and chose outfielder Michael Brantley instead, who hit .319/.395/.398 in 106 games in 2008 for the Brewers’ AA affiliate in Huntsville, Alabama.

Almost five years later, the Indians’ return appears fairly underwhelming. LaPorta and his non-curly hair have posted a .238/.301/.393 career slash line in the majors. He is no longer on the club’s 40-man roster, and is hitting .235/.319/.469 for AAA Columbus in 2013. Perhaps he should try the wig again.

Jackson pitched to a 6.11 ERA in 12 games (10 starts) for the Indians from 2008-2009 and currently has a 1.42 ERA in 10 relief appearances for the Royals’ AA affiliate in Arkansas.

Bryson has a 7.62 ERA in the upper levels of the Indians’ minor league system this year.

However, Brantley has been more than the Indians could have imagined, hitting .278/.329/.380 this season (as of June 25), almost identical to his career line of .275/.329/.377 in parts of five seasons with the Tribe.

In addition to my mom thinking that he’s handsome, Brantley has been one of the Indians’ most consistent hitters this season and can hit well anywhere in manager Terry Francona’s lineup. He won’t boast much in the power department (his career high in homers is 7), but he gets on base and is a solid run producer (37 RBI this season). He also is a terrific defender in the outfield and hasn’t made an error all year in 115 chances. All of this adds up to a 1.5 bWAR (Wins Above Replacement) so far in 2013, after he was worth 3.3 bWAR last season.

Brantley doesn’t have any one dominant tool, but he is solid across the board and is a player who definitely should factor into the Indians’ future plans.

With this being said, it is only logical that the Indians begin considering the possibility of offering Brantley an extension. The 26-year old outfielder is still pre-arbitration eligible and won’t be a free agent until after the 2017 season, so the Indians have more than enough time to extend his contract. However, the Indians were reportedly interested in discussing extensions with him and second baseman Jason Kipnis (who also should figure into the Indians’ long term plans), so the potential is there for the Indians to consider such a move.

What kind of extension could the Indians look to offer Brantley?

The Indians have a history of locking up young players on team-friendly contracts ever since the John Hart era. Young players like Jim Thome, Carlos Baerga, and Sandy Alomar were all signed early on in their careers, which kept the Indians’ window for contention open for a longer period of time.

Ever since the team’s extensions with Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore didn’t work out and handcuffed the Tribe financially, the Indians hadn’t extended as many players as they had been before. However, the Indians have signed three players to multiyear extensions since the beginning of 2012: catcher Carlos Santana, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, and infielder Mike Aviles. The Indians bought a free agent season from Cabrera and included a team option for a free agent season with Santana. The extension with Aviles bought out his final two arbitration-eligible seasons and included an option for a free agent season in 2015. So, with this in mind, a deal for Brantley would likely have to buy out one or more free agent seasons, or at least have a team option or two thrown in.

So how much money would Brantley get?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA Today Sports

Finding comparable cases with Brantley was difficult, as Brantley is in somewhat of a unique place due to his stats and service time as a pre-arbitration player.

The closest case to Brantley’s that I could find (thanks to the Extension Tracker at MLBTradeRumors) was Padres outfielder Cameron Maybin, who signed a five-year deal (that also included an option) before the start of the 2012 season. Brantley’s slash line is favorable to Maybin’s, as his career line of .275/.329/.377 line is better than Maybin’s .248/.311/.370 career line. The majority of Maybin’s value involves defense and baserunning, and Brantley is likely the better hitter of the two anyway.

The 5 year, $25 million deal that Maybin (then 24 years old) signed with San Diego bought out his last pre-arbitration season, all three of his arbitration-eligible seasons, and a free agent season. The deal also included an option for a second free agent season worth about $8 million. A deal for Brantley beginning next season would also buy out one free agent season, while the Indians could try for extra team options to be included as well.

Since Maybin’s service time at the time of his extension is similar to what Brantley’s is now, Brantley could sign for a similar average annual value to Maybin because they would both be controlled by their teams for the same amount of time. Extensions when players are closer to free agency tend to be more expensive, as they could be more interested in testing the open market the closer they are to it.

Although Maybin has better counting stats (such as home runs and steals), Brantley leads the way in runs batted in. Adding to Brantley’s leverage, further statistics suggest that Brantley is the better all-around hitter. One such metric is Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), invented by the one and only Bill James. It measures a player’s total offensive value and is adjusted to each league and ballpark, where 100 is league average. Brantley’s wRC+ in 2013 is a slightly below league average mark of 98, although he did post a mark of 106 last year. In only 14 games this year, Maybin is at an abysmal 32, and he posted a mark of 87 in 2012. However, in 2011, the year before Maybin signed his deal, he posted a mark of 105.

What this statistic says is that Brantley is a better offensive player than Maybin, and thus would justify a better payday when the time is right. Maybin’s deal could serve as a decent starting point for Brantley and the Indians.

Maybin’s age (24) at the time of his extension worked out well for him, as he will still be able to hit the open market at either age 29 or 30 (depending if the option is exercised), enabling him to sign another long deal later in his career. A six year deal for Brantley (including a team option) would allow him to hit free agency following the 2019 season if the option is exercised, meaning he could hit free agency at the age of 32, at which point he could still likely be young enough to sign a new long-term contract.

Maybin’s deal amounts to an average annual value (AAV) of $5 million, but since Brantley is a better hitter than Maybin, his agents could look for an AAV of roughly $6 million or so with an option for at or above the $8 million Maybin’s is worth. That would push the total value of a deal to 5 years and $30 million, or 6 years and at least $38 million if the option is exercised by the Indians.

This kind of contract would be fair for both sides, and it would also ensure that Michael Brantley would remain with the Indians (and likely my mom’s heart) for the foreseeable future.

Topics: Cameron Maybin, Cleveland Indians, Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley

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