Yes, it’s difficult to imagine Michael Brantley in a Detroit Tigers uniform. The long-time Cleveland left fielder spent much of the past decade leaving his mark on the psyches of Tigers pitchers before embarking on a two year stint with the Houston Astros as a free agent. Now 33 years old and on the market once again, Brantley remains one of better pure hitters in the game. With the Tigers sorely lacking offensive production from their outfielders, Brantley actually makes sense for them, particularly as they don’t seem terribly likely at this point to sign multiple bats that could improve the offense.
Due to a dire lack of rumors, we’ll ignore guesses as to what is and isn’t possible and continue to take a look at the possibilities. Brantley is still seeking a World Series ring, and presumably would really like to sign what may be his last multi-year contract with a contender. Still, the circumstances this offseason are even more opaque than normal as teams try to absorb the fallout from 2020 and plan for multiple contingencies in 2021. It’s tough to be certain about anything this offseason, so let’s unpack the reasons why Brantley would be an interesting target for the Tigers to pursue this offseason.
If you’re a Tigers fan, you probably don’t need much of an introduction to Brantley’s abilities at the plate. One of the few consistent high average hitters with solid power in the league, he’s hit .300 for three straight years with an on base percentage of .364 or better in each of those seasons. While he’s now six years removed from his peak season, a 2014 campaign that saw him post a 151 wRC+ and 6.5 fWAR, the series of shoulder issues that cost him prime years from 2015-2017 are also pretty far in the rear view mirror as well.
In a sense, Brantley feels like the Tigers organizational prototype for a hitter, but with the rare contact ability to really make it work despite just average power. He swings the bat freely and puts the ball in play constantly, spraying line drives and hard ground balls around the field while very rarely popping the ball up for guaranteed outs. He’ll take his walks, but is rarely much better than league average in that regard. However, he has the ability to battle through tough at-bats and still put the ball in play deep in pitcher’s counts, and as a result he maintains very low strikeout rates.
Defensively, Statcast’s Outs Above Average (OAA) leaderboard paints him as a bit below average in left field. He was worth negative four OAA in 2019, but rebounded to post a plus one mark in 2020. Defensive runs saved (DRS) has him in the plus column in both seasons. A key factor to note is that he spent about half the 2020 season as the Astros designated hitter after suffering a quad injury in a collision with reliever Joe Kelly back on July 29. With their normal DH, Yordan Alvarez out for most of the season, the Astros used the opportunity to keep Brantley healthy for their postseason push. Assuming he’s 100 percent again, he should still be better defensively many of the other free agent leftfielders like Kyle Schwarber or Marcell Ozuna.
Michael Brantley 2017-2020
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The key concern with Brantley is obviously his age, but it’s also the only reason he could potentially fit the Tigers meager budget. While it’s bad policy to make too much out of the short 2020 season, particularly as he spent half the season dealing with the quad, there are a few subtle notes of potential decline in his skills. His 15 percent strikeout rate this season, while very low compared to the league, was his worst mark since 2011. His 5.5 percent swinging strike rate is also ridiculously low by league standards, but is actually a career worst mark for him. Brantley does not whiff much at all, and that hasn’t changed, but both numbers ticked in the wrong direction just slightly and may give interested teams a little something extra to think about in offering him a multiyear deal.
He should continue to produce offensively for several more years, but it’s also likely that his speed degrades over time, making him a better fit for a team that can slot him in as a part-time DH. Manager A.J. Hinch is a fan of using the DH spot for rest days rather than filling it with a hitter who doesn’t ever play the field, and has speculated that Miguel Cabrera will get looks at first base again this spring. If that comes to pass, it would give them the opportunity to get Brantley off his feet once or twice a week.
The reasoning here is pretty simple. If you’re only going to add one bat this offseason, get the best one you can. The club presumably has no interest in pursuing George Springer, J.T. Realmuto, or Marcell Ozuna this offseason. Brantley is a more cost effective option and perhaps still the best hitter of the bunch. He’s in a tier below the top free agents, so he won’t be prohibitively expensive or require a deal more than two or three years long, yet the odds that the Tigers will get what they’re paying for is pretty high. For a team that continues to stress a safety first approach to player acquisition, Brantley could provide them with plenty of offensive value without breaking the bank or requiring a long term deal.
For their part, the Tigers are signaling that they won’t be adding many position players this offseason. Hinch, has already discussed the possibility of playing Miguel Cabrera at first base on a part-time basis, and has notably expressed his appreciation for the versatility of a player like Niko Goodrum. The Tigers currently have Jeimer Candelario, Willi Castro, and Goodrum set to play the infield, with possible help at first base from Cabrera, and Isaac Paredes in reserve at third or possibly second base. 2020 first overall draft pick Spencer Torkelson may well reach the show late in the 2021 season as well. Perhaps they could pursue a cheap option at second base and catcher, but the one obvious spot to improve the team is in left field. It’s hard to imagine a more impactful signing there than Michael Brantley.
With Brantley in the middle of the order alongside Miguel Cabrera, the potential for a respectable offense wouldn’t be a complete pipe dream. Should players like Victor Reyes, Jeimer Candelario, and Willi Castro build on their 2020 campaigns and provide above average production at the plate, you could have a solid offense in place as Torkelson and Riley Greene work their way into the mix in late 2021 and 2022. Brantley is a polished, well respected professional hitter, and would be a nice role model and sounding board for the young talent nearing the major leagues.
From the perspective of Tigers fans, there isn’t really a downside here. However, the Tigers probably feel differently. It’s likely that even the modest contract Brantley can expect is probably more than Chris Ilitch and company are willing to spend. Add in the fact that the Tigers would have to outbid other teams and it’s extremely difficult to believe they’d make a run at him.
Entering the offseason, Brantley was forecast by FanGraphs’ Craig Edwards to receive a contract for two years at $12 million per season. That may be more than the Tigers are willing to pay, particularly as they might have to go higher in terms of yearly salary or add a extra year or player friendly option for a third year.
We’ve generally taken Jordan Zimmermann’s 2020 salary of $25 million as a rough benchmark of the Tigers likely spending this offseason. They’ve already allocated a little over $3 million in signing Jose Urena. Assuming the Tigers could land Brantley for $12 million a year, that would leave a couple million for cheap help at catcher and possibly first base, and then perhaps $7-8 million for pitching help. That could work out just fine, as you’re getting a bona fide middle of the order bat in the deal and could still add a decent starting pitcher and a few depth pieces. It’s just hard to believe the Tigers will do anything notable until they prove it.
There’s also the problem of getting Brantley to come to Detroit with only a few productive years likely left in his career in which to hunt for the elusive World Series ring. The main reason we’re even considering the idea is the possibility that Hinch’s relationship with Brantley could make the Tigers a more attractive option than it might first appear.
Verdict: Highly unlikely
The Tigers have talked a lot about spending efficiently over the past few seasons, but we’ve seen no sign of it. They’ve simply been cheap. These two things are not synonymous, as evidenced by the fact that they’ve basically thrown most of that money away on starting pitchers and veteran position players who’ve made no little to no impact at all. The one real success story was the brief tenure of Leonys Martin in a Tigers uniform, as he netted a real prospect in Willi Castro at the 2018 trade deadline. As a result, it’s difficult to imagine the Tigers offering eight figures to literally anyone until we see it happen.
The offseason is moving very slowly thus far, and it’s likely that Brantley would prefer to wait until the top free agents sign contracts. At that point, he may be the most impactful bat available. That could leave him at the center of a bit of a minor bidding war and maximize his contract. On the other hand, with so many teams standing pat or cutting payroll, perhaps he’ll be left without many attractive options. If that turns out to be the case, he’d make the Tigers’ offense a substantially better unit over the next few seasons. Just don’t get your hopes up.