Amid Toronto Rumors, Michael Brantley Stays in Houston

The Blue Jays made the biggest free-agent move of the offseason late Tuesday night by signing George Springer. By the next morning, they looked like they were on the verge of adding his friend and former teammate Michael Brantley too. But reports early Wednesday that he had put pen to paper turned out to be a bit too aggressive, and while he did end up signing by day’s end, it wasn’t with Toronto. Instead, Brantley is returning to Houston on a two-year, $32 million contract, as first reported by FOX 26’s Mark Berman.

While Brantley would have helped Toronto’s offense, he’s a bit of a better fit for the Astros. After signing Springer, the Jays already had four major league-quality outfielders in him, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Teoscar Hernández, and Randal Grichuk. Adding Brantley would have meant putting him at designated hitter every day (or trading a good player away), which would hurt roster flexibility if Vladimir Guerrero Jr. can’t handle third base and also taken playing time away from Rowdy Tellez. Brantley wasn’t a horrible fit, but given the options still available and potential needs in the infield and the rotation, the Blue Jays didn’t have to have him.

Where he plays is less of an issue for the Astros, who already have a regular DH as long as Yordan Alvarez is healthy. What they really needed was a leftfielder, and Brantley was far and away the best option on a market full of replacement-level options. He was a DH more than he was on the field last season, but that was more out of convenience than necessity due to an early-season quad injury that cost him a dozen or so games, the emergence of Kyle Tucker, and the presence of veteran Josh Reddick. Since 2017, Brantley has graded out as average by UZR and well above-average by DRS, and his -8 Outs Above Average at Statcast make him a roughly average corner outfielder. His defensive skills will decline as he ages, and his speed is gone, but he should still be able to handle playing in the field. And he’s been relatively healthy the last three years after suffering through multiple injuries earlier in his career.

The Astros aren’t signing Brantley for his play in the field, though. They want his bat. Here’s what I wrote when I ranked Brantley at No. 12 in our Top-50 free agent post:

Brantley will be 34 next May and there were some signs of decline in his strikeout rate this season. He’s still a high-contact, good-average hitter, but he is spending less time in the field and might have gotten a bit lucky with his 134 wRC+ this season. He should still be able to parlay his skills and results into a few more years of guaranteed money, though if Houston makes a Qualifying Offer, he should probably take it.

After sitting around 10% the previous two years, Brantley’s strikeout rate jumped up to a still-good 15% in the shortened season. His walk rate climbed by a percentage point, but his 5.5% whiff rate and 86% contact rate on swings were both career worsts. He swung less often than he had in previous years and missed more often when he did, particularly on pitches out of the strike zone. To make matters worse, his 134 wRC+ might have been a bit of a mirage: His .314 xwOBA was about 40 points lower than his actual figure. Had this happened over a full season, there might be some serious reservations about Brantley’s ability to produce going forward, and while the small sample size (187 plate appearances) might lessen those reservations a bit, it’s not not enough to remove them.

That small sample should also serve as a reminder to look at Brantley’s playoff numbers. Between the regular season and playoffs, he had 246 plate appearances; if you look only at his stats from before October, you’re missing about a quarter of his season. In 59 postseason trips to the plate, he put up a .346/.424/.558 slash line with a 174 wRC+, with a .400-plus xwOBA that lined up nicely with his actual wOBA. Add up all of his 2020 plate appearances, and Brantley’s wRC+ increases to a more impressive 145. And while his xwOBA was still 34 points short of his actual figure, that .336 mark is still well above the league’s average of .312 last year. Granted, that number is still a 20-point decline from 2019, but it’s not as bad as the regular season alone would have you think.

As for what he might do over the next two years, here’s what ZiPS has to say:

ZiPS Projection – Michael Brantley
2021 .299 .357 .463 505 73 151 31 2 16 70 44 67 7 121 2 2.9
2022 .295 .354 .449 465 65 137 28 1 14 62 40 59 6 116 1 2.4

If he hits those figures, $32 million will be a solid bargain, even if this winter’s spending is on the low side. Brantley also managed to exceed my expectations (2/$24 M) and the average crowdsourced predictions (2/$30 M), though he was a bit short of the median crowdsource prediction (3/$45M).

Given the contract they just gave Brantley, it is fair to wonder if the Astros wish they had made him a qualifying offer instead. The club is now about $15 million short of the competitive balance tax threshold, if that is a consideration, so one more signing would get them close or put them over. A one-year, $18.9 million deal would probably have been preferable to two years and an additional $13 million for Brantley’s age-36 season. In fairness, that’s hindsight analysis, as there were likely more financial questions in November about the 2021 season taking place as opposed to now, as well as expectations of a frigid market. But it does seem like Houston would have been better off making the qualifying offer and either getting Brantley back or adding a draft pick, which they don’t have many of due to the sign-stealing scandal, if he signed elsewhere.

In the end, though, the Astros brought back a productive hitter on a reasonable two-year deal. Brantley doesn’t solve all of their problems: Their outfield looks weak without Springer, and their pitching isn’t likely to be as good as previous years without Justin Verlander. This is a team that’s taken a step back since winning the pennant in 2019. That said, Houston is still the likely favorite in the AL West, and signing Brantley is currently what separates the Astros from the Angels on paper.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Joe Joemember
3 years ago

Astros saved nearly 3 million this year by not offering the QO and it gave them a chance to kick the tires on other players. If $/WAR number goes up or players strike, the extra $13M next year will likely be a bargain at his projections. Considering Astros will likely be flying close to the luxury tax, that $3M is likely the difference between staying under or being Icarus.

3 years ago
Reply to  Joe Joe

I know that Craig’s position on virtually every team is “they should stop being so cheap” but he’s dead wrong about this one. First, what you said–this is a solid deal for 2022, so paying more for year one to not get a guy on a good deal in year two sounds silly. Second, they just signed Jason Castro, and they’ll probably want to be short of the luxury tax to make adjustments at the deadline and/or add a center fielder.