It’s been some time since Michael Brantley was considered one of the best players in baseball, but by no means has he been unsatisfactory in the years since he held that reputation.
In 2014, Brantley amassed a whopping 6.5 fWAR, ranking fourth in baseball. He’s only been worth 8.4 fWAR, or 2.1 wins per year, since that storied year. A lot of this has been due to injuries, which limited Brantley to just 101 games (418 plate appearances) in a two-year span from 2016 to 2017. Needless to say, his value has fallen off the table quite a bit.
As he heads for free agency for the first time in his career, Brantley is coming off of a solid rebound season. Named to the third AL All-Star team of his career, Brantley slashed .309/.364/.468 with 17 home runs and 76 RBIs over 631 plate appearances in 2018. Brantley’s defense cost him about six runs worth of value, but he still was worth 3.5 fWAR this season, good for 16th among all qualified outfielders.
Brantley represents one of the cheaper alternatives to Bryce Harper, and his market will probably unfold as such. Until teams know where Harper signs, they likely won’t turn their sights to any Plan B.
At the beginning of this offseason, MLB Trade Rumors projected Brantley to sign a three-year, $45 million deal with the Braves. The Cardinals, Phillies and Astros have also shown interest in the corner outfielder. It’s quite unlikely that the Indians will re-sign him, especially after they declined to offer him a qualifying offer.
With all of this in mind, Brantley would be a good fit for Atlanta specifically. The Braves are in need of a corner outfielder, with Nick Markakis likely leaving the organization via free agency. And, considering they are unlikely to spend big to fill this spot, Brantley could fit in there quite nicely.
Heading into his age-32 season, Brantley is obviously on the wrong side of 30, but Steamer projects him to be worth 2.6 fWAR over 641 plate appearances next year. Using this Steamer projection, we can apply the aging curve to Brantley’s next three years. With this information, Brantley would be worth about 6.3 fWAR in a three-year deal.
With one win being worth about $8 million, Brantley would only need to be worth about 5.7 wins over his next three years to provide surplus value on a three-year, $45 million deal. A 6.3 fWAR projection equates to about $50.4 million in value using $/fWAR. But it all depends on how well Brantley’s offense, and perhaps most importantly, his health, hold up.
Outside of the fact that he played a full season for the first time in three years, there’s more evidence to suggest that Brantley’s bat and health was back to normal. His average exit velocity last year was 89.9 mph, the highest it has been at any time in the Statcast era (since 2015).
He’s one of the best hitters in baseball against the fastball, a pitch that becomes incredibly hard to hit when injured, ranking in the top 16 percent of batters in xwOBA against fastballs in 2018 (minimum 100 plate appearances). Despite being well below-average overall, his sprint speed ticked up in 2018, another indicator of good health.
Brantley was clearly healthier than ever in 2018, but teams will still be wary of giving him a long-term deal with his recent history. Nonetheless, he should still be highly coveted over the next few months, especially as teams divert their attention away from Harper. A good contract year proved that Brantley can still be quite productive, even if he isn’t the MVP candidate that he once was during his prime.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.