Cleveland Indians have Michael Brantley decision looming

Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images /

The Cleveland Indians hold an $11 million team option on Michael Brantley for the 2018 season. Should they retain the oft-injured outfielder?

The Cleveland Indians are still scratching their heads, wondering how it all went wrong against the New York Yankees in the ALDS. However, the time to turn the page and begin considering the approaching offseason is already here. One of the Tribe’s most pressing internal questions will be what to do with a player they have always envisioned as part of their long-term core.

Michael Brantley has a 2018 team option set at $11 million. Will Cleveland pick it up and bring back the 30-year-old outfielder for next season? More importantly, should they?

If you take the temperature of the Cleveland fanbase at the moment, the prevailing sentiment seems to be a decisive “no.” For Brantley, the overwhelming problem the past couple years has been remaining healthy. After playing just 11 games in 2016 while battling shoulder and biceps ailments, he was limited to 90 this season due to an ankle injury.

Even before then, Brantley wasn’t exactly a stranger to missing large chunks of time. He appeared in 114 contests in 2011, and 137 in 2015. He averaged 152 games played between 2012 and 2014, the only truly reliable stretch in his nine-year career.

It would be difficult for the Indians to justify giving $11 million to a player they can’t trust to remain on the field, even one of Brantley’s caliber. Even in that regard, it’s worth wondering whether his best campaigns are behind him.

When Brantley has managed to stay healthy, he’s shown himself to be a very productive player. His breakout season came in 2014, when he slashed .327/.385/.506 with 20 home runs and 97 RBI. The next year he hit .310/.379/.480 with 15 homers, 84 RBI and a majors-leading 45 doubles.

By the numbers, Brantley’s 2017 campaign was still comfortably above average. He posted a .299/.357/.444 slash line to go with nine long balls and 52 runs batted in, earning his second All-Star nod in the process. His 108 OPS+, however, was down noticeably from his earlier high-water marks of 148 and 129 in 2014 and 2015, respectively. He went just 1-for-11 in the postseason with four strikeouts.

Missing 72 games certainly didn’t do him any favors, but past the age of 30 now, it’s not unreasonable to think Brantley may struggle to reach those peaks again. He was also out for the entirety of Cleveland’s 22-game winning streak, so they’re not exactly helpless without him.

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That said, there are some legitimate reasons to want to keep Brantley as well. With Austin Jackson and Jay Bruce headed for free agency, there is some uncertainty surrounding the Cleveland outfield. Rookie Bradley Zimmer is still very much part of the plan, but he struggled mightily at times this year. The club probably doesn’t want to continue putting Jason Kipnis in center field either if it can help it, and he might even end up a trade chip depending on how things shake out.

At just a one-year option, the Indians could take one last shot at seeing whether Brantley can stay healthy, and $11 million isn’t an exorbitant amount of money in today’s game. However, that salary could easily go toward retaining someone like Bruce, who quickly turned into a fan favorite in Cleveland after his August trade.

The veteran slugger clubbed seven homers for the Tribe down the stretch and added two more in the ALDS. He’s only a month older than Brantley as well. With Carlos Santana also hitting the market, Cleveland won’t want to lose that much offense in one offseason.

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The sting of an early playoff exit, only weeks after riding a record-setting win streak, will sting for the entire winter. But the Indians front office has several key decisions on its plate, and the Brantley one will have to come soon. Had he been able to play a larger portion of the season, perhaps things would sit differently, but right now it feels like it may be time to part ways.

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