By: Chris Larson
Yesterday afternoon, it was officially announced that the Houston Astros had inked free agent outfielder, Michael Brantley, to a deal. Ken Rosenthal, of The Athletic, was the first to report that Brantley was signing a two-year, $32 million dollar deal, that is still pending a physical and comes with no option years on the back end.
During Michael Brantley's tenure as a free agent, many around the game expected him to ultimately land with the Atlanta Braves, who have been rumored to be in the market for an outfield bat with the expected departure of free agent, Nick Markakis. Furthermore, many people expected that Brantley would ultimately land a three, maybe even a four-year deal, but that wasn't the case likely due to some team's concerns regarding Brantley's long-term health.
Rather, the Houston Astros landed Michael Brantley and are taking a gamble that he will be able to stay on the field for the next two seasons, but it's a gamble that could pay off huge dividends, if he is able to rack up as much playing time as the Astros front office expects. In fact, you could make the argument that, outside of Bryce Harper and possibly A.J. Pollock, Michael Brantley was one of the Top 3 free agent bats available this offseason.
Brantley, who is going into his 32 season (he will turn 32 next May), finished the 2018 regular season batting: .309/.364/.468 over 631 plate appearances with 176 hits, 36 doubles, 2 triples, 17 home runs, 76 RBI, 12 stolen bases, 48 walks, and 60 strikeouts. When you add all of that up, those numbers gave Brantley a 3.6 WAR on the season, his best WAR since 2014 when he concluded the season with a 6.7 WAR, and finished third in the AL MVP voting.
While there might be some concern about whether or not Michael Brantley can stay on the field, those numbers certainly work in his favor and help to support the claim that he could have a few good years left in the tank. Right now, computer projections have him finishing the 2019 regular season batting: .286/.345/.437 over 553 plate appearances with 142 hits, 29 doubles, 2 triples, 14 home runs, 67 RBI, 11 stolen bases, 44 walks, and 74 strikeouts. As is always the case, computer projections are just those (projections), but the Astros front office likely took those projected numbers into account when determining Michael Brantley's value and the type of offer they were going to make to him.
From an offensive standpoint, Michael Brantley is a huge upgrade and certainly helps to lengthen the Astros lineup, but his defense could pose a potential problem in the outfield. Based on last year only, (yes this is recency bias, but with someone like Brantley it's the data you have to base a decision off of), he finished the 2018 regular season with a Defensive Runs Saved value of -3, a Ultimate Zone Rating of 0.5, and a Revised Zone Rating of .907, putting him smack dab in the middle of outfielders, who played at least 400 innings last season.
However, although the defense could be a liability, the Astros are betting that Brantley will make up for those possible downfalls with his bat. In addition to his offensive abilities, Brantley is also a great team guy and someone that has demonstrated that he can be there for his teammates on and off the field, even when times as rough, as he showed when he was sidelined with various injuries with the Cleveland Indians. It's not necessarily that the Astros lack leadership in their clubhouse, but when you can add more to a clubhouse, it's never a bad thing and don't discount the fact that Brantley could potentially help mentor 21-year old outfielder, Kyle Tucker, as well, assuming Houston keeps him, which comes to the next point of this article.
Now, that Brantley has been signed and penciled into left field, there is speculation that the Houston Astros could be looking to make two potential trade transactions involving the aforementioned, Kyle Tucker, or right fielder, Josh Reddick. Yesterday evening, some around the industry speculated that Josh Reddick could be on the move, but the Astros would likely have to eat a big chunk of his remaining $26 million dollars, if they want to be able to pull a trade like that off. That is something that probably won't happen and Houston would, probably, be better off keeping Reddick just so there is a little more left/right balance in their everyday lineup.
Beyond Reddick, Kyle Tucker has also been a name that has been mentioned on several occasions over the last 18 hours. With Brantley in the fold and the fact that the Astros also have Tony Kemp, Kyle Tucker no longer has an everyday role which is why some believe he could ultimately be included in a trade package for the highly sought after, J.T. Realmuto, catcher for the Miami Marlins. Houston obviously still needs to upgrade behind the dish, even after signing Robinson Chirinos as a free agent, but Houston might be better off keeping Tucker and looking at other ways to upgrade.
After all, Kyle Tucker is now 21 years old and he could easily remain on the 25-man roster, getting playing time when Michael Brantley might need a day off or in the event of an injury. As mentioned before, Brantley could even serve as an adequate mentor for Tucker. In addition, the Astros might end up needing Tucker down the line, as he could serve as a pillar for the next great Astros core group.
Rather than look to make a trade for J.T. Realmuto, Houston would be better off going after free agent, Nelson Cruz, instead and inserting him into their everyday Designated Hitter role. In that case, the Astros would be able to significantly upgrade their offense with the additions of Brantley and Cano, keep Kyle Tucker in their system, and have plenty of offense to keep up with the rest of the division, which projects to be competitive once again in 2019.
Worse comes to worse, if the Astros still don't like the fit of having Kyle Tucker in the picture, then they can use him for a potential mid-season acquisition or even as a trade chip come next offseason. Regardless, it's not a very good idea for the Astros to give up on such a young player and a player that has huge upside, according to many scouts around the game.
In the end, the Houston Astros were still the favorites to win the American League West once again in 2019 before the signing of Michael Brantley, but they now lengthened their lineup even more and provided themselves with more offense. If the Astros are able to keep Kyle Tucker and pull off a deal with Nelson Cruz before the offseason concludes, while also doing something to address their starting rotation, then it will have been a highly successful offseason for an Astros team that already has a loaded farm system and could be favorites to win it all next season.