It’s no secret that the Mariners are going to need some pitching help - particularly for a bullpen that was by every metric the worst in baseball in 2020. While Jerry Dipoto has stated that the club will be gunning after some free agent relievers - which, given his track record on that front, might be cause for minor concern - one should hope that they’ll dig a little deeper than that, maybe grab one of the starters that will be on the market this winter (Marcus Stroman, anyone?).
Of course, pitching is just half the battle, and while there was plenty to like about how Seattle’s offense developed over the short season, there was also a good bit of uncertainty, and with a lineup that once again figures to be one of the youngest in the game, any stable presence would be more than welcome.
Enter Michael Brantley.
Brantley is a true veteran, having been in pro ball for over fifteen years since being drafted by the Brewers in 2005. After heading to Cleveland as a PTBNL in the 2008 CC Sabathia blockbuster (and, funnily enough, the only prospect that Cleveland got in that deal that produced much for them), he broke into the bigs in 2009 and hasn’t looked back since. While he was a solid contributor through the early 2010s, his true breakout came in 2014, as he rode a 151 wRC+ to 6.5 fWAR and finished third in the American League MVP race. Since then, despite never reaching a .200 ISO, he’s been a valuable asset when healthy - he missed nearly all of 2016 and about half of 2017 with injuries - and has drawn strong defensive marks as a left fielder. With the Astros mercifully being eliminated in the ALCS, Brantley’s two-year, $32 million contract with them is nearly up, and it would make sense for the Mariners to pounce.
For an org that has preached “control the zone”, and starting this year “dominate the zone” on both sides of the ball, Brantley has controlled and dominated for years now. Did you like Seth Smith’s Professional™ at-bats? Did you marvel at Denard Span’s simple yet beautiful approach at the plate? Well, Michael Brantley blows both of those men out of the water. In the Statcast era, he’s run just a 10.6% strikeout rate - nearly unheard of in an era of high velocity and vicious power swings. In fact, his 15% mark in 2020 was the first time he’d cracked that plateau since he ran a 15.3% K-rate in 2011. His swinging strike rates are even better, with his 5.5% this year being the only time in his career he’s been over 5%, with a career mark of 3.7% (!!). Simply put, the man does not whiff, and Savant’s Swing/Take metric has been very fond of him the past couple seasons. Here’s 2020:
And here’s 2019 and 2018, respectively:
Unsurprisingly, Brantley’s +18 Swing/Take run value this year would have been far and away the best on the Mariners, with Kyle Lewis’s +5 a distant second (oddly enough, while Savant lists Ty France as the Mariners’ leader with +10, it has his time with San Diego in there, with no way to split by team that I could find. Rats). He racks up value by simply refusing to chase, and while you’d ideally like to see some more production in the heart and shadow of the plate, Brantley’s strong eye and refusal to swing and miss has more than mitigated that.
The lefty-swinging Brantley would also provide some handedness balance to a lineup that is suddenly pretty righty-heavy; as of this article, the only left-handed hitting regulars going into 2021 figure to be J.P. Crawford and Kyle Seager, with Jarred Kelenic a likely midseason call-up. His strong glove also gives Seattle some much-needed outfield flexibility. Dipoto has Mitch Haniger penciled in as the 2021 Opening Day right fielder, but what if all that time off combined with some worrying strikeout and batted ball trends in 2019 gives us a Corey Hart redux? What if France has a cold open to the year or is spelling Seager or Dylan Moore in the field on any given day? Brantley actually spent more time at DH in 2020 than in the outfield, but that appears to be due to the emergence of Kyle Tucker rather than him losing a step defensively. Sliding him in as the starting left fielder, with maybe a day or two a week at DH, and having him ready to handle right if Haniger goes down again or craters at the plate seems like the smart plan.
That being said, Brantley isn’t some spring chicken. He turns 34 next May, which would make him the oldest position player in Seattle. Though he’s been plenty durable the past few seasons, it’s hard to ignore his 2016 and half his 2017 being washed away by injury; two shoulder surgeries cost him 2016, and an ankle strain kelp him out of the last two months of 2017. He also missed a couple weeks this year thanks to a quad strain, and has had to shake a reputation of being injury-prone throughout his career. Thus, it’s a little hard to pin down how much he would command. His previous deal with Houston at 2/$32M seems like a good starting point, and would keep him here through the stated window of contention, but after extensive postseason experience with the Astros and a fair amount in Cleveland, would he want to join a org chugging along in their rebuild?
Brantley, surprisingly enough, does have a local connection to Seattle: his father, Mickey, was the Mariners’ second-round pick in 1983, and played in 302 games for the big club between 1986 and 1989. Michael was also born in Bellevue, though raised in Port St. Lucie in Florida. Still, though, one should expect a slight overpay for Brantley’s services, and if we’re using his Astros contract as framework, somewhere in the two years, $36-38 million range may be enough to get it done, especially if Seattle added an option for 2023.
Michael Brantley has been a consistently underrated hitter throughout his career. His simple approach and allergies to strikeouts make him a lot of fun to watch as well as a perfect organizational fit, and his lefty bat and veteran presence could work wonders with Seattle’s young, streaky lineup. With the Mariners’ rebuild getting closer to the stage where free agency makes sense as roster augmentation rather than a method to build a team from scratch, Brantley checks all the boxes, and his addition could be a great jump-start to contention.