Enough ink has certainly been spilled here and other places to illustrate that the Cardinals will not be active players in the free agent market this offseason. And for most of my free agent spotlights, I’ve tried to make it clear how much I do not think that this signing will happen. And things aren’t necessarily different here. But they kind of are. I’m not saying the Cardinals will sign Michael Brantley. But it’s much less difficult to imagine than any player I covered here so far by a long shot.
The same things that make Brantley a more possible target are the same things that make him someone that isn’t an ideal free agent. Brantley turns 34-years-old in May next year, and for at least the first part of the year, that means two of the three outfield starters would be 34 or older on a team with plenty of young outfielders who should play. He also has an injury history and can only really play LF.
Those are the downsides to Brantley. The upside is his bat. Oh lord yeah. (If you heard that in Ozzy Ozbourne’s voice, good. And if you didn’t, well now you did). Ever since his breakout 2014 season when he had a 151 wRC+, he has had least a 124 wRC+ in every season since, except for the two seasons where he spent a large portion of the year on the IL. He had a 134 wRC+ in 46 games last season and a 133 wRC+ the year before.
Better yet, he’s ideally utilized in a platoon. And the Cards could use someone who could hit righties. Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson aren’t expected to have much in the way of splits, and everyone else is worse against RHP. And Brantley is better against RHP than both of them. For his career, Brantley has a 127 wRC+ against RHP. He can’t hit left-handed pitching, but he wouldn’t need to - Dexter Fowler is apparently better against LHP now, Harrison Bader crushes lefties, and I’d expect Carlson and O’Neill to be fine against them too.
Fangraphs projects him for a 2 year, $24 million deal and I think his price is going to have to fall lower than that for the Cardinals to get him. But the thing is I think it’s very possible his price drops from that already low price. He signed a 2 year, $32 million deal prior to the 2019 offseason. He was coming into his age 32 season. Now he’s 34. And teams are stingier than two years ago. It’s really not hard to imagine.
It probably goes without saying that he’d be worth that contract, but I’ll go through the motions anyway. In 2021, ZiPS projects Brantley for 2 WAR over 526 PAs and 1.2 WAR over 491 PAs in 2022. He’s not a world changer. But he was worth 4.2 fWAR in 2019 and on a rate basis, was worth 4.1 per 600 PAs in 2020. So he’s not really your typical average player projection. His bat gives him some upside.
Except a couple of important things with those projections. First off, it doesn’t take 2020 into account at all. ZiPS doesn’t have updated information yet, at least not for Brantley. Given that those numbers are based after his age 32 season two years into the future at 34, that is actually very important to know! Brantley was projected for 2.1 WAR in 2020. He had 1.3 WAR in 46 games and 187s, which over a full season would have been 3.5 WAR in 124 games and 503 PAs.
It won’t be a lot more than 2 WAR and hell, it might not even be more, but I’m certainly uncomfortable assuming a 2 WAR projection for 2021 for the moment. In any case, I have been running the price of a win this offseason as $6 million per win, which is probably low. But part of this has to do with the fact that I’m trying to paint free agent targets as possible for the Cardinals, which is harder with a higher cost for a free agent. Interestingly, he’s not worth the 2 year, $24 million deal if the price is $6 million. His two-year ZiPs projection targets him for 2 years, $19.2 million. It’d be very easy to talk myself into that deal.
There are however some warnings signs. Well one really: his strikeouts. Which is a weird thing to say for a player who had a 15 K% last year. But it’s less weird when you consider his career K% is 10.8% and the only times he’s been even above 13% are his 121 PA rookie season, his third season when he was 24, his 11 game sample in 2016, and his injury-plagued 2017 when he had just 375 PAs. But well, he had just 187 PAs last year. So it’s impossible to say if it represents the new normal for him, if he was affected by the unusual year as some players were, or if it was just a random sampling that caused him to strike out a bit more than normal.
But it is still alarming. Brantley is somewhat of an unusual hitter. A lot of him being an elite hitter has to do with the fact that he never strikes out. He’s slightly above average at taking walks, and has slightly above average power. He doesn’t have especially high BABIPS either. The only reason he was a 134 wRC+ hitter last year in fact was because of a career high BABIP at .336. On the flipside though, he has been remarkably consistent with BABIP in his career. It’s fallen between .318 and .336 for every season since 2014, except for that season where he only played in 11 games.
The concern naturally is that an elite contact hitter who sees a rise in strikeouts maybe suggests he’s no longer elite in that department and without that, he’s nothing special as a hitter or as a player. This is where his age comes into play. At 34, it’s hard to ignore that.
It’s worth pointing out that Brantley played more DH than LF, but I think this has more to do with a crowded Astros outfield and Brantley being injury-prone than a reflection on his defense. Brantley is a +1.2 fielder in LF for his career. Nothing to write home about, but this isn’t really a case where you’re sacrificing defense for offense. And I’m not seeing anything in his recent numbers to suggest he’d be worse than average there now either. He was clearly an outlier of +32 last year, +3.4 the year before, and +1.1 in 2018. I was under the impression he was a bad fielder. He is not.
I think I will definitively put Brantley in the case of “okay with signing him, okay with not signing him.” Unless his price gets absurd and you can have him for 1 year, $5 million and then I will be mad at the Cardinals for passing that up. But that’s unlikely. He’s a left-handed bat, which I think the Cardinals could use, gives depth to the outfield, and can probably be had on an affordable deal. On the other hand, he might just add to the average pile, blocks young outfielders who could play (Carlson might start in AAA if he’s signed, for instance), and is older. You could look at a possible signing of him either way, and I don’t think I’d disagree with either point.