We've been running through the 2014 season for each member of the Indians and key prospects from their farm system. (You can find every entry in the series here.) Now we've reached a countdown of the top ten players on the team, as voted by the Let's Go Tribe staff.
#1: Michael Brantley
- Position: Left field
- Age: 27
- Acquired: Via the CC Sabathia trade with Brewers in 2008
- Contract status: $5 million in 2015, under team control through 2018
In 2011 Brantley played something close to a full MLB season for the first time, and was something close to a league-average player. In 2012 he made big strides with his contact rate, lifting his batting average and on-base percentage, and turning him into something a little better than average. 2013 was a pretty similar season to the one before it. Reviews of his defense varied, but all in all it seemed like Brantley had settled in as a very solid player, the sort you're happy to have on the roster, maybe batting 6th, giving you dependable production for a fairly low cost.
In 2014 Brantley was eligible for arbitration for the first time, and seemed headed for something between $3-3.5 million. Instead the Indians signed him to an extension to cover all three of his arbitration seasons, along with a year of free agency and a team option for 2018. Some questioned guaranteeing that much money to a pretty good, but nothing special player. Nine months later, the Indians look brilliant.
Through the season's first dozen games, Brantley hadn't homered, but in the next seven games he hit four long balls, shooting his slugging percentage up to .507. Obviously he wasn't going to continue hitting four home runs a week, but the overall power, was it sustainable? His already very good contact rate was even higher, his line-drive rate was up, and his fly balls were traveling farther than in previous seasons. All these underlying metrics were pointing in a positive direction, but it still seemed possible it was just a lot small-sample noise, and over the course of the season, he'd come back to earth. Well, it's true that he could not maintain his excellent .507 SLG; that figure has dropped by season's end... all the way to .506.
It was May when Brantley's performance really took off. He hit safely in 25 of the 27 games he played that month, and had multiple hits 9 times. He hit .345/.405/.564 that month, the best month of his career to that point. In June he hit .341/.413/.516. His hot start was feeling less and less like a fluke. The Brantley had multiple hits in 7 of the first 9 games in July. He rolled into the All-Star break (as the Trine's only All-Star representative) with a 159 wRC+, 6th best in the AL. Factor in his strong base running, and probably only MIke Trout had better offensive numbers in the American League.
Heading into the final series of August, Brantley was batting .307 and had 152 hits. He was on pace for 187 hits, and had a shot at reaching 190, which no Ione on the Indians had done since Grady Sizemore in 2006. It would have been really cool if he could become the first Tribe hitter since Kenny Lofton in 1996 to reach 200 hits, but that would have taken an absurd finish, it wasn't going to happen... but then it did.
Brantley hit safely in 27 of the final 29 games of the season. He had multiple hits in an incredible 17 of those games. In those final five weeks of the year, Brantley hit .414, and on the final weekend of the year, he collected hit #200, a nice milestone finish to a milestone season. In November Brantley was named as one of the finalists for the American League MVP award, and finished 3rd in the voting, the highest finish for any Tribe player since Roberto Alomar and Manny Ramirez tied for 3rd in 1999.
2014 grade: A+
Brantley will be hard-pressed to match this season, but his consistency over the course of 2014, along with other things you'd look at such as batted-ball rates and BABIP all point toward Dr. Smooth continuing to be a very good hitter. Because of the front office's foresight, Brantley is owed just $11.5 million. If he were heading into his second year of arbitration coming off the season he just had, he'd likely make close to twice that over the next two years, and he be hitting free agency after 2016, potentially out of the Tribe's price range. Instead he's here for another four years. Sounds good.