Last November, the Cleveland Indians chose to pick the $11 million option for Michael Brantley’s 2018 season. Despite having surgery just weeks earlier to stabilize ligaments in his ailing right ankle, the veteran outfielder seemed worth the risk at the time. After all, what can $11 million really buy in the offseason that’s better than rolling the dice on getting vintage Michael Brantley back?
No one knew at the time that the free agent market was about to completely bottom out and a few million could get net you a third baseman capable of hitting 35+ home runs or a year of a reliable starting pitcher like Lance Lynn. But with our hindsight glasses on, it brings up an interesting point about the Indians and Brantley: What could have been with a mere extra $11 million.
As it stands now, Brantley hasn’t touched a real game in spring training, and it’s unlikely that he’ll be ready for Opening Day. It’s the same story we’ve heard for the past two seasons, when Brantley combined to play in just 101 games (90 of those in 2017) and a 1.6 fWAR. If it’s the same old story this season, losing out on $11 million in an offseason where the cash-strapped Indians could have found a deal somewhere, it has the chance of making the Indians’ decision to pick up his option look really, really bad.
It wouldn’t have helped the Indians bring back Bryan Shaw or Carlos Santana — they both signed for big, multi-year deals elsewhere, leading to the addition of Yonder Alonso to the Tribe two days before Christmas. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t have helped the Indians in several other ways, though.
Maybe the Indians would have been dead set on getting another outfielder with that money. If that’s the case, 32-year-old Carlos Gonzalez signed an $8 million deal to return to the Colorado Rockies, where he had an inexplicably bad season in 2017. His -0.2 fWAR was a career-worst by far, and he struggled offensively despite walking at a double-digit rate for the first time in his career. He’s as much of a bounce back risk as Brantley, but without the fear of another injury popping up.
They could have also picked up Austin Jackson’s two-year, $6 million deal he signed with the San Francisco Giants. He’s coming off a career year in his 30s, which is what makes it a not-very-Indians move, but the they didn’t even pursue him with Brantley locked up for the year. Instead, the Indians added Rajai Davis on a minor-league deal to help the outfield.
Going a different route, the Indians could have gone after a reliever like Hector Rondon, Tony Watson, or Yusmeiro Petit, or Steve Cishek. All are risks in their own way, but without Bryan Shaw and no noticeable additions, not to mention Mike Clevinger switching to a full-time starting rotation gig, the Indians’ bullpen might be bound for a downturn. It’s hard not to see any of those four helping.
If the Indians could find $1 million in the couch cushions of Progressive Field, they could have potentially nabbed Lance Lynn at $12 million, which would either have provided the Indians with a replacement for Josh Tomlin, or way to keep Mike Clevinger in the bullpen alongside the injured Danny Salazar. Again, just more flexibility.
Or maybe they would have extended an olive branch to an old enemy in Mike Moustakas to push Jose Ramirez to second and Jason Kipnis to somewhere in the outfield. It’s not my personal favorite option, but with a few extra millions to play with, the possibility was there. If they somehow got him at the $6 million he signed with the Kansas City Royals, they would have had room left over to grab a reliever as well.
None of this is to say that the Indians absolutely would have gotten these players at these steep discounts; it’s never 1-to-1 translation between teams. But this offseason has been wild in terms of how not-wild it’s been, making $11 million much more valuable in the process. When the most debate was raging about picking up or not picking up Brantley’s option, the biggest against argument was flexibility. As it turns out, it was way more flexibility than anyone thought.
Even if they didn’t go out and sign somewhere, it comes down to the fact that they almost certainly would have got Brantley back at less than $11 million. But we’re talking such a small amount here that maybe it’s just better they did a longtime player a solid by picking up his option.