At the beginning of the 2008 season, the Indians appeared to have so much promise. The previous October, they came within just one win of the World Series, and had the 2007 Cy Young winner, CC Sabathia, anchoring the top of their rotation. I can’t tell you how many people tried to console me after the heartbreaking loss in the 2007 ALCS by saying “The Indians will be back next year. This was just the beginning for them.” They got off to a terrible start during the first couple of months of the 2008 season, and by summer they were looking to a fire sale. Ace Sabathia was a free agent after the season; even though he would just serve as a half-season rental, there was still high demand for him. In the end, the Indians sent him to the Milwaukee Brewers in a deal headlined by highly-touted prospect Matt LaPorta, along with three other minor leaguers – Triple-A pitcher Zach Jackson, Class-A RHP Rob Bryson, and a player to be named later. As we all now know, Brantley was that player named later.
For quite some time, you saw the deal framed essentially as acquiring LaPorta, and “some other guys.” In fact, at the time, people thought that the Indians would end up receiving third base prospect Taylor Green as the fourth prospect. A lot of people don’t realize the unusual circumstances written into that deal, that ended up bringing Brantley to Cleveland. If the Brewers happened to make the playoffs in 2008, the Indians would get to select the player to be named later from a predetermined list; if they did not, then the Brewers got to pick the player. The Brewers did not plan to surrender Brantley, so in an odd way the Indians have Sabathia and the Brewers to thank for their 2014 All Star. As for Green, who was perhaps the likely choice if the Brewers did not make the playoffs? He’ll be 28 in November and has only played 78 major league games from 2011-2012. He had hip surgery in 2013, and was actually demoted from the hitter-friendly Triple-A Pacific Coast League back down to Double-A recently. Could you imagine how a deal headline by Green and LaPorta would look to us now?
There were a lot of experts that thought Brantley wouldn’t pan out, or that he’d never end up a star caliber player. In 28 games in his first season (2009) he hit .313/.358/.348 with 0 home runs and 4 stolen bases. It was a small sample size though, and there always seemed to be concern that Brantley’s numbers would drop with a full season in the majors. They did slip a bit in 2010 (.246/.296/.327 with 3 home runs and 10 stolen bases), but like 2009, he saw limited action in the majors and spent a considerable portion of the year in the minors. Brantley’s first full season in the majors (2011) saw improvement – .266/.318/.384 with 7 home runs and 13 stolen bases. His numbers continued to climb after that: 2012 – .288/.348/.402 with 6 home runs and 12 stolen bases, and 2013 – .284/.332/.396 with 10 home runs and 17 stolen bases. While Brantley’s stats weren’t out of this world, he was solid and dependable. I almost forget about him sometimes, just because he’s steady and calm (hence the “Dr. Smooth” nickname).
Brantley’s 2014 season has been fantastic, especially considering that he’s part of a lineup that is the picture of inconsistency. In the first half, he hit .322/.382/.519 with 15 home runs and 10 stolen bases. He’s already surpassed his 2013 home run total by 5, and we still have just under half a season yet to play. Brantley is worth 4.0 bWAR, currently the team leader (Yan Gomes is next at 2.5 bWAR). His 15 home runs is the most on the Indians (Carlos Santana is next with 14), he leads the team in RBI with 63 (next is David Murphy with 44), and his .322 batting average trails only Lonnie Chisenhall‘s .328 (the only two players on the team to be above .300). Brantley is tied with Asdrubal Cabrera for the team lead in doubles (22), and is second on the team in OBP with a mark of .382 (Chisenhall is first with .392). As for Brantley’s place in the entire American League? He’s sixth in batting average, tenth in RBI, and fourth in WAR. Brantley trails just Mike Trout, Josh Donaldson, and Kyle Seager in that category (all fellow All Stars).
Michael Brantley has gone from a throw-in to a trade (and a lucky one, at that) to one of the team’s offensive leaders, as well as one of the leaders of many AL offensive stats in just about six years. He’s a major league All Star for the first time in his career, even if he did go 0-1 in one at-bat. While the fact that LaPorta was a bust is certainly frustrating, Brantley for a half-season rental of Sabathia still seems like a victory to me.