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Michael Brantley needs to stay in Houston

The Astros face some tough decisions this offseason, but retaining a key bat in the lineup shouldn’t be one.

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MLB: ALCS-Tampa Bay Rays at Houston Astros Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The narrative of the Astros offseason will mostly center around replacing their entire starting outfield, which features three free agents in George Springer, Michael Brantley, and Josh Reddick. It’s a daunting task for any club, especially as the true scope of the economic losses from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic comes into clearer view.

To be clear, the Astros ought to have enough money to re-sign at least two of the three free agent outfielders, if owner Jim Crane desires to spend the money and possibly pay another season’s worth of luxury tax. In an ideal scenario that would translate into Springer and Brantley receiving new deals to keep an above-average lineup together. But the former is certainly going to receive a fairly lucrative contract somewhere probably in the range of five to seven years. Unfortunately, it most probably won’t happen in Houston as it’ll come down to pinching pennies and avoiding another tax payment in 2021. Following a season of lost revenue across sport, no matter the actual numbers, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Astros exercise more financial constraint. You don’t have to like it, but it’s the bitter reality of the situation.

In any event in which Springer departs for a new challenge (the Mets, perhaps?), the Astros have a Texas-sized hole to fill on the roster. And, no, they can’t easily replace the value that Springer would provide, particularly in the short term. Instead, general manager James Click will have to find ways to improve the roster without breaking the bank. Short term contracts with the goal of also maintaining financial flexibility seems like the goal for at least this offseason. In that sense, it only strengthens the case to re-sign Brantley to a short-term contract.

When the Astros signed Brantley to a two-year, $32 million deal prior to the 2019 season, it was considered one of the better moves of that offseason. While there was a prior injury risk to consider, Houston was banking on one of the league’s most patient hitters with excellent strike zone command to improve an already strong lineup. Needless to say, I think the club was pleased with their investment.

Michael Brantely as an Astro (2019-20)

824 27 112 8.3% 11.4% 0.37 0.497 134

A continuation of the partnership between the Astros and Brantley makes plenty of sense, although there are a few red flags to consider. For one, the veteran outfielder is now 33-years old, and one can’t help but wonder how often he can regularly patrol left field. It does help that left field in Minute Maid Park is relatively small. That said, there isn’t a clear route for Brantley to receive consistent at-bats other than as a left fielder as Yordan Alvarez will likely receive the bulk of DH duties in 2021.

Another potential red flag lies within Brantley’s profile as a hitter going forward. For example, we saw Brantley’s strikeout rate jump by nearly 4.5 percent between 2019 to 2020. Keep in mind that it traditionally takes 60 plate appearances for a strikeout rate to start to stabilize for a hitter. In addition, his swing rate was down along with his contact rate while the swinging strike rate rose. In a year-by-year glance, not a trend that you’d like to see for an aging outfielder.

Plate Discipline Numbers (2018-20)

Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% SwStr%
Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% SwStr%
2018 27.1% 65.8% 44.1% 78.7% 97.3% 90.9% 4.0%
2019 29.2% 61.5% 43.7% 82.3% 95.8% 90.8% 4.0%
2020 25.2% 59.4% 39.8% 74.0% 92.9% 86.1% 5.5%

That said, it is fair to keep in mind that Brantley dealt with a pesky right quad injury for the majority of the 2020 season. That injured quad, in theory, may have affected Brantley’s performance at the plate to a degree, which sounds plausible in my head. Fastballs, in particular, were a reoccurring issue all season long as evident by a noticeable drop in batting average, wOBA, and xwOBA and a precipitous rise in whiff rate. Greyson Skweres has a terrific breakdown here detailing Brantley’s issues with fastballs in 2020. The question in my mind is whether the fastball issue was driven by regression, the shortened season, injury, or a combination of those factors.

As recently reported by Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, the Astros do appear to be interested in bringing back the veteran hitter for another round or two. FanGraphs currently projects Brantley to earn anywhere from $12 to $15 million in average annual value, which is the figure that we should mostly care about. Whether that is over a two- or three-year contract is left to be seen, though. But the Astros do have incoming payroll flexibility next year when Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke come off the books for good. Account for the roughly $37 million that the club currently projects to be under the “luxury” tax threshold of $210 million for 2021, I’d say there should be more than enough financial wiggle room for Brantley to return for another two seasons.

For the Astros, I would assume retaining Brantley’s services are high on the list, especially in light of Springer’s free agency. By the way, it seems as Springer won’t accept the qualifying offer, so at least the speculation about that possibility mercifully ends. Spoiler alert: Springer was never going to take the offer. With that price tag likely outside of Crane’s comfort zone, Brantley makes sense in the short-term as a player and a figure in payroll calculations. Even if Brantley resembles more of his 2020 self over the course of a full season or two, a reunion appears as a favorable situation for both sides. The question is whether Brantley agrees and if a better opportunity arises elsewhere with the DH still a possibility in the National League in the near future.