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Michael Brantley returns to the Astros; how does he fit within this lineup?

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

There was little doubt that the Astros were interested in retaining the services of free-agent Michael Brantley this offseason. The feeling appeared mutual from the five-time All-Star. Only the status of Brantley’s surgically repaired right shoulder — or a surprising suitor willing to offer money and security — could plausibly deter the two parties from reaching their third agreement in four years. After all, it likely wouldn’t take much to re-sign a 35-year-old left fielder and part-time DH coming off shoulder surgery, even in this market. As long as Brantley’s overall health checked out fine and the financial terms were amiable, it felt like only a matter of time before an agreement was made public.

Well, here is that announcement.

With the potential to earn up to $16 million, thanks to his $12 million base and $4 million in incentives, there isn’t much not to like about this one-year pact for the Astros or Brantley. For instance, rarely, if ever, a one-year contract is viewed as an outright costly mistake. If it doesn’t work out, well, both sides aren’t strictly committed to one another for the long term. You move on following one season if an outright release doesn’t occur sooner. The Astros did precisely that with Preston Wilson in 2006 if you care to remember that tidbit of useless, if not depressing, history.

In any case, Brantley’s one-year contract, even if he reaches those incentives, isn’t a notable hindrance to the short-term budget, as the Astros are still $20 million below the initial payroll threshold of $233 million. An argument could be made that Brantley on a short-term deal, when healthy, makes more sense for this roster rather than topping the five-year, $75 million commitment Andrew Benintendi secured from the White Sox earlier this month.

There is no question about the fit on the field between Brantley and the Astros. While his power numbers have steadily decreased in recent seasons, his contact-oriented style still fits well in this lineup. He continued generating his usual amount of barrels per plate appearance before his season-ending absence this year. While his defense is considered below average, he is adequate enough to split time in the field with Yordan Alvarez. A productive partnership continues for at least one more season.

If there is a question other than health about Brantley, it lies more within the lineup configuration than anything else. With an already strong top seven in this lineup, possibly eight depending on if Chas McCormick or Jake Meyers starts in center field, the potential gains by optimizing the offense further by moving certain hitters up or down the order are likely negligible at best. I’ve long wished the Astros would explore moving Kyle Tucker higher in the lineup, if only to maximize the number of his plate appearances.

But the likely debate, at least among fans, will center around whether Dusty Baker will hit Brantley second as he did before his injury in June or ride with Jeremy Peña as he did throughout September and the entire postseason. On the one hand, Brantley’s contact-oriented profile is likely a better fit hitting second than Peña’s approach based on their results so far. But Peña’s mechanical adjustment at the plate from September 10 onwards in 89 plate appearances led to much better results (.307 OBP, .512 SLG, 131 wRC+), especially on the heels of a particularly rough July and August (.247 OBP, 365 SLG, 70 wRC+).

If Peña’s adjustments continue to carry forward, then I can see an argument for him holding more weight. At this moment, however, I still think Brantley hitting second fits better within this lineup than Peña. For now, anyway.