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Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, and the Cleveland Indians’ Battle with Roster Efficiency

Over the weekend, the Cleveland Indians made a tough decision. They exercised Michael Brantley‘s $12 million dollar option for 2018, coming off a year where Brantley only played in 90 games, largely in part to an ankle injury that required surgery.

After breaking out in 2014 and 2015 as one of the American Leagues best players, the $12 million dollar option for 2018 seemed like a no-brainer. However, an injury to his shoulder (and two subsequent surgeries) led him to miss most of 2016. When he returned in 2017 (before injuring his ankle, also requiring surgery), he resembled something of a solid MLB regular.

Brantley’s offense was still above-average in 2017, but a decline in various areas kept him from being the elite run producer that he was in 2014 and 2015.

Brantley struck out a lot more, walked a little less, and hit for much less power in 2017 than he did when he was a bonafide All-Star. Further, Brantley’s defense, like always, received mixed reviews.  His UZR score was in the negatives, putting up a -5.2 UZR/150 in LF last season, but DRS pegged him at +2 runs, and Baseball Savant’s recent Outs Above Average metric had Brantley at two outs above average. We do know Brantley’s athleticism leaves something to be desired, as his 26.6 ft/second sprint speed ranked 48 out of 58 MLB left fielders in 2017.

Brantley’s 1.6 WAR in 90 games put him at a pace of 2.6 WAR over 150 games. The problem? Brantley didn’t play 150 games, and when he did play, he was solid, but unspectacular. The fact of the matter is, Brantley was one of Cleveland’s worse investments in 2017.

The table shows 13 of Cleveland’s regulars in 2017 – their nine offensive leaders in PA, and their two best starting and relief pitchers. Among them, Brantley’s season was the 4th-least efficient, by dollar per WAR.

As a small market club, Cleveland depends on efficiency in order to compete. The reason for their recent success can be attributed to the names at the top of that list, and the contracts to to which the Cleveland has signed them. Corey Kluber, Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and Carlos Carrasco have some of the most team-friendly contracts in the game. Even beyond those names, Cleveland has done a great job of beating the market rate when paying for WAR. In a piece for FanGraphs, Matt Swartz recently estimated that teams would have to pay an average of $10.5 million for one WAR entering the 2017 season. Only one Tribe regular, Jason Kipnis, failed to beat that mark in 2017.

However, the Indians are discovering the challenge of maintaining a strong roster with a relatively weak payroll. Year by year, players on the roster are paid more. As that occurs, their contracts become less efficient (unless their on-field performance also increases, but through aging curves, we know it generally doesn’t).

Entering 2017, the Indians fought the struggle of remaining efficient by raising their total payroll to $139 million, up from $114 million in 2016. This offseason, early signals from Chris Antonetti have indicated that the team won’t be able to make another payroll leap this offseason, despite Carlos Santana, Jay Bruce, Brian Shaw, and Joe Smith all facing free agency.

At some point, the small market reality of Cleveland was going to catch up to the Indians, and perhaps that point has come. But, Cleveland’s potential payroll predicament makes exercising Brantley’s $12 million dollar option for 2018 even more interesting. Essentially, Cleveland is doubling down a player who, relative to the rest of the team, wasn’t a very good return-on-investment.

Consider this: between Brantley’s $12 million and Jason Kipnis’ 13.5 million in 2018, Cleveland will have somewhere around 18% of their payroll committed to players who combined for 1.9 WAR in 2017. Perhaps one or both will rebound, but when the players are on the wrong side of 30, and have recently dealt with multiple injuries, rebounds become less likely. But, instead of running away from half of that potentially dangerous investment, Cleveland welcomed it.

Looking at Brantley specifically, there’s a chance his 2018 production will exceed his dollar per WAR market value. To be worth at least $12 million, Brantley would need to put up somewhere between 1 and 1.5 WAR. That certainly seems plausible: Steamer projects Brantey at 1.6 WAR in 113 games in 2018. But, what seems unlikely is that Brantley’s production creates much surplus value. To be a significant bargain for the Indians, he’d likely need to be healthy for most of the season – something he hasn’t done since 2015. Considering he’s had three surgeries since then, expecting a healthy season for Brantley seems naive. To boot, he’s 31, and fans have already witnessed a decline in Brantley’s peak form. Simply put, there isn’t much upside to Brantley’s option.

Like anything, the Brantley decision comes with an opportunity cost. For $12 million, the team knows they have a solid MLB player, with a decent chance of producing 1-2 WAR for the team. As a veteran and a hard worker, Brantley probably provides additional value that isn’t measurable. But, the question is, what did they give up? What would declining the option, and saving $11 million (after a $1 million buyout) have provided the Indians? What could they have done with the roster spot?

The possibilities are almost too numerous to even explore: someone like Yandy Diaz or Greg Allen could have gotten a full-time MLB opportunity, and provided 1.5-2.0 WAR for minimal salary. In that cirumstance, the $11 million could’ve helped retain Santana, Smith, Bruce or Shaw. Alternatively, Cleveland could have used roster spot and the money toward acquiring a better outfielder in a trade, like Marcell Ozuna. Maybe the extra $11 million could have been included in an effort to give Francisco Lindor a contract extension.

We don’t know how else that money could have been used, and maybe the Indians don’t either. But, as things stand now, picking up Brantley’s option  shrank Cleveland’s margin of error for efficiency, especially when pairing that deal with Kipnis’. By no means was exercising Brantley’s option a bad move, but it wasn’t necessarily the best move, either. And for that reason, it’s fair for fans to be wary.


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