Once 'named later,' Brantley blossoming for Tribe
Outfielder was dealt on condition Brewers made playoffs in 2008
The Brewers' 2008 run to the National League Wild Card was an exasperating dash to the finish line.
Newly acquired ace CC Sabathia pitched three times on three days' rest, manager Ned Yost was canned when a 5 1/2-game lead going into September was squandered, and the battle with the Mets for the final postseason spot came down to the season's final hours.
When it was over, and the Brewers had edged the Mets by a single game, there were sighs of relief, pumped fists and high fives.
No, not just in Milwaukee, where the Brew Crew clinched its first October entry since 1982. But also, strange as it may seem, in Cleveland.
The Indians and Brewers, you see, had established a little-known, unconventional arrangement with regard to the trade that sent Sabathia to Milwaukee less than three months earlier.
Slugging first baseman Matt LaPorta was considered the Indians' key acquisition in that swap, but the Tribe had just as much interest in another Milwaukee prospect, a speedy outfielder named Michael Brantley. The Brewers, though, had been reluctant to include Brantley on the potential "player to be named later" list, finally agreeing to do so only on the condition that they reach the playoffs.
So basically, if the Brewers made it, the Indians would get Brantley. And if they didn't, the Brewers would instead send over a Minor League infielder named Taylor Green, a player the Indians, frankly, weren't all that excited about.
"You try not to place too much emphasis on any one decision or any one moment, especially with the things you can't control," said then-Indians GM and current team president Mark Shapiro. "But we certainly had a rooting interest in Milwaukee that year. When you make a trade, you want it to work. We have great respect for Doug Melvin and the Brewers organization, we were pulling for CC and, for us, we wanted another player."
Nearly six years later, the trade looks like this:
The Brewers were summarily bounced by the Phillies in the first round, Sabathia left in free agency, and a wrinkle in the rules left them with only a second-round Draft pick as compensation.
LaPorta was a bust. He was recently granted his release by a Mexican League team.
Green is 27 years old and has a .661 OPS in Triple-A.
And Brantley? Well, Brantley's a rising star.
A far bigger star than you'd generally expect a "player to be named later" to become.
On a Tribe club that has risen back into American League Central contention after an inauspicious start, Brantley has been the biggest offensive catalyst.
Certainly, Lonnie Chisenhall's breakout, which peaked with Monday's historic three-homer, nine-RBIs rattling of the Rangers, has provided a big boost, too. But Brantley, batting in the No. 3 hole, has generally been the straw that stirs the offensive drink. Among AL outfielders, his .307 average ranks fourth, his .373 on-base percentage ranks seventh, his 10 homers are tied for sixth and his 43 RBIs rank fourth. Brantley has been one of the hardest batters in the league to strike out, averaging just one per 10.72 plate appearances, and he's hit .340 with men on.
"His ceiling could move up a long way," teammate Jason Giambi said. "I could see mid- to upper-20s [home runs], and he's going to drive in 100, for sure. There might even be a year where he takes a run at a batting title, because his approach is so consistent and he takes his walks. It's very rare where he goes through a game without hitting a line drive or hitting a ball hard."
Quite a few fans have evidently taken note of Brantley's exploits this year, because his rank among AL outfielders in the All-Star voting has gone, just in the past two weeks, from a spot outside the top 15 to seventh in the update released Sunday evening.
One way or another, Brantley seems bound to represent Cleveland on the Midsummer Classic stage, because, if nothing else, Terry Francona will get in John Farrell's ear when the time comes for the manager selections.
"I probably need to talk more about him, because he's not going to brag about himself," Francona said. "He's one of the better players in the game. And it's not just hitter, it's baserunner, outfielder, teammate. He's gotten to that point now where I think you're going to start seeing national recognition."
Brantley is, indeed, understated, and, for the bulk of his career to this point, his performance followed suit. From his first full season in 2011 forward, he was a consistent offensive contributor capable of batting just about anywhere in the order, and the cool and collected way he carried himself on the big league stage earned him not only the bizarrely apropos "Dr. Smooth" moniker from a local sportswriter but also the four-year, $25 million extension the Indians bestowed upon him this spring.
Had Brantley, in his age-27 season, merely maintained the league-average adjusted OPS he had accrued over the course of his career, he would have been worth the investment. This season, though, he's fulfilled the Tribe's long-held suspicion that he had more power in that bat. Brantley has gone deep once every 24.1 at-bats after a previous career norm of once every 55.6.
"That comes down to being comfortable at this level and having a different mindset," Brantley said. "The game kind of dictates what you need to do, whether it's driving guys in or working the count. I've tried to be more aggressive this year at times, putting good swings on quality pitches, maybe earlier than I did in the past. The more you play, the more you understand the game, and you pick out your times."
Suffice it to say the Indians are glad they picked Brantley as the final piece of the CC swap, and, on a weird level, they remain indebted to their former ace for routinely taking the ball on short rest to help the Brew Crew reach the playoffs that year.
"We've made trades based on different end-of-season contingencies," said Shapiro, "but I don't remember one based on postseason explicitly like that."
Now, it's the Indians, just two games back of the Tigers in the AL Central, trying to make the playoffs for the second straight year, thanks in large measure to their former "player to be named" making quite a name for himself.