After the Brewers got a combined 80 wRC+ out of their corner infielders in 2020, which ranked 28th out of 30 teams, first and third basemen are undoubtedly at the top of the priority list for President of Baseball Operations David Stearns and newly-minted General Manager Matt Arnold. However, this past season also demonstrated that it wouldn’t hurt to search for some outfield help as well. Lorenzo Cain struggled through an injury-marred 2019 season, and he opted out of the 2020 campaign after playing in just five games. The former Gold Glove winner will be 35 next season. Ben Gamel, who was thrust into regular playing time after Cain’s departure, is a non-tender candidate after posting an unimpressive 87 wRC+ over his last two seasons in Milwaukee. Avisail Garcia is a solid bet to bounce back after an underwhelming 2020, but having a safety net would be nice.
Former Dodgers slugger Joc Pederson is an option. His left-handed power stroke would be a natural fit at American Family Field. Hunter Renfroe was recently released by the Tampa Bay Rays after a tough season and could be a solid buy-low addition. Yasiel Puig is seeking to return to the Majors next year.
If the Brewers wanted to go another route, Michael Brantley is also available on the free agent market. The veteran left fielder will turn 34 next May, but his bat hasn’t shown many signs of slowing down. He just wrapped up a two-year stint with the Houston Astros that saw him put up a highly productive slash line of .309/.370/.497 (134 wRC+). Prior to that, the former Brewers draft pick spent the first ten seasons of his MLB career with the Cleveland Indians after being dealt in the memorable 2008 C.C. Sabathia trade. Brantley owns a career .297/.354/.440 slash. He truly broke out in 2014, when he finished with an excellent 151 wRC+ and hit 20 home runs in a season for the first time. Since the beginning of that season, Brantley has produced a .311/.371/.481 line and a 131 wRC+, making him a top-30 hitter in the game in that span.
Brantley’s most desirable attribute is his approach at the plate. In an era where more and more players embrace a “three true outcomes” style of hitting, Brantley is swimming against the current. He hit 22 home runs as recently as 2019, but he is not a fearsome home run threat. He doesn’t draw many walks; his career 7.9% walk rate is similar to the rate at which Orlando Arcia has drawn free passes over the past two seasons. Rather, Brantley’s sustained success at the plate is driven by his ability to consistently put the ball in play. For his career, Brantley has punched out in just 10.8% of his plate appearances and swung and missed at only 3.7% of pitches he has seen. Since 2014, he has the fifth-lowest strikeout rate, the fourth-lowest swinging strike rate, and the third-highest contact rate in the game. It’s incredibly difficult to get a pitch in the zone past Brantley, who makes contact over 95% when he swings at such offerings. His bat speed may be starting to slow down as he ages, but his 15% strikeout rate in 2020 was still notably lower than the league average.
The contact-heavy approach and a career .315 BABIP have enabled Brantley to post high batting averages and on-base percentages year in and year out. He consistently puts the bat on the ball and, to make use of the old cliché, hits ‘em where they ain’t. The Brewers would benefit from adding such a hitter to their lineup after finishing the 2020 season with the third-worst strikeout rate in the league. He also has a career .319 batting average and .391 on-base percentage with runners in scoring position, another area in which the Brewers have struggled.
He may not post overly impressive home run totals, but Brantley is a doubles machine. The former All-Star has averaged 39 doubles per 162 games. He has exceeded 30 doubles five times, including three seasons of 40 or more. His most recent 40-double season was 2019, and this past summer he hit 15 of them in 46 games. Brantley has a contact-oriented approach, but he is much more than just a slap hitter.
While he has generally remained healthy over his last three seasons, the veteran will be 34 years old next season. It wouldn’t be difficult for Craig Counsell to effectively rotate Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, Avisail Garcia, and Brantley through three outfield spots in a manner that gives each ample playing time and keeps them healthy. Inevitable minor injuries over a long season help sort these things out as well. Brantley also expressed a willingness to play some first base the last time he was a free agent, and giving him some reps at the position would further reduce the likelihood of a true log jam in Milwaukee’s outfield.
There are two complications that make it unlikely that Brantley will return to the organization that drafted him. First of all, it potentially leaves the Brewers without a true backup center fielder. Their best option to man the position when Cain is not playing would be Avisail Garcia, who shifted up the middle after Cain opted out last season. In 650 career innings in center field, Garcia has already been worth -9 runs according to Defensive Runs Saved. However, the Brewers may be comfortable using him there in a pinch. Tyrone Taylor also has one option year remaining, so the Brewers could shuttle him back-and-forth between Triple-A and the big-league team based on Cain’s availability.
The biggest complication is the same one that stands between the Brewers and any quality free agent: money. MLB Trade Rumors projects Brantley to receive a two-year, $28 million deal. The Brewers are projected to further slash their payroll to roughly $85 million or less, so adding any free agents at an annual value above $10 million seems unlikely.
The chances of Michael Brantley coming to Milwaukee this offseason are low, but the odds are not as remote as those of adding a higher-tier free agent like DJ LeMahieu or Marcell Ozuna. Brantley would improve the team’s outfield depth, and he brings a different approach that would benefit the their lineup. At the very least, David Stearns and Matt Arnold should be keeping tabs on him.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.