In a little over a week from now, the baseball hot stove season will be upon us, three days after the World Series ends.
Although we were hopeful at the end of the regular season that the Indians would be involved in the Fall Classic for the second straight year, the reality of the post-season for the national pastime creeped in and Terry Francona’s team was eliminated in the Division Series.
The biggest decision the front office has to deal with immediately is whether or not to pick up the club option on Michael Brantley, and how that decision affects the future of Carlos Santana and Jay Bruce with the Tribe.
Although Brantley has been with the Indians since 2009, he is actually the youngest of the trio as he will not turn 31 until May 15th next year.
Brantley is a professional hitter. He makes contact and gets on base on a regular basis, a career .349 on base percentage. He is also consistent, hitting at least .285 for the last five years.
But he has the least pop of the three, a career .423 slugging percentage, and unfortunately has played only 101 games over the last two seasons. And he had surgery on his ankle since the end of the year, and may not be available for five months.
His defense has declined in leftfield over the past couple of years, and with another leg issue, that seems unlikely to be reversed, so he may have to be a 1B or DH going forward, something we predicted a few years ago.
And the latter spot isn’t really an option with Cleveland, with Edwin Encarnacion on the roster.
If Brantley has to be moved, it would seem to force Santana out, and he is probably the best player of the three.
The switch-hitter has a lifetime .363 on base percentage and a higher slugging percentage than Brantley. He’s also made himself into an excellent first baseman defensively.
He is the oldest of the three, turning 32 early next season. He’s also a free agent, and if another team offered more than three years, the Tribe front office might be inclined to pass.
Bruce, who came over in August and made an immediate impact, is probably the least consistent, and is also a free agent this winter.
His 832 OPS in 2017 was his highest since 2012, and the third highest of his career.
We can’t forget he had back-to-back seasons in ’14 and ’15 where he hit .217 and .226 in hitter friendly Great American Ball Park.
Complicating the decision is what does the future hold for Jason Kipnis, who seems to be viewed as an outfielder now by the Tribe brass.
Our guess is the team will pick up Brantley’s option because of his tenure with the organization, although we would pass because of the uncertainty that he can play the outfield going forward.
Santana would be the priority because of his impact on offense and defense, and that he’s a switch-hitter.
He’s happy here and might sign a more club friendly deal to remain an Indian too.
Our second choice would be Bruce because he can still be a serviceable outfielder and he has revitalized his career by making a swing adjustment to hit the ball in the air more.
The Indians have spent more in recent years, but they aren’t a big market team, meaning they still have to be smart about who they spend big money on. They can’t have a lot of cash tied up in a player who isn’t available.
That’s why we would pass on Brantley. The organization probably won’t because that’s how they operate.
Still, it’s the biggest decision of the off-season.