December 21: The Astros have officially announced the deal. Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle provides a breakdown of the incentives. Brantley will get $500K for reaching 400 and 425 plate appearances, then an extra $750K at 450, 475, 500 and 525 appearances.
December 18: The Astros have agreed to a one-year, $12MM deal with outfielder Michael Brantley, pending a physical. The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported the contract value, with The New York Post’s Jon Heyman (Twitter links) adding that the deal also contains $4MM in additional incentive bonuses. FanSided’s Robert Murray (Twitter link) initially reported that the two sides were in talks about a new deal. Brantley is represented by Excel Sports Management.
Brantley is entering his age-36 season, and 2023 will be his fifth year in a Houston uniform. He previously signed a pair of two-year, $32MM pacts with the team in his two past trips to free agency, and by coincidence, it was four years ago today that Brantley first agreed to join the Astros.
In terms of pure numbers, Brantley’s tenure in Houston has been very successful, with a 128 wRC+ and a .306/.368/.464 slash line and 40 homers over 1609 plate appearances. Unfortunately for Brantley, his role in the Astros’ 2022 championship season ended on June 26, due to a shoulder injury that eventually required surgery. Brantley played in only 64 games.
This isn’t the first time Brantley has dealt with a shoulder surgery, as he previously went under the knife to fix a small labrum tear in 2015 and subsequently played in only 11 games for Cleveland in the 2016 season. Beyond the shoulder problems, Brantley has also faced ankle and back problems throughout his career, but his first three seasons with the Astros were reasonably healthy. Quad, knee, and hamstring issues sent Brantley to the injured list three times in 2020-21, but all three IL stints combined for roughly a month of missed time.
The presence of Yordan Alvarez has probably kept the Astros from using Brantley as a DH as often as they would probably like, though on paper, manager Dusty Baker can alternate the two players between left field and DH in order to hopefully keep everyone fresh. With Brantley back in the mix, Jake Meyers and Chas McCormick will now be splitting time in center field.
The Astros were known to be looking for outfield help, preferably a left-handed bat (like Brantley) to balance out a lineup of mostly right-handed hitters. Michael Conforto and the switch-hitting Jurickson Profar were other free agents reportedly on Houston’s radar, and the Astros also had some talks with the Diamondbacks about their surplus of lefty-hitting outfielders, particularly Daulton Varsho. Among players who have already signed with other teams, Andrew Benintendi and Cody Bellinger also received some consideration from the World Series champions.
Among all these options, the Astros opted for a familiar face in Brantley, counting on a comeback year. The signing suggests that Houston (who knows Brantley’s medical profile better than anyone) is feeling good about the outfielder’s chances of both recovering well from shoulder rehab, and returning to his prior form at the plate. The $4MM in performance incentives gives Brantley an additional chance to cash in should he indeed stay healthy and keep up his usual levels of productivity.
While the injuries are naturally the biggest question mark hanging over Brantley, there is also the matter of what can be expected of any hitter as he gets deeper into his 30’s. Brantley’s homer totals and slugging percentage have both dropped rather sharply over the last two seasons, though he seemed to be adjusting by having a more keen eye at the plate. Albeit in the small sample size of 277 PA, Brantley’s 11.2% walk rate in 2022 was the highest of his 14-year Major League career. Brantley has also remained one of baseball’s toughest hitters to strike out, and his 45.1% hard-hit ball total last season was also his highest since Statcast began tracking the category in 2015.
Between Brantley and Jose Abreu, the Astros have bolstered their lineup with a pair of “professional hitter” types who brings plenty of experience to the table. Between Brantley’s $12MM deal and Abreu’s three-year, $58.5MM contract, Houston’s estimated payroll now sits at approximately $194MM, with a luxury tax figure of just over $209MM. That still leaves the Astros well under the $233MM luxury tax threshold, and some of that space could be used on a catcher, since Houston has explored the market for backstops. Some less-expensive options like Tucker Barnhart remain in free agency, or the Astros could look into trades with catcher-heavy teams like the Blue Jays.
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