Prospect Profile: Michael Brantley
One of my favorite prospects for some time has been Michael Brantley, who is having a great major league trial for Cleveland. Let's review his history and his future.
Michael Brantley was drafted in the seventh round by the Brewers in 2005, out of high school in Port St. Lucie, Florida. The son of former major league outfielder Mickey Brantley, he hit .343/.426/.377 in his 54-game pro debut between the AZL Brewers and Helena in the Pioneer League. He also stole 16 bases in 21 attempts, and showed excellent strike zone judgment with 28 walks against 17 strikeouts in 207 at-bats. I noticed him because of his family background as much as his pro performance. Scouts rated his speed highly and he was obviously very patient. He didn't get into Baseball America's Top 30 Brewers prospects, but I liked him and put him in my 2006 book as a Grade C+.
Promoted to West Virginia in the Sally League in 2006, Brantley hit .300/.402/.339 with 24 steals in 31 attempts, 61 walks and 51 strikeouts in 360 at-bats. He still didn't rank on Baseball America's Top 30 Brewers prospects, but I liked him and gave him another Grade C+. I wrote "Normally I'm not a huge advocate of these pure speed guys, but for some reason I really like Michael Brantley." I noted that I liked his balance of skills and felt that he might develop enough power to be useful at higher levels. Scouts had some complaints about his defense not living up to his speed, but I was taken with his on-base skills.
Brantley began 2007 at West Virginia again, hitting .335/.413/.440 in 56 games. At that point he was promoted to Double-A, skipping the High-A level entirely. He struggled some at the higher level, hitting .251/.353/.294 in 59 games, maintaining a good walk rate but losing power, granted he was one of the youngest players in Double-A at age 20. He stole 36 bases in 45 attempts on the season. I gave him another Grade C+, noting that I continued to have a good intuitive feeling about him. Scouts panned his outfield defense, although according to Minor League Splits his glove was above average in left field. Baseball America finally noticed him, though he still ranked just 24th on the Brewers list.
Returning to Huntsville for 2008, Brantley hit .319/.395/.398 with 28 steals in 36 attempts, 50 walks, and a mere 27 strikeouts in 420 at-bats. He was traded to the Indians as the final piece of the C.C. Sabathia trade after the minor league season ended. Once again I gave him a Grade C+ in the 2009 book, continuing to profile him as a fourth outfielder with speed and on-base skills but probably not enough power to start. Scouts continued to complain about his outfield defense, due to below average arm strength and lack of instinct. Again, the numbers were actually above average according to Minor League Splits. Baseball America put him ninth on the 2009 Indians prospect list.
Brantley hit .267/.350/.361 with 46 steals in 51 attempts this year for Triple-A Columbus, with 59 walks and just 48 strikeouts in 457 at-bats. Although the batting average was lower than previous standards, he maintained his excellent BB/K ratio, and set career highs in home runs and doubles. He's hitting .364/.417/.386 in 11 major league games for the Tribe. The Indians whine less about his glove than the Brewers did, and he spent most of the year in center field for Columbus. The funny thing is that his defensive numbers were actually somewhat worse this year than in previous seasons, even though the scouting reviews were better.
At age 22, Brantley is still some years from his prime. He's not going to hit .347 over a full season, but I think he can hit .260-.280 with a solid-to-high OBP and plenty of speed. I love his low strikeout rate combined with the strong walk rate, and he uses his speed very effectively. Although I have no objective data to back this up, I still think he could develop more power than scouts currently expect. His dad had a touch of power, and perhaps Michael can develop some too.
Unsubstantiated Prediction: Michael Brantley will have an All-Star season in 2014 at the age of 27, hitting .345/.425/.470 with 55 steals, finishing second in the American League batting title race.