Inbox: Strategy behind Brantley over Bruce?

Beat reporter Jordan Bastian fields questions from Indians fans

January 15th, 2018

The first thing to consider here is the timeline of the transactions. The Indians had to make a decision on 's team option on Nov. 3, and chose to keep him in the fold for $12 million. When the Indians made that call, they knew was intent on testing the free-agent waters and hoping for a big payday.

Now, we have the benefit of hindsight. In what has been an extremely slow-developing market for free agents, and especially free-agent outfielders, Bruce reportedly agreed to a three-year, $39-million contract with the Mets last week. All the second-guessers can now weigh Brantley vs. Bruce and wonder if Cleveland made the wrong choice so early in the process.

Submit a question to the Indians Inbox

Brantley and Bruce are two different styles of hitters -- Bruce brings more power and Brantley offers more consistency and a higher contact rate -- but they potentially offer roughly the same value. Consider this: Bruce averaged 0.184 WAR per game in 2017 and Brantley averaged 0.178. Overall, Bruce had a 118 weighted Runs Created Plus (indicating he was 18 percent better than MLB's average) in 146 games, while Brantley posted a 111 wRC+ in 90 games.

Sample-size alert, but Bruce had an .808 OPS with a 108 OPS+ in 169 plate appearances after being traded to Cleveland. Brantley had an .801 OPS and a 108 OPS+ in 375 plate appearances in 2017. So, yes, Bruce hit 36 homers and had a higher slugging percentage, but they rated as relatively similar hitters. They just got there in different fashions.

It's also worth noting that the Indians avoided a long-term commitment in this decision. Bruce is a slugger whose new contract covers his age 31-33 seasons. There's risk there. Brantley's last two-plus years of injury woes make him a risk, too. But, Cleveland is only obligated to roll the dice for one more season before Brantley becomes a free agent.

Next year, the Indians might have , , , Zach McAllister and Josh Tomlin hit the free-agent market. The shorter-term decision (Brantley) may mean Cleveland is trying to keep its 2019 finances a bit more open in order to plan for the coming roster holes.

Duriing the Winter Meetings, Indians manager Terry Francona was asked if was being viewed as a starter or reliever for this year. Without hesitation, Francona said Salazar was a starter. So, based on that, you can pencil Salazar's name into the projected Opening Day rotation. That said, if Salazar is being dangled as trade bait, it's in the Tribe's interest to continue to refer to him as a starter.

If there is no trade, the Indians will have an interesting rotation situation to follow this spring. You never know what setbacks or injuries might happen during Spring Training, so going in with Salazar, Mike Clevinger and Tomlin as options for the fourth and fifth spots gives the Indians a solid foundation. But, if all are healthy at the end of camp, how will Cleveland make the pieces fit?

Clevinger has one Minor League option left, so there's a chance he could open with Triple-A Columbus and stay there until a need arises in the big league rotation. Or, one spot could open for Salazar, Clevinger or Tomlin to start in the bullpen, where each has experience, to keep them all in the Major Leagues. The Indians also have to keep in mind that there is a lack of Major League rotation experience behind the top six arms.

As the other teams have gone out and made moves to significantly upgrade their squads, the Indians have been eerily quiet. I understand not giving the type of money he got from the Phillies, but I have an issue with not matching or exceeding the offer that Bruce got from the Mets. It feels like the Indians have regressed. What are your thoughts?

--Dan B., Uniontown, Ohio

Given the landscape of the American League Central, the Indians arguably have the best path back to the postseason in 2018. They are also returning with a historically great pitching staff nearly entirely intact. I don't think the roster as it stands today is as strong as it was when the '17 season ended. That kind of goes without saying, but I don't see a team that needs to be in panic mode when it comes to spending in the free-agent market. Cleveland remains in a good position and based on recent years (acquiring Miller and in '16 and trading for Bruce and Joe Smith in '17), I think it's likely that Cleveland tries to address some of its needs midseason.

The Indians have maintained all offseason that they have interest in a reunion with Jackson, but that might be unlikely after the team signed Melvin Upton Jr. to a Minor League contract with a non-roster invite to Spring Training. The Indians like Upton's potential against left-handed pitching and the fact that he can play all three outfield spots. He'd earn $1.5 million if he made the Major League roster. Essentially, it's the same type of role and deal that Jackson had with Cleveland one year ago. At the moment, adding relief depth looks like a bigger priority for the Tribe.

Chris Antonetti, the Indians' president of baseball operations, said during the Winter Meetings that the team will not rush Anderson back to the mound. The typical timeline for return for a starting pitcher who undergoes Tommy John surgery is 12-18 months, and Anderson will be coming up on one year on March 27. A midseason comeback is probably most realistic.