With incentive to return, Brantley a good fit for Astros

Progressing after surgery, veteran aims to contribute to repeat bid while filling club needs

December 21st, 2022

watched from the sidelines as his Astros teammates clinched the World Series title, having been down since late June with a right shoulder injury that eventually required season-ending surgery. But now, back on an incentives-heavy one-year deal, his hope is that Houston can run it back with him on the field.

Brantley was reintroduced by the Astros on Wednesday after agreeing to a $12 million deal for 2023 that includes $4 million in incentives.

He’ll earn $500,000 each for reaching 400 and 425 plate appearances and $750,000 each for 450, 475, 500 and 525, according to MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand. Clearing all those marks would amount to playing a mostly full season. He can also earn $75,000 each for making the All-Star team, winning a Gold Glove Award or Silver Slugger Award or ALCS MVP and $100,000 for World Series MVP.

“I'm feeling great,” Brantley told reporters. "Obviously I’ve been working hard all offseason to get back. But overall, I'm doing phenomenal. I’m really happy where I am physically.”

Brantley accumulated just 277 plate appearances over 64 games last year before suffering the latest significant injury in a career full of them. Before being shelved, he remained one of MLB’s best contact hitters, with a .288/.370/.416 (.786 OPS) slash line and a 125 OPS+ (league average is 100), although at 35 years old, his power diminished, with just five homers.

This was his second surgery on his right shoulder, having undergone a similar procedure in 2016 with Cleveland. The five-time All-Star also battled back and ankle issues earlier in his career, but he’d been mostly healthy over parts of four seasons in Houston, where he’s compiled a .306/.368/.464 (.832 OPS) slash line and 10.2 wins above replacement, per Baseball-Reference.

Asked how he feels compared to his previous shoulder surgery, Brantley said: “It’s too long ago, to be honest with you. You’re looking at almost six years ago, but at the same time, I just know how I feel right now. I'm excited and antsy to start swinging the bat and get back out there and [be with] my teammates. I'm really happy with where I am physically.”

Yet given the comfort and familiarity between Brantley and the Astros, particularly with owner Jim Crane, a reunion became an easy fit as the club sought a lefty-hitting corner outfielder. This is Brantley’s third contract with Houston, having signed a pair of two-year, $32 million deals prior.

“When you get to be a free agent, you actually have a chance to know where you're going to go,” Brantley said. “But I do have a great relationship with Jim. We're upfront and honest with each other the whole time, and I'm very appreciative of him allowing me to come back.”

Brantley won’t be able to swing until mid-January, but the Astros believe he’ll be ready when Spring Training begins one month later.

As for his role, the Astros would like to allocate more left-field playing time to Yordan Alvarez, which would shift Brantley into a more prominent DH role. There’d still be a split, but Alvarez is likely slated for more time with his glove. With Brantley back, Jake Meyers and Chas McCormick should split time in center.

“I'm a team player,” Brantley said. “The team comes first always. I just look forward to contributing in a positive way each and every day any chance that I get. So if that's what they want to do, I'm all for it. If he needs a day and I can go out there in left field, I'll be ready to do that as well.”

With Wednesday’s announcement, the Astros’ heavy lifting this offseason is likely done. The club added 2020 AL MVP José Abreu on a three-year, $58.5 million deal, which coupled with Brantley’s puts Houston at a $185.2 million payroll with a $202.7 million luxury tax figure, per Cot's Baseball Contracts, way under the $233 million threshold that would incur penalties. It’s possible they will look to add catching depth behind Martín Maldonado after falling short on signing Willson Contreras and seeing Jason Castro retire.

Either way, a championship lineup has made notable upgrades as the Astros look to repeat.

“We know what's at stake,” Brantley said, “and we look forward to doing it as a team, as a unit, and going back out there and getting back to the World Series and hopefully winning another title."