HOUSTON -- With more than three months remaining until Opening Day, picking a spot where Michael Brantley will hit in the Astros' lineup isn't something manager AJ Hinch has to commit to right away.Only two things matter to the Astros at this point: They were able to sign one of
HOUSTON -- With more than three months remaining until Opening Day, picking a spot where Michael Brantley will hit in the Astros' lineup isn't something manager AJ Hinch has to commit to right away.
Only two things matter to the Astros at this point: They were able to sign one of their biggest offseason targets, and Brantley, one of the premier left-handed hitters in baseball, is going to slot in nicely somewhere in the top half of a Houston lineup that was already packed with some of baseball's best young hitters.
Brantley, who spent the first 10 years of his career with the Cleveland Indians, signed a two-year contract with the Astros worth a reported $32 million. According to MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal, Brantley will earn $15 million each season and received a signing bonus worth $2 million.
"I'm just very appreciative to be here, first and foremost," Brantley said at an introductory press conference on Wednesday at Minute Maid Park. "I'm coming to a great team with a lot of great players and a great coaching staff. One of the main goals of the offseason was to get somewhere where I was comfortable. We're going to have some fun this year. I'm excited."
Brantley, who will play left field, enjoyed a bounce-back season in 2018 after injuries limited him to 101 games the prior two seasons combined. He slashed .309/.364/.468 with 17 homers and 76 RBIs over 143 games in '18, making 134 starts in left field while serving as the Tribe's DH seven times.
General manager and president of baseball operations Jeff Luhnow said he targeted Brantley early in the offseason, and while he is still examining obtaining more offensive help and is keeping a close eye on the pitching market, signing Brantley was one of his highest priorities.
"I think he brings a complement to the team we have and adds to a lineup that's going to be one of the best and deepest lineups in baseball next year," Luhnow said. "It gives us a good chance to repeat as division champions and hopefully do some damage in the postseason."
It's difficult to envision a hitter who wouldn't fit in with the Astros' potent lineup, which already employs All-Stars Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, George Springer and Carlos Correa, but Brantley's style could mesh especially well.
The Astros collectively had the second-lowest strikeout rate in 2018, and they just strengthened that area of their arsenal. According to Statcast™, Brantley swung at 1,008 pitches and missed only 111 times last season. His 11 percent whiff rate was the third lowest in the Majors, mere steps ahead of Bregman, whose 12.9 strikeout rate was seventh lowest.
Brantley was also one of the game's better fastball hitters last season, hitting .308 while slugging .473. Of the 1,388 fastballs he saw in 2018, he struck out on them just 18 times.
"We don't go after players just because they have a particular attribute -- we go after the whole player," Luhnow said. "This is a player that we know is going to be able to play the outfield, we know he's going to be a leader in the clubhouse. The left-handed bat definitely helps balance out the lineup a little bit."
Hinch, who got to know Brantley when he managed the American League All-Stars in July, remembers Brantley giving the Astros fits as an opponent, surmising the pitchers may be the happiest that Brantley is on their side now.
"We would shift him, he'd hit against the shift," Hinch said. "We'd unshift him, he'd pull it in the hole. He's obviously what they call a professional hitter for a reason."
Brantley will have to show that he's beyond the injury issues that plagued him for two seasons. He missed most of the Indians' pennant-winning season in 2016, playing in just 11 games because of right shoulder surgery the prior offseason. He missed 72 games in '17, following right ankle surgery.
"Once you miss a few years like I did through injuries, all you want to do is get back with your teammates," Brantley said. "I love this game so much; this game has been great to me and my family. I've always been appreciative of it, but missing out and the fun of being around the guys and traveling and competing every day is what you miss the most. Last year I enjoyed being with my teammates again and getting back into action. I'll miss the guys there [in Cleveland], but I'm looking forward to this new journey."
Brantley's signing is the Astros' first big splash of the offseason, and it's likely they're not finished shaping the 2019 roster. The club would like to add a starting pitcher to complement co-aces Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, and multiple media reports are still linking Nelson Cruz as a possible DH target.
Earlier in the offseason, the Astros traded for utility man Aledmys Diaz and signed catcher Robinson Chirinos to a one-year contract.
"The guys upstairs [in the front office] are thinking about what's next," Luhnow said. "Our fans certainly are thinking about what's next. We've had conversations about additional offensive players, also conversations about pitchers. Those are going to continue."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.