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MLB's best contact hitter is a free agent

In turnaround '18, Brantley posted MLB's 2nd-lowest strikeout rate
MLB.com @DKramer_

There are only a handful of teams with the financial bandwidth to take on a megacontract that Bryce Harper is seeking. But there is a throng of clubs seeking both outfielders and offensive upgrades.  

Might the Majors' best contact hitter suffice? He is a free agent, after all. And he doesn't come with Draft pick compensation because he wasn't extended a qualifying offer. 

There are only a handful of teams with the financial bandwidth to take on a megacontract that Bryce Harper is seeking. But there is a throng of clubs seeking both outfielders and offensive upgrades.  

Might the Majors' best contact hitter suffice? He is a free agent, after all. And he doesn't come with Draft pick compensation because he wasn't extended a qualifying offer. 

That would be Michael Brantley, who has a well-chronicled injury history and stark platoon splits, and is a below-average defender entering his age-32 season -- all factors that could give clubs pause. But he showed turnaround after regaining full strength in '18, playing in 143 games, slashing.309/.364/.468 while helping Cleveland to its third straight American League Central title. 

The latest Brantley rumors

While Brantley wasn't the AL MVP Award finalist that he was in '14, he re-established many of the offensive tendencies that helped make him one. Here are a few of note: 

He makes contact more than anyone
Brantley has swung at nearly 7,000 pitches over his career and has made contact 91.2 percent of the time, which is the seventh-highest rate among 560 qualified hitters in that span, according to FanGraphs. None of the six in front of him took Major League at-bats in 2018. Brantley's 90.9 percent contact rate in '18 was MLB's highest. The MLB average contact rate since 2009, when Brantley debuted, has dropped marginally in each of the last seven seasons, but he's maintained his mark. 

"We're just in a different day and age now," Brantley told MLB.com's Jordan Bastian last season. "Computers and stuff are telling us different things. Everybody wants to talk about launch angle. It's just a different time. I don't know how to explain it -- the evolution. I just know what's been successful for me in the past and what's worked for me in the past, and I don't want to change."

He rarely misses in the zone
Of the 726 swings Brantley hacked at in the strike zone last year, only 35 missed his bat, according to Statcast™. That's a whiff rate of 4.8 percent -- by far the lowest among 294 qualified hitters. Brantley also posted a .372 batting average on in-zone pitches last year, which put him in the 94th percentile among 222 qualified hitters. 

Lowest whiff rate on in-zone pitches, 2018
Min. 350 in-zone swings (294 hitters)
1. Brantley: 4.8 percent
2. Isiah Kiner-Falefa: 5.9 percent
3. Jean Segura: 6.2 percent
4. Miguel Rojas: 6.6 percent
5-T. Jose Peraza: 6.7 percent
5-T. Joe Panik: 6.7 percent

Consider the lineup protection Brantley would offer his surrounding cast knowing that pitchers are forced to work the black or induce chases. Because if they're throwing Brantley strikes, there's only a marginal chance he's going to miss. 

He almost never strikes out
Given his elite contact and whiff rates, it should be no surprise that Brantley is hardly a punchout victim. As MLB has collectively set a strikeouts record in each of the last 11 seasons, Brantley has posted a career strikeout rate of 10.7 percent -- 21st-best among 560 qualified hitters in that span, per FanGraphs. His 9.5 percent strikeout rate in '18 was MLB's second-lowest

With this profile in mind, who could use Brantley? 

Braves
The fit here is obvious. Atlanta's outfield has a void with Nick Markakis now a free agent, and Brantley offers an uncannily similar profile to the player the Braves are losing. And Brantley possesses better on-base skills, has more power and is four years younger, making him the same age that Markakis was when he signed with Atlanta to help bridge its rebuild. 

How about hitting Brantley leadoff? That could allow the Braves to move Ronald Acuna Jr. to the two- or three-hole and exploit his bat in a run-producing role. Signing Brantley could also position the Braves to trade center fielder Ender Inciarte for starting pitching. 

Video: Bowman on Braves' interest in outfielder Brantley

Rockies
Despite big-name stars like Nolan Arenado and its hitter-friendly home environment, Colorado's offense was one of the Majors' worst last season. The Rockies have outfield holes with the free-agent departures of Carlos Gonzalez and Gerardo Parra, and they're looking for at least one (if not two) run-producing bats. 

Brantley's all-field ability and pull power would be highly conducive at cavernous Coors Field, though his defense could be suspect in its spacious gaps. Brantley posted a minus-3 Defensive Runs Saved and minus-4 Outs Above Average in '18.

Cubs
Like Colorado, the Cubs are looking to inject life into what became an anemic offense down the stretch, though they are believed to be working under payroll constraints, which could take them out of the market for Harper or Manny Machado. Brantley checks a lot of boxes for what Chicago needs. 

Despite his defensive limitations, Brantley would be an upgrade in left field from Kyle Schwarber, and he would give the Cubs a true leadoff hitter that they've been missing since Dexter Fowler left after the '16 season. Signing Brantley could also allow the Cubs to package Schwarber in a trade, perhaps to help bolster their bullpen. 

Phillies
The Phils have already made Brantley a contract offer, according to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, as part of what figures to be an aggressive offseason. They're also among a small handful of favorites to sign Harper, which would limit their need in a corner outfield spot, but if they don't -- and perhaps if they instead sign Machado -- then Brantley would be a logical fit. 

The Phillies took a big step forward in '18, but with an offense that posted 91 wRC+, a park-neutral metric where league average is 100, and their .314 on-base percentage ranked 18th. Assuming Rhys Hoskins remains in left field, the Phils are projected to get just 0.7 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in right, per FanGraphs, the fifth-lowest at the position. Inserting Brantley in either corner and at or near the top of the lineup would also create more production opportunities for sluggers such as Hoskins, Odubel Herrera, or -- potentially -- Harper and/or Machado. 

White Sox
Coming off a 100-loss season in which they'd hoped to at least move the needle, the South Siders are believed to be in the market to spend this offseason to accelerate their rebuild, which is now working on three full seasons. They have been linked to Harper and Machado, but signing one, the other or both could be a stretch.

Center fielder Adam Engel has been a defensive gem but has offensive limitations. Left fielder Nicky Delmonico is coming off an injury-shortened season, and when healthy, he struggled to a .215/.296/373 line. Outside of a breakout '17, right fielder Avisail Garcia hasn't compiled a full season of league-average production. For one of the Majors' youngest lineups, Brantley would offer a veteran presence and an acumen of the AL Central. 

Daniel Kramer is a reporter for MLB.com based in Denver. Follow him on Twitter at @DKramer_.

Michael Brantley