When the Cleveland Guardians take the field next season, they are still going to be one of the youngest teams in baseball. There is hope that the team can rebound from a disappointing 2023 season and find a way back to the postseason in 2024. While a large part of that equation will come from a new manager, there is another aspect that will help their cause, an addition of a veteran presence into the locker room. There is a familiar face that would qualify as a veteran and someone who could fill a need in their lineup. Michael Brantley.
Brantley will be an unrestricted free agent after the expiration of his most recent deal with the Houston Astros. It was an injury-shortened campaign in Houston for Brantley, as he was limited to just 15 games in 2023. This was the second straight year in which he was sidelined due to injury (2022 saw Brantley appear in 64 games). Brantley's performance has dipped a little over the past two seasons, but slash lines of .288/.370/.416 and .278/.298/.426 are still pretty solid for the 36-year-old outfielder.
An addition of Brantley would allow for some flexibility in the outfield and designated hitter spot. On days that Cleveland does not opt to deploy one of Josh Naylor or Kyle Manzardo as their designated hitter, Brantley could slide into the DH spot to keep his bat in the lineup and get him off his feet. This would allow the Guardians to give some of their younger outfield options some run in the bigs before they are ready to take on full-time roles.
There are a couple of obstacles
The first obstacle is whether Brantley would want to leave Houston, a team that won the World Series last season and was one game away from returning for a third straight year, to come back to a Cleveland team that missed the postseason by a considerable margin. That's a tough sell. The Guardians have some work to do and are still a ways away from being competitive beyond a divisional level. An addition of Brantley would help them become closer, but it may not be enough to convince him to make a return to where he broke into the majors.
The other obstacle is salary-related. Brantley's most recent free-agent deal saw him make $12 million with the Astros in 2023. This is notably down from the average of $16 million he made over the previous four seasons in Houston. Perhaps this trend continues and comes a little bit closer to Cleveland's ideal range for a veteran outfielder who will turn 37 early next season. While this is not an ideal combo of age and financial commitments, Brantley's consistent track record is a much safer bet than last year's free-agent deals with Josh Bell and Mike Zunino.
Could Cleveland really use the services of their former outfielder, who once finished third in MVP voting during the 2014 season? Absolutely. But that does not mean that a reunion is likely or even on the table. It is not necessarily a guarantee that Brantley will continue to play after the conclusion of the 2023 season, as he said he was going to take his time in his decision-making process this offseason. Brantley has been limited to just 79 games the past two seasons, and at his age, his recent injury history could lead to him calling it a career. But if he is looking to continue playing, Cleveland would be wise to give him a call to see if he is willing to end his time in the majors where it began.