GOODYEAR, Ariz. — To many Indians fans, Michael Brantley is a quiet, nondescript guy who has nothing that sets him apart except a nickname given to him by a sportswriter.
But don’t voice that opinion in front of teammates Jason Giambi or Nick Swisher.
Giambi, 43, who has more than 18 years of major league service, called Brantley, a 26-year-old left fielder, “kind of our savior” in 2013 and believes he’s about to become one of baseball’s complete players.
After Brantley signed a four-year, $25 million contract extension last month, Giambi offered his unsolicited opinion to general manager Chris Antonetti.
“I told Chris, ‘I think he’s going to be the greatest sign ever because the (upside) to Michael Brantley is unbelievable,’” Giambi said.
Swisher, 33, who has been in the majors for more than nine years, feels the same way, even if the Indians pick up the club option for a fifth year in Brantley’s contract worth $11 million.
“You look at the contracts that have just gone out of late, he was a bargain,” Swisher said.
Acquired in the October 2008 trade with the Milwaukee Brewers for CC Sabathia, Brantley was the Indians’ best hitter in the final 26 games, batting .343 as the team won 10 in a row to finish last season and earn a spot in the American League wild-card game. Brantley led the Tribe in hitting with runners in scoring position, his .375 average ranking third in the AL. Batting in every spot in the order except No. 9, he hit .284 (seven points higher than his career average) with 10 home runs and a career-high 73 RBIs. Eighteen of those RBIs drove in the go-ahead run, five of them the tying run and 33 came with two outs.
Brantley also started 144 games in left field and played in 151 without committing an error. Going into 2014, he carries a franchise-record 245-game errorless streak, which broke Rocky Colavito’s record of 212 games.
When Brantley’s name was brought up earlier this month, Giambi practically gushed, and he’s known him for only one season.
“He brings so much to the table because he can steal a base, he plays great defense. When he starts to learn, he’s starting to get into his prime now, he’s going to hit a few more homers, he’s going to be the complete player,” Giambi said.
“There’s no doubt it’s there. I watch him in BP. Now it’s taking it from BP to the game and upping that risk factor. He’s so good at hitting a line drive to left field, he’s so good hitting the ball the other way. Next it’s learning how to pick out that 2-0 pitch, ‘Oh, we’re down by a run, let me take a chance right here and hit a home run to give us the lead or extend our lead.’ He’s so good, when he finally gets over that ‘I can’t do that’ — his hand-eye coordination, his at-bats are so great, I think he’s going to be the complete player.”
Swisher also sees that upside.
“He’s only getting better,” Swisher said. “He’s a very serious guy, makes sure he gets his work in. A guy his age, the way he goes about his business every single day, it’s so pro from the time he gets here until the time he leaves. For us, he’s one of the most appreciated guys in our lineup. He can hit anywhere. We know what he’s capable of.”
Last season, Giambi pointed out that while All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis hit only .200 in March/April and .250 in August and when free agent signees Michael Bourn and Swisher struggled, Brantley consistently came through.
“He was the guy who kept going out there driving in big runs night after night,” Giambi said. “In my opinion, he was kind of our savior.”
Brantley certainly appreciates such feelings from his teammates. But if he continues to be one of the lesser-known players in Northeast Ohio, or in all of baseball for that matter, it won’t bother him.
“Not at all,” he said. “My goal, like everybody else in this locker room, is to win baseball games. I’m blessed to put on a major league uniform every day and I just go out there and do the best I can. All I care about is my teammates and the family we’ve built here.”
Brantley might not care about outside accolades, but his father Mickey might have dreamed of what his son might become. Mickey Brantley played outfield for the Seattle Mariners from 1986-89 and was a member of the Toronto Blue Jays coaching staff from 2005-07.
Ever since Michael was little, Mickey Brantley has called him “Champ.”
Asked where that came from, Brantley said, “I couldn’t tell you. That’s what he still calls me now and that’s how I answer.”
Asked if perhaps his father had plans for him to follow in his footsteps, Brantley said, “I hope so. He’s one of the reasons I’m here today. Without him, I don’t know where I’d be.”
If Brantley ever gets to see his likeness on billboards, even if they’re only paid for by the Indians, it might have “Dr. Smooth” attached. That’s the nickname Plain Dealer sportswriter Dennis Manoloff gave him.
“I think that is catching on,” Brantley said. “Last year in Yankee Stadium when the left-field bleachers are screaming at me ‘Dr. Smooth’ and some other things behind it, they know the nickname.
“It was the first time everybody yelled ‘Dr. Smooth’ at me away from Cleveland. I thought that was kind of interesting, kind of funny at the same time. Sometimes you think it’s boos if you don’t know what they’re saying. They’re saying ‘smooth.’ I enjoy it very much and I embraced it.”
Indians manager Terry Francona doesn’t really care for nicknames. But he cares greatly about Brantley.
“I don’t know who’s under-appreciating him,” Francona said. “We love him. We just signed him. He’s very appreciated. I think everybody thinks the world of this kid.”