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Minor league report: Watch out for Brantley

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MICHAEL BRANTLEY: NAMED LATER, PLAYING SOONER? Trading a player the caliber of CC Sabathia is risky business. The ace of the Cleveland Indians staff was not going to sign back with the Tribe when his contract expired at the end of 2008. The Indians just couldn't afford the big left-hander's asking price. Sabathia knew that a huge payday waited when the season ended. Several clubs including his home state Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (Sabathia is from the northern California area) and of course the New York Yankees would be suitors for his very capable services. The Indians opened their minds and listened to trade offers for the second half of the 2008 Championship season. Better to trade Sabathia than get a draft choice for him. The Indians did something similar in June of 2002 when they traded Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew to Montreal for Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips and Lee Stevens. That trade certainly worked out, didn't it? The Milwaukee Brewers realized they had a chance to win the National League Central division. Ben Sheets couldn't be counted upon to finish the season healthy. The Brewers needed pitching to catch the Cubs. The best pitcher available via trade? Sabathia. Trades are made because the matching parts work. The Brewers had the best match for Cleveland's needs. On July 7, 2008, the Cleveland Indians received Matt LaPorta, Zach Jackson, Rob Bryson and a player to be named for Mr. Sabathia. After taking their time to evaluate the Brewers minor league system, the Indians selected OF Michael Brantley as the player to be named. Brantley has a chance to be a very important part of the Indians of the future. It is likely the 2010 Cleveland Indians will look very different than the 2009 edition. LaPorta has a chance to become a starting outfielder, first baseman or designated hitter. Brantley has a chance to play in the outfield as well. He struggled initially this season for Triple-A Columbus, but he has really improved every month, especially in June. Brantley is a 22-year-old left-handed hitter from Ft. Pierce, Florida. The Brewers selected him with the 205th pick in the seventh round of the 2005 amateur draft. Brantley is 6-foot-2 tall and weighs only 180 pounds. He is fairly light and very quick on his feet. One of his prominent skills is his speed. That's an important component to the Indians, as team speed is currently lacking. The real attraction for Cleveland is Brantley's ability to put pitches on the opposing pitcher's arm by going deep in counts. Using a very selective approach, Brantley makes pitchers cease their nibbling around the plate and throw strikes. He is happy to take a base on balls and steal second. He is the prototypical leadoff hitter. He makes contact on pitches that are strikes, he doesn't waste at-bats and he covers the entire plate with a smooth, short stroke. He doesn't come to the plate looking to drive the ball as far as he can over the fence. Above and beyond anything, Brantley knows his strengths. He knows that he is supposed to get on base and score runs. To that end, one should not look to Brantley as a source of power. That really isn't his strength. He may mature into the ability to hit the gaps with line drives, but his swing plane and his upper body and approach at the plate dictate that he will be a scrappy, run producer at the top of the order. A real table setter. The Indians already have Grady Sizemore at the top of their order. Suffering an elbow injury and just now getting ready to return to the lineup, Sizemore hits home runs from the leadoff position and is an All-Star. How can Brantley hit leadoff if Sizemore is already there? Project ahead to the possibility that the Indians really want to shake up their approach in the coming years. They could move Brantley to left field ahead of Ben Francisco. With LaPorta and Brantley on the 25-man big league roster, there would be countless configurations and iterations. Mobility and flexibility will be the keys to the club. The roster could include Ryan Garko, Victor Martinez, and Matt LaPorta available to play first. LaPorta, Ben Francisco and Brantley could play left. Sizemore and Brantley could play center. Shin Soo Choo would likely remain in right field or move to left with LaPorta in right and Brantley and Francisco coming off the bench. Designated hitters? Choose from LaPorta, Martinez, Travis Hafner, Garko, Ben Francisco or Shin- Soo Choo. Take your pick. Mix and match. Of all those players, Ben Francisco is most at risk of losing his position on the major league roster. Brantley really makes it all possible because he can get on base as a leadoff hitter. That allows the Indians to drop Sizemore to the third spot in the order. The flexibility changes everything in Cleveland and makes the LaPorta, Brantley trade very, very important for the Tribe. Keeping Mark DeRosa as a No. 2 hitter in the lineup is important in the opinion of this observer. He makes things happen. So will Brantley. Stepping back, does Brantley have the tools to play regularly? The answer is probably not in most lineups. But he has the tools the Indians need. They are specifically tailored for a team needing to score runs, play good defense and put pressure on the pitcher. On many clubs, Brantley projects as a fourth outfielder. In fact, that's where he may end up. He'd be ideal coming off the bench late in the game. But speed can certainly be as lethal for nine innings as it is for one or two. If this observer had the opportunity to make the decision, Brantley would be in the lineup until he proved to be overmatched by major league pitching. Think Kenny Lofton. He wasn't a home run hitter, he was a table setter. Lofton got in trouble when he thought he was a home run hitter and he went to the plate looking to jack the ball out of the park. Wrong. Popup. Brantley might be more disciplined. Brantley is a good ballplayer. He will provide quality at-bat after quality at-bat. He has below average arm strength. He lacks home run power. He has speed, plays good defensive outfield and he will hit for a good batting average. Three out of five isn't bad. As the player to be named later, Brantley could certainly be a major cog for the Cleveland Indians for years to come. If things work out, Brantley will be playing sooner even though he may have been named later. EXTRA INNINGS Howie Kendrick - What happened? "The sweetest swing¿a future batting champion." What went wrong? Now he's the starting second baseman at Triple-A Salt Lake. Not to worry. Kendrick is too good of a hitter to languish in Triple-A. He'll be back. Don't give up on him. A player with his ability doesn't lose it all in one season. He got a little pull happy; his swing has slowed a bit and stopped taking pitches up the middle. He'll be fine. It might take a bit of time, but he'll be back. Fernando Martinez - The "can't miss" outfielder is back with the Mets to take the place of the disabled Carlos Beltran. Martinez has all the potential to be a good, every day center fielder. He has a tendency to become impatient and swing at pitches out of the strike zone-so pitch selection has to improve. His speed is average at best, although many people think of him as a base stealer. That really isn't his game. He can drive the ball if he gets his pitch and the question will be the same as it is for most young players called up to the big leagues-can he hit higher quality, major league pitching? Five Cleveland Indians Catchers - The Indians are a club with a surplus of catchers. What a luxury. Victor Martinez, Kelly Shoppach and Chris Gimenez are already on the big club. Carlos Santana (age 23), and Wyatt Toregas (age 26) provide organizational depth at a position that is hard to fill in professional baseball. Santana might be among the best catching prospects in baseball along with Matt Wieters and Buster Posey. Toregas has balanced hitting/receiving tools. He is a quality player that has a chance to be very successful, but probably as a back up catcher. Any of the five catchers can be used as trade pieces going forward if the Indians pitching continues to falter. In this space, this scout mentioned the potential of trading one of the Texas catchers to Boston. How about one of the Tribe's? Maybe a package with Michael Aubrey (1B) or Jordan Brown (1B) and one of the catchers for a Boston pitcher? Any pitcher. The Tribe can't be too picky. Bernie Pleskoff is a former pro scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. He is a "graduate" of the Major League Scouting Bureau's Scout School in Phoenix, Arizona. Prior to getting into baseball, Bernie served as Dean of Campus Life at Loyola University Chicago for 27 years. He is married and lives with his wife Lynn in Cave Creek, Arizona. He'll share his weekly thoughts on prospects with RotoWire from a scouting perspective.

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