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Initial returns on the Anibal Sanchez / Omar Infante trade are looking good for the Marlins, mainly due to the stellar play of rookie catcher Rob Brantly. Does Brantly have what it takes to be the long-term answer in Miami?
This season hasn't gone nearly as well as expected for the newly-christened Miami Marlins. The acquisitions of Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell didn't quite lead to the NL East domination that was expected by management. Though Reyes and Buehrle have performed well (the less said about Heath Bell, the better), the team suffered badly enough to deal Edward Mujica, Anibal Sanchez, Omar Infante and, oh yeah, stalwart Marlin Hanley Ramirez before the trading deadline.
Instead of playing to win now, the Marlins are back to building for the future. And while it's tough to gauge the results of any trade after just a few short months, one deal in particular is already starting to pay short-term dividends. When the Marlins traded Sanchez and Infante to the Tigers, they received three prospects in return: top-flight starter prospect Jacob Turner, live arm Brian Flynn, and Double-A catching prospect Rob Brantly. Like Turner, Brantly found himself fast-tracked to Miami after the deal, but unlike Turner, Brantly is already showing better-than-average performance at the major-league level.
Let's go back in time to the start of the season for a bit. Prior to 2012, Brantly was ranked as the Tigers' No. 7 prospect by Baseball America. Given the state of the Tigers' farm system, that's not fantastic. He was listed as the No. 10 prospect in Detroit's system by Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus (and given two stars), and marked as No. 6 by prospect maven Marc Hulet at FanGraphs. John Sickels of Minor League Ball declined to put Brantly on his Top 20 list of Tigers prospects at all.
This isn't ridiculous. Before this season started, Brantly had never played above Single-A. Though he profiled as an offensive catcher, he doesn't have top-end power, didn't post a high walk rate or OBP in the minors and needed quite a bit of polish as a receiver. But the tools were there. Here's a quote from Marc Hulet's writeup of the top 15 Tigers prospects at FanGraphs, where he was a bit more bullish on Brantly than some other prospect hunters:
Brantly has good gap power and could eventually reach double-digit home run totals. He doesn’t strike out a ton but he also doesn’t walk much and is too aggressive for his own good. He moves around well behind the plate and does a nice job of controlling the running game but he’s raw in the finer aspects of the position. Brantly should return to high-A ball in 2012.
So after an uninspiring stint at High-A in 2011, the Tigers started Brantly off at Double-A for 2012. Brantly did fairly well there, and he basically did exactly what Marc thought he would do at the plate: he didn't strike out or walk much, nor hit for a lot of power. But he hit for a lot of average, and his overall offensive contributions were about 22% above the league average according to the stat wRC+. The Tigers bumped him up to Triple-A, and his hitting stalled out as his K% rose considerably before the deal to Miami. In a short stint with the New Orleans Zephyrs, Brantly stopped walking entirely, but made more than enough contact to offset this gap. By August 14, he was starting for the Marlins.
Since his callup, Brantly has shone. But strangely, he's started to walk at a much higher rate than he has at any other level of baseball. A walk rate of 14%, combined with good contact and great luck on balls in play (his batting average on balls in play is .369, which is higher than league-average), has led Brantly to post a .419 OBP so far in the bigs. That's phenomenal. The walk rate is probably driven by his usual spot in the order (eighth, right before the pitcher), and he's got a couple of intentional walks to his credit. But if he can continue to hit for contact, and maintain a decent walk rate, he could prove to be an above-average contributor with the bat on a regular basis.
All this having been said, Brantly only has 93 plate appearances to his name. That's a small sample size, no matter how you slice it. So before Brantly is anointed as a permanent fixture behind the dish, he'll have to prove that he can keep up a level of production worthy of the position. Since he's a catcher, he doesn't have to hit like Giancarlo Stanton to be valuable. But he'll also have to prove that his on-base abilities are not a fluke. Since he's lacking in power, and is still a work-in-progress as a receiver (he's shown an ok arm so far, nailing 3-of-16 baserunners), he'll have to be really, really good at getting on base to become a regular. I'd actually consider former Ray, and current Mariner, John Jaso as a best-case comparable to Brantly.
Word on the street is that the Marlins payroll will shrink down to the $70-$80 million range for 2013, which is kind of a stark change from the $95 million payroll they went to war with in 2012. Considering that the team's already committed to about $67.5 million dollars for next season, that means that the Fish may choose a few moves in the offseason to cut costs, especially if they want to bring in hole-pluggers for third base, second base, and the outfield.
Given John Buck's $6 million price tag, it's not a stretch to figure that the Marlins may choose to move Buck, in favor of Brantly for 2013. Since Brantly is a left-handed hitter, he's likely to get the bulk of the playing time in any platoon situation, given that there are more right-handed starting pitchers than left-handed ones. If Buck would only be used in a third of games, $6 million dollars would be quite the outlay for a part-time player, and the Marlins could go out and get a cheaper option to play in that limited time.
In the end, less than 100 plate appearances isn't enough to make a firm judgement on anyone's statistics or performance. But first impressions count, too. Brantly has made the most of his short time with the Fish, and if he can keep up anything close to this level of performance, he'll be a regular at Marlins Park for years to come.