Brantley makes dynastic Astros that much stronger
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No team has won more games over the last two seasons than the Houston Astros, whose outsized success since burning it all down - they've made the playoffs in three of the past four years, earning two division titles and the first World Series title in franchise history - has no doubt contributed to the tanking epidemic plaguing Major League Baseball.

Despite getting waxed by the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, the 2018 Astros were arguably the best team in the majors, leading the league in run differential (plus-263) and playing at a 109-win pace. After adding Gerrit Cole (and with Justin Verlander on the roster from the get-go), they were better than they had been in 2017, when they hoisted the Commissioner's Trophy.

And though free agency will dilute that roster a bit - Charlie Morton and Brian McCann have already found new homes, and Dallas Keuchel will shortly - the Astros entered the offseason expected to waltz to a third successive American League West title, with the fixtures of their burgeoning dynasty, from Alex Bregman to Jose Altuve to George Springer to Carlos Correa, still very much in their primes.

Well, the rich reportedly got richer Monday. The Astros agreed to a two-year deal with veteran outfielder Michael Brantley, a three-time All-Star who will help ensure that Houston's perpetually elite offense remains so for the foreseeable future. Having enjoyed a triumphant return to form with the Cleveland Indians in 2018 after two injury-ravaged seasons, Brantley will take over the vacant left-field job, freed up by the (presumed) departure of Marwin Gonzalez. As a left-handed hitter, he'll also inject some "balance" into to an overwhelmingly right-handed lineup.

The Astros didn't give him Andrew McCutchen money because he hits left-handed, though. They gave Brantley that money because he's an exceptional hitter.

Brantley, who debuted with Cleveland in 2009, has distinguished himself (particularly of late) through his ability to consistently drive the ball with authority while also making contact at an elite rate. To illustrate, here's an exhaustive list of the hitters (minimum 2,000 plate appearances) with a strikeout rate below 10 percent since 2012, Brantley's first season in which he qualified for the batting title:

Name K% ISO OPS wRC+
Nori Aoki 8.5 .102 .738 105
Andrelton Simmons 8.9 .113 .698 92
Ben Revere 9.3 .062 .671 85
Joe Panik 9.3 .117 .733 101
Michael Brantley 9.8 .146 .809 121

Essentially, it's a bunch of slap hitters and Brantley, who averaged 2.8 fWAR per season over that span - despite appearing in just 111 games from 2016 through 2017 due to major shoulder and ankle injuries - and received downballot American League MVP votes in 2014 and 2015. Virtually no other hitter, in other words, hits like he does. He received that honorary doctorate in smoothness for a reason.

Last year, moreover, Brantley showed that injuries hadn't compromised his silky stroke. He slashed .309/.364/.468 (124 wRC+) with 17 home runs and 36 doubles in 143 games, providing as much value as Bryce Harper and Joey Votto while outhitting the likes of Springer, McCutchen, and Andrew Benintendi. His contact skills didn't erode either, as Brantley's anachronistic 9.5 percent strikeout rate was second-lowest among qualified hitters. Incidentally, the Indians opted not to extend him a qualifying offer at season's end, meaning the Astros didn't forfeit a draft pick to sign him.

To be sure, Houston didn't need Brantley to field a top-of-the-line offense again. In 2018, the Astros - who evoked Murderers' Row the year prior - still tied for second in the majors in park-adjusted offense amid considerable regression from Correa, Springer, Gonzalez, Yuli Gurriel, and Josh Reddick. They would've scored plenty of runs in 2019 even with Tony Kemp as their everyday left fielder.

But the Astros didn't have a compelling reason not to sign him, either. They are smack-dab in the middle of their competitive window, had an opening in left field, and needed to commit only money - on a surprisingly short term - to acquire him. It was that simple.

And Brantley's deal allows the Astros to shop Kyle Tucker, their most highly touted position-player prospect, to address those areas still outstanding on their roster - namely the back of their rotation and, potentially, a designated hitter. They could also dangle Tucker in a potential swap for Miami Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto, whom they've been linked to despite adding Robinson Chirinos earlier this offseason.

Alternatively, they can hang onto Tucker as depth, given Brantley's injury history, or as a potential replacement for Reddick. A surplus of talent is a problem the Astros would happily embrace. Last year, after all, the Astros bumped Brad Peacock to the bullpen to accommodate Cole in the rotation. Peacock had been their most effective starter the season prior.

Ultimately, with Brantley in their employ, the Astros are better equipped to win another World Series in 2019 than they were last week, having both improved their lineup and expanded their asset base. This is the kind of savvy, mid-market move that can turn a great team into a dynasty.

Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.

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Brantley makes dynastic Astros that much stronger
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