Cleveland’s New #23: Dr. Smooth
During Spring Training the DTTWLN staff will profile and examine the coaches and players that make up and are vying to be part of the 2013 Cleveland Indians—A Team With A New Direction. Today, we examine one of the players that are difference makers in how successful the Indians season will be.
By Laurel Wilder
Michael Brantley makes a lot of things seem effortless. Dubbed “Dr. Smooth” by a few Cleveland sports writers in 2012, Brantley’s transitions in the outfield or in the batting order have occurred without much fuss. His steadily-improving Major League stats have furthered his smooth move from a solid minor league player to a promising big leaguer, despite setbacks like his 2011 wrist surgery or spring training forearm injury.
With his potential and abilities growing, Brantley’s smoothest achievement yet may come in restoring Cleveland’s faith in wearing the number 23. Ever since LeBron James took his talents to South Beach in 2010, his former number has become synonymous with betrayal and letdowns.
Brantley, however, seems to be on the brink of changing that.In Oct. 2008, Brantley came to Cleveland from the Brewers in the CC Sabathia trade that also brought Zach Jackson, Rob Bryson and Matt LaPorta to the Indians. Brantley was the player to be named later in the trade, and, interestingly, the only one still featured on the Indians’ roster.
His debut with the Indians came late in 2009, when he was called up to replace an injured Grady Sizemore in center field. During this time, Brantley hit .313 with 35 hits and four stolen bases in 28 games. He was called up again in 2010 to fill in for Shin-Soo Choo, and posted .246 with 73 hits and stole 10 bases in 72 games.
Brantley’s 2011 season started on a promising note, and found him hitting .266 with 120 hits and 46 RBIs before he was placed on the 60-day DL in late August. Having injured his hand and wrist when diving for a ball in the outfield, Brantley suffered pains when batting. Eventually, the left-handed batter underwent surgery that removed part of his injured hamate bone from his right hand and missed the remainder of the 2011 season.
When 2012 rolled around, however, Brantley found himself back in the spotlight when Sizemore started the season on the DL. Expected to be positioned as a fourth outfielder when Sizemore returned to the team in June, Brantley found himself continuing in center field throughout the season when Sizemore (perhaps unsurprisingly) failed to return.
With Sizemore having once been lauded as one of the most promising center fielders in baseball, Brantley, a player who joined the Indians with relative anonymity, was going to have to do quite a bit to prove himself as an adequate permanent replacement.
Dr. Smooth had no problem doing just that, embarking on a 22-game hitting streak in June 2012 and establishing himself not only locally, but on a national level as well.
Brantley’s overall 2012 season provided him with some of his best major league numbers to date. He hit .288 in 149 games, with 159 hits, 37 doubles, three triples and six home runs. He knocked in 60 RBIs, stole 12 bases, and struck out 56 times – a 20-count drop from his 76 strikeouts in 2011.
His current Spring Training numbers only suggest a just-as-promising 2013 season. Hitting .419, Brantley has played in 12 games in Arizona this off-season. He has 13 hits, five doubles, nine RBIs, only two strikeouts – and one impressive home run.
During Thursday’s game against the Diamondbacks, Brantley got the go-ahead to swing at a pitch with a 3-0 count. He made contact, crushing a three-run homer.
“When you have men on base and you have a good fastball hitter, hitting, oh boy. I think it’s great,” Terry Francona said about the decision to have Brantley swing. “The idea is to put guys in a situation to do some damage.”
Speaking of damage, Brantley’s stunning spring training came about in the midst of his own physical damage. During a game in late February, Brantley lacerated his left forearm while sliding into third base. The spike wound required 15 stitches and caused Brantley to miss 10 days of work. However, he bounced back (smoothly, I might add) to his position in left field.
The move of Brantley to left field is another transition that the outfielder made seamlessly. With the addition of center fielder Michael Bourn to the roster during the off-season, Brantley was shifted to left, with Drew Stubbs filling in in right. The trio has created an outfield already described as “where baseballs go to die.”
Brantley shows no unhappiness with his move from center.
“I’ll just slide over to left. Michael Bourn is a phenomenal center fielder,” Brantley said in a February interview with Sports Time Ohio. “The front office sat me down, we talked about me playing left field, and it’s just me getting my feet back under me there. It shouldn’t take me too long, and I’ll be ready to go in left field.”
Adjusting to new faces in the front office and on the coaching staff has been another smooth change for Brantley who said, “this front office and this coaching staff has been so open, and so willing to talk to everybody to make sure everybody’s on the same page. So actually, the transition’s been very easy.”
“As you see now, there’s a lot of positive atmosphere in the locker room, everybody’s excited. There’s no one tiptoeing, not knowing if they can say what, because everything’s kind of laid out, and that’s the way it should be,” Brantley said.
As a player who was moved about in the lineup quite a bit in his career, having his role more clearly outlined for him can only help Brantley this season. Manny Acta moved Brantley from the lead-off spot last season to the bottom half of the lineup. The smooth-swinging Brantley, though, says he does not change his approach regardless of where he is placed, and instead uses his strengths to make the best out of the order.
“If it’s in an RBI situation, that’s what I have to do,” Brantley said. “If it’s in second, getting Michael Bourn over, bunting, whatever it needs to do, I can do that as well. I like to say I’m pretty versatile in that effect, and I want to make sure that I just stay strong mentally and be able to do what I need to do.”
Versatile, smooth – Brantley seems to have all the makings of a player on the edge of a stellar career. And with a solid, exciting team around him, this season could be the one that has Brantley really stepping into his own.
“We’re not a young team anymore. It’s time to step it up and handle our business,” Brantley said of the 2013 Indians, expressing his excitement with the way things have been progressing during the off-season and in Arizona.
With the season right around the corner, and the home opener gradually growing closer, fans will not need to wait much longer to see how smoothly things are going to go for Brantley this year.
“When the fans are behind you at home, there’s no better feeling. When we have a packed house or almost a full stadium, it really gets the players going and we very much appreciate it,” Brantley said.
And we, the fans, very much appreciate Dr. Smooth giving us a new reason to love the number 23 in Cleveland.
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer