Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 23
Bob Toth | On 06, Mar 2018
While the offseason has been historically slow and the winter has crawled along at an even slower pace, we at Did The Tribe Win Last Night look ahead to the warmer days of the 2018 season by remembering Tribe players past and present.
Countdown to Opening Day – 23 days
Will this year be the last year in a Cleveland Indians uniform for Michael Brantley, the longest tenured 23 in Tribe history?
The bigger question may revolve around what level of production the team’s long-time left fielder can provide after yet another season shortened by injury and another offseason under the knife.
The most successful piece of the CC Sabathia trade in 2008, Brantley solidified the outfield puzzle for the Indians shortly after joining the club as a regular. He debuted in 28 games in 2009 and played in 72 games in 2010, both years working primarily as a center fielder, before he split the 2011 season between left and center field. While his .266/.318/.384 slash at the plate may not have been much to write home about, he did hit 24 doubles in 114 games, giving the club a little taste of the type of hitter that he would develop into.
By 2012, he was a full-fledged regular and healthy starter in the Tribe lineup (solely as a center fielder). He saw strong gains across his stat line, most importantly in his 149 games of action, and he had 37 doubles, 60 RBI, and a .288/.348/.402 effort at the plate.
He put up nearly identical numbers in 2013, seeing a slight drop in his power (26 doubles compared to the 37), but his run production benefitted in the team’s better lineup. He would get his first taste of the postseason, albeit brief, as the Tribe was eliminated in the AL Wild Card play-in game.
At the age of 27, he broke out in what remains his best season to date. He appeared in 156 games, slashing .327/.385/.506 with 200 hits, 45 doubles, and career highs in homers (20) and RBI (97). He was named an All-Star for the first time midseason, and ended 2014 with a Silver Slugger Award and a third place finish in the American League Most Valuable Player voting.
He looked to be much the same player the following year, although he missed some time late in the campaign after injuring his shoulder diving for a ball at Minnesota’s Target Field. He still ended the year as the MLB leader in doubles with 45 (his second straight season with that total of two-baggers), and in his 137 games, he managed to draw more walks (60) than he struck out (51).
That shoulder injury would become a significant problem for the budding star, though, as he had surgery on it that offseason and began the 2016 season on the disabled list. He returned at the end of April, but within three weeks, he was back on the DL with right shoulder inflammation. As problems persisted, he had surgery again and would be lost for the remainder of the year, outside of a brief rehab assignment in the middle of July.
Brantley began the 2017 season healthy, but that would be short-lived. He landed on the disabled list for ten days in the middle of June, but a good first half overall (.304/.367/.440 with 17 doubles, five homers, and 37 RBI) earned him a trip to Miami for his second Midsummer Classic. A month and a half after his first DL stint, he was back on the shelf with a right ankle sprain, one that sidelined him for all but the final moments of the regular season schedule. An ankle injury to Edwin Encarnacion forced him into more action than the club had hoped for in the American League Division Series against the New York Yankees and he looked like a player who had been out of action for a while as he had a single and a walk with four strikeouts in 12 plate appearances in the Indians’ first round knockout.
Questions loomed over Brantley during the offseason, as the club had to consider his team option (one that was picked up at $12 million). He also had right ankle surgery to stabilize his late season injury, one that could sideline him at the start of the 2018 schedule.
“I think I’m getting older, and I think I’m starting to understand it more, that I need to make sure that I’m 100% healthy when I come back,” shared Brantley with the media this past Sunday. It takes time. It’s not going to happen overnight, but put in the hard work that you need to get done, and everything comes out good in the end.”
The goal for Brantley is to be healthy at the finish line in October as the team prepares for a third consecutive postseason, as opposed to getting a false start from the starting line and potentially jeopardizing his ability to finish the race.
Brantley is just another in a long line of big bats for the team to wear the number 23, especially since Jacobs Field opened its doors in 1994.
Jeromy Burnitz began his Indians career in 1995, becoming the first Tribe player to wear the number 23 (before switching over to the number 20 in 1996). While he would hit just seven homers for Cleveland in his brief time with the club, he would hit 315 in his career with stops with the Milwaukee Brewers, New York Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers, Colorado Rockies, Chicago Cubs, and Pittsburgh Pirates.
Julio Franco took up the number in 1996 when he returned to the Indians organization after a season in Japan. He put together a good first season back with the Tribe, slashing .322/.407/.470 with 14 homers and 76 RBI in 112 games, serving as the club’s first baseman. He spent 78 games in town in 1997, hitting .284 with a .367 on-base percentage while logging innings at first and second base before he was released in mid-August.
David Justice took his old number 23 back from Franco upon his departure. Acquired prior to the season from the Atlanta Braves, Justice started the year in the number 33, but made the switch during the 1997 season. He was an All-Star in his first season with the club and would finish fifth in the AL MVP voting at season’s end while winning his second career Silver Slugger Award after hitting .329 with 31 doubles, 33 homers, and 101 RBI. He remained an important piece to the lineup into the 2000 season, although his power numbers did dip as the years went by. One of his best career years came the same year that he was shipped out of Cleveland, as he spent 68 games with the Tribe before being dealt to the New York Yankees for the final 78 games that he would play in the 2000 season. He combined to hit a career-high 41 homers and topped the 100-RBI mark for the third time in his career with 118, but he would hit just 100 more over the next two years, split between New York and Oakland.
Ellis Burks signed with the Indians ahead of the 2001 season and found the fountain of youth in Cleveland. He hit 28 homers and 74 RBI while batting .280 in his first season with the club and followed in up with a 32-homer, 91-RBI performance with a .301 batting average in 2002. Injuries limited him to just 55 games in 2003 and his attempts to hang on in the game at the age of 39 the following season back with the Boston Red Sox, the club that drafted him in the first round more than two decades earlier, suffered the same fate.
Ben Broussard, another piece acquired by the Indians in a trade, held down the first base position for parts of five seasons. He would be a steady contributor to the lineup with a flair for the dramatics, hitting 69 homers in his Indians career before time with Seattle and Texas. He is back in baseball for the 2018 season, working as the Leadership Development Coordinator on the Chicago White Sox’s player development staff.
Other notable 23s in Tribe history (51 in total): Milt Shoffner (the first in 1929); Beau Bell (1940-41); Les Fleming (1941-42); Pat Seerey (1943-46); Don Black (1947-48); Vic Wertz (1954-58); Tommie Agee (1963); Lou Piniella (1968); Chuck Hinton (1965-71); Oscar Gamble (1973-75); Wayne Garland (1977); Chris Bando (1981-88); Mitch Webster (1990-91); Luis Medina (1991); Mark Whiten (1991-92); David Segui (2000).
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images