Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 23: Michael Brantley

As Did The Tribe Win Last Night helps fans count down the days until the Indians retake the field in an official Major League game, we look back at some of the greats who wore the Cleveland jersey with pride.

Countdown to Opening Day – 23 days

The number 23 is a heavily beloved number across the Cleveland sports landscape, a significant change for the digit in a city that once despised the same numerals after His Airness burned its image into the collective mind of the region with The Shot.

Now, the number is well on its way to the rafters at Quicken Loans arena when LeBron James finishes his reign in a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform, hopefully with some hardware in tow. Joe Haden had been one of the better cornerbacks in the National Football League with the Cleveland Browns until a concussion-riddled 2015 season allowed him just five games of action for the disappointing club.

While those two may garner a bit more fanfare than the Indians representative, it should be no knock on the Indians’ own Dr. Smooth, Michael Brantley.

There has to be a bit of pressure on a guy when he is forced to salvage the trade of a reigning Cy Young winner after the perceived centerpiece of the deal fails to live up to the lofty expectations placed on him.

Brantley has more than made up for the short and unsuccessful career of former top prospect Matt LaPorta by becoming an All-Star and Silver Slugger winner on the way to a third-place finish in the American League MVP voting in the 2014 season. He shattered career-highs in most offensive categories and was in the race for the batting title throughout the season, ultimately finishing third with his .327 average and second in offensive WAR with a 7.0 score.

Last season, he continued a four-year stretch of increasingly solid play on the field with a .310 batting average over the course of 137 games. He missed the final week of the season and four other games earlier in September after a shoulder injury in Minnesota. It led to an offseason surgical procedure to repair a torn labrum and his current presence on the outside of the primary club activities this spring.

Despite the premature end to his season, he still hit .310 with a .379 on-base percentage (courtesy of a career-high 60 walks against just 51 strikeouts). He had hit 15 homers and drove in 84 before being shut down and his 45 doubles, matching his career-high set one season earlier, was the top mark in the Majors.

Now very much in the prime of his career, Brantley remains one of the most significant and important pieces of the Tribe’s lineup, which makes his potential absence to start the season a troubling sign for a team in dire need of a strong April start. Over the last three seasons, the club has started the first month of the season 7-14 (2015), 11-17 (2014), and 11-13 (2013). In each campaign, the club found those discouraging results looming rather large in September as it attempted to push for the playoffs.

Brantley has been a regular in the lineup for the Indians since starting the 2011 season on the 25-man roster. He has held down both center and left field spots for the club and has been reliable in his contributions to the Indians by his steady outfield play, his bat at the plate, and his frequent appearances in the daily batting order. He has also been quietly reliable on the base paths, stealing 23 bases in 24 attempts in 2014 (during a 20/20 season) and 15 of 16 in 2015. The Indians will need him on the bases from his usual third spot in the batting order to help set the table for the heart of the order.

While it is still too soon to approximate how much, if any, time Brantley may miss to start the season, his assumed absence has pointed a glaringly bright spotlight at the voids in the current outfield mix for the club. Brantley was the one truly known commodity in the grass for the Tribe, with Abraham Almonte and Lonnie Chisenhall hoped to contribute at or near the same levels that they had during their two month auditions last season. With Almonte removed from that picture for half of the season, the Indians’ most pronounced weakness has become their outfield.

Despite the potential and likely pressure to push Brantley back into action quickly, the Indians staff is taking his progress cautiously, knowing that rushing him back when he is not fully ready could lead to additional troubles for the team as the season advances. With that said, Brantley sounds as though he is much further ahead of schedule than those winter fears that extended his loss into the month of May may have indicated.

News has continued to become more and more positive around Brantley, and the next couple of weeks will be very telling for him and for the team’s 2016 future. He was cleared this past Sunday to return to hitting by the doctor who performed the surgery on his right, non-throwing, shoulder. Fans were treated to the comforting site of his familiar swing in videos on social media of Brantley working in the batting cages. Batting practice was anticipated by week’s end.

“I just want to be careful. He’s done so well,” said Indians manager Terry Francona on Wednesday. “If he’s not on the field [on Friday or Saturday], everybody will say ‘what happened?’ He’s so far ahead of where most people would be. A lot of that is attributable to how he’s going about it.”

In the event that Brantley starts the season on the disabled list, free agent addition Rajai Davis is expected to see work in left field with Chisenhall in right. The club has an extensive list of candidates in camp to help fill the center field void, as well as outfield bench spots, including prospect Tyler Naquin, Joey Butler, Michael Choice, Collin Cowgill, Robbie Grossman, Shane Robinson, Will Venable, and Zach Walters.

None of those candidates can replace what Brantley brings to the ball park with him on a nightly basis. In the chance that he is not in the lineup in Cleveland to start the season on April 4th, the Indians will be hoping that his return is sooner rather than later.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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