Chances are that Cleveland Indians left fielder Michael Brantley’s 29th birthday on Sunday was spoiled quite a bit by the right shoulder soreness that landed him off of the playing field and onto the disabled list on Saturday.
Now, the Indians are once again without an integral piece of their lineup and a key cog in the offensive machine that seems to just not function properly without Brantley inserted somewhere in the starting nine.
It has been one of those seasons for Cleveland, who cannot seem to push through and put together a nice long winning streak, despite playing some suspect talent in the early portion of their schedule. While they are residing in second place in the American League Central, they have not come close to catching the front-running Chicago White Sox, who have charged out to a fast start and not looked back through the first month and a half of the season.
So where do the Indians go from here with their star outfielder?
Brantley will head to Wilmington, Delaware, on Tuesday to meet with Dr. Craig Morgan, the surgeon who performed the procedure on his torn right labrum last November. He had experienced soreness and inflammation in his right shoulder and had difficulty bouncing back between games after he was activated by the Indians from the disabled list in late April. After defying early projections on when he would return to the lineup, the Indians got just eleven games of service from Brantley before shutting him down last Tuesday.
He was hitting .231 with a .279 on-base percentage when he landed on the disabled list for the second time. His power appeared to be tapped some, as he had just two doubles in his first nine hits, but he had driven in seven runs in his limited action. He was also striking out a bit more frequently than normal, but he was also in many ways working through his own spring training some after appearing in just seven games in the minors while on his rehab assignment (where he hit .238 with a .320 OBP with two doubles and two RBI in 25 plate appearances).
Since the disabled list placement was made retroactive to May 10, the Indians are only looking at a week and a half before he could return to the roster on May 25, but first things first, he needs to display a much cleaner bill of health. After moving too quickly to get him back in the lineup the first time, the odds are much more likely that the Indians will proceed with much greater caution and trepidation the second time around. His MRI on Friday did not reveal anything that the club deemed as “alarming”, but he still planned to consult with Dr. Morgan to be sure.
Heading into their series with the Cincinnati Reds this week, the Indians now have some question marks once again in their outfield.
Rajai Davis and Marlon Byrd are the two most veteran guys on the roster looking for playing time in the grass. Tyler Naquin was recalled on Friday when Lonnie Chisenhall was placed on the bereavement list and Michael Martinez was added to the 25- and 40-man rosters on Saturday when Brantley was formally placed on the DL. Jose Ramirez is also very much an option in the outfield as he saw plenty of time in left field in Brantley’s initial absence.
When Chisenhall returns to the active roster, which could happen any day now, someone will need to be removed. That player will likely come from Naquin or Martinez, barring something unforeseen.
While another suspect route in center by Naquin cost the Indians two late runs in their 5-1 loss to the Minnesota Twins on Sunday afternoon, the rookie outfielder was 3-for-7 in the series with the Twins and reached base safely four times and scored a pair of runs in the otherwise disappointing series for the Indians. The good streak at the plate helped to push his season average up to .328.
Martinez, meanwhile, appeared in right field in his first MLB action of the season and had a pair of singles in four trips to the plate. The 33-year-old was hitting .288 with Triple-A Columbus at the time of his promotion and had already logged innings defensively at second base, third base, shortstop, and center field there. He also played right field in limited action last season with the Clippers and left field during his brief 16-game look with the Indians last season.
There is some thought that Martinez got the call-up over other options in Columbus with MLB experience, namely Robbie Grossman or Joey Butler, because the stay was going to be short and Naquin would stick around longer with Brantley on the shelf. At Martinez’s age and with his limited success in six seasons at the MLB level, he would be more likely to survive being designated for assignment while remaining with the organization than would be Grossman or Butler. His intangibles did give manager Terry Francona some extra flexibility on his bench.
Despite being in the middle of the pack in MLB in runs scored per game, the Indians offense has not made the runs translate into more wins. At 17-17, they endured the usually difficult month of April, but are continuing to churn water in May, missing out on the limited opportunities to gain ground on AL Central leading Chicago.
Offensively, the Indians have had struggles despite a run per game (4.30) mark that was sixth-highest in the AL entering action on Sunday. They have the third-fewest hits and walks in the league, are second-to-last in total bases, and are last in home runs. They have also seen the second-fewest pitches at the plate this season, despite having the MLB leader in pitches seen on the roster, Mike Napoli, and his 4.64 pitches per plate appearance mark.
With Brantley out of the lineup again, it will be that much more imperative that these backups contribute and help the team manufacture and generate some runs on a daily basis. No one on the club can quite match the contributions a healthy Brantley can make to the batting order, but some improved at bats, some more patience, maybe a bunt here and there, a stolen base, and finding some way to increase their AL-worst .200 batting average leading off innings would go a long way in helping to create and sustain some rallies and, ultimately, putting up better results in the win column.
Photo: AP Photo/Tony Dejak