All things considered, it is amazing to think that the Cleveland Indians accomplished so much in 2016 and did so without the services of their one-time All-Star left fielder Michael Brantley.
The 29-year-old outfielder had been a key driving force in the middle of the Indians lineup over the last several seasons, working his way around the lineup to a spot as the table setter for the heart of the order. His importance to the club was no more obvious in 2014, when he played in 156 games, hit a career-best .327 with a .385 on-base percentage and .506 slugging mark, became the first Indians player to reach 200 hits since Kenny Lofton in 1996 (210), was an All-Star and Silver Slugger for the first times in his career, and finished third in the American League’s Most Valuable Player voting.
Heading into this past season, the Indians knew that they had a void to fill in the batting order while Brantley was still working to recover from a late 2015 right shoulder injury that led to repair work on his right labrum in the offseason. The team had some internal options to consider with the likes of Jason Kipnis or Francisco Lindor, with the team ultimately settling on their second-year shortstop to plug in as the three hitter. The positional hole in left was a little more complicated to fill. While there was plenty of speculation regarding how the lineup would stack up when Brantley returned, that became a moot point as the year rolled on and the potent left-handed hitter was still missing in action from the batting order.
Brantley worked back quickly from his shoulder issues and pushed through a minor league rehab assignment early in the campaign. He appeared in rehab games at two different levels in the Indians farm system in April, hitting .238 with two doubles and three singles in 25 plate appearances before rejoining the Indians roster.
The results were mixed as he worked his way back into the lineup on a regular basis. He notched a single and a run batted in during his third game back against the Minnesota Twins, then added a double in game four against the Philadelphia Phillies. A week later, he had what would amount to his best game of the season, a 4-for-5 day against the Detroit Tigers at Progressive Field on May 5 when he laced three singles, a double, and three RBI over the course of the day.
The injury woes were not gone, however, as he struggled to bounce back quickly from his games and, in the middle of May, Brantley returned to the disabled list with shoulder inflammation and an impingement for which he received an anti-inflammatory shot. He was out of action for more than two months, starting his second rehab assignment of the season on July 11 with the Mahoning Valley Scrappers. He saw game action in Lake County and with Akron, but after going 3-for-12 in four games, he was shelved again as discomfort continued to limit his ability to bounce back between games. He underwent another brief procedure on his shoulder in the third week of July to remove scar tissue building up in the front of the shoulder around his biceps tendon.
He was formally shut down for the year in August, undergoing a season-ending 45-minute surgical procedure on August 16 known as bicep tenodesis to deal with the chronic biceps tendinitis in the repaired shoulder that he was experiencing. On the positive side, the surgeons involved in the procedure were able to confirm that his surgically repaired labrum was still intact and his shoulder joint as a whole looked good, but he would need a projected four months to recover, placing him on track for a spring training.
In the shortest season of his career, Brantley appeared in just eleven games at the Major League level. In 43 plate appearances, he was 9-for-39 (.231) at the plate with nine singles, two doubles, five runs scored, and seven runs driven in.
Heading into 2017, the Indians will now have to wonder what they can get from Brantley in the future. After missing nearly a full season’s worth of games, his return to the roster as a healthy and active contributor would do wonders for a lineup that pushed to extra innings in the seventh game of the World Series. He has been both an extra-base and RBI-machine over the last few seasons, hitting 45 doubles in each of his last two full seasons on the field while hitting a combined 35 homers in that stretch.
The Indians outfield was a source of great concern heading into 2016, even with the expectation that Brantley would be back in the lineup. If he is back in his regular role for 2017, he would be joined in the outfield by Tyler Naquin, Abraham Almonte, and Brandon Guyer, while the team looks to replace the production of Rajai Davis, who is a free agent and led the league with his 43 steals in 49 attempts, but is now 36. A healthy Brantley could easily surpass Davis’ production with the bat, but few in the organizationi could match the veteran speedster’s work on the base paths.
If Brantley suffers any sort of setbacks in the spring, the Indians could be in search for another player to patrol the outfield grass, as the four above outfielders on the roster may not provide enough offense to be comfortable with and options in the minor leagues are either unproven at the Major League level or do not appear ready for regular work in the Bigs. The same happened last spring, when the club lost Brantley and Chisenhall to rehab assignments to begin the season and Almonte to a suspension, leading to the addition of Marlon Byrd and an expanded role for the rookie center fielder Naquin.
If Brantley is back in the fold, healthy, and reminiscent of the player of old, it will be create some lineup shuffling, but that is a good problem to have. His ability to get on base with frequency and to hit in the clutch is just the kind of addition the Cleveland lineup can benefit from, and all without having to devote extra finances to the outfield. The roster is not constructed in a manner to outslug opponents, but is instead designed to manufacture and drive in runs. Brantley is just the type of player that can thrive under those settings.
Brantley is under contract through the completion of the 2017 season, but the Indians hold a team option for him for 2018 at the cost of $11 million with a $1 million buyout. That figure could be a steal of a deal if he returns to full health and puts up the type of numbers that he has contributed throughout his career prior to his shoulder-related problems this past season.
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