Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 23 – Michael Brantley

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Countdown to Opening Day – 23

How stacked would the Cleveland Indians lineup look with a healthy and productive Michael Brantley back patrolling the grass in left field?

Once again one of the biggest question marks coming in to the season, the Indians and their fans wait with eager anticipation for the return to form of their one-time All-Star outfielder and former third place finisher in the American League Most Valuable Player voting in 2014.

The slow progression back into action continued for Brantley, as he appeared in three innings of a simulated game on Friday at Tribe camp in Goodyear. He was 1-for-3 at the plate and worked in the outfield for each inning and was reported to be in good spirits about the game and the results.

The next step for the star left fielder will be another simulated game, but that game would not be coming on Saturday, according to Indians manager Terry Francona.

Jason Miller/Getty Images
Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Indians survived Brantley’s absence for nearly all of the 2016 season, as he was limited to just eleven games for Cleveland over the course of the season around several disabled list trips. The team entered the season with the expectations that he would return and did little to add to their outfield heading in to spring training last February. The team proceeded to lose Lonnie Chisenhall to injury for a portion of the opening month of the season and Abraham Almonte for the first 80 games of the schedule because of a failed test for performance enhancing drugs, compounding Brantley’s slow recovery from his right shoulder injury. After Brantley returned to the lineup, things took a different turn for the worse and he would land back on the disabled list a short spell later, ultimately being shut down and undergoing right biceps surgery in August.

While the Indians may have been able to make a deep postseason push with the likes of Chisenhall, Tyler Naquin, Rajai Davis, and in-season additions Coco Crisp and Brandon Guyer, there is no doubt that a healthy Brantley in the lineup would have made the Cleveland roster that much more formidable against the Chicago Cubs in the World Series.

When at the top of his game, Brantley had developed into one of the better overall hitters in the American League. He hit .288 with 37 doubles and 60 RBI in his first full season in the lineup and his fourth Major League season overall in 2012. His numbers remained steady the following season, but he burst onto the scene in 2014, playing in 156 games, slashing .327/.385/.506 with 45 doubles, 20 homers, and 97 RBI while stealing 23 of 24 bases on the season. It earned him an All-Star trip midseason, a Silver Slugger Award after the season, and a third place finish in the AL MVP voting.

With high expectations upon him, he put up strong numbers again in 2015, providing a .310/.379/.480 slash line with a MLB-leading 45 doubles to go with 15 homers, 84 RBI, and a 15-for-16 effort on the base paths. Those numbers might have been even better had he not lost nearly a week early in the season with a back injury and parts of the final two weeks of the season after suffering his shoulder injury diving for a ball at Target Field against the Minnesota Twins.

Jason Miller/Getty Images
Jason Miller/Getty Images

The left field position remains a question mark for the club after the subtractions of Crisp and Davis from the roster after the season. Naquin is expected to see much of the time in center field and Chisenhall and Guyer would be expected to split up time in right, but the depth at left remains an unknown. Almonte, a switch-hitter with experience at all three outfield spots, could spend his time filling in if Brantley is again absent. Free agent addition Austin Jackson, who too is just returning to action after injury, is a wild card in the mix and acts as a decent insurance policy for the roster in the event Brantley is not able to go when the season starts. Other minor league options like Yandy Diaz and Bradley Zimmer and other camp invites could also benefit if Brantley is not ready to go when the season starts in Texas.

There is no hard timetable for Brantley, nor should there be, as having him back and healthy for the bulk of the season and especially the end of the year is far more important than seeing his name etched in on the Opening Day roster.

After watching his teammates win the American League Central and race through the AL playoffs on the way to a seven-game classic with the Cubs in the World Series, Brantley is undoubtedly hungry to play once again. The Indians may have proved last season that they could win without Brantley, but there is little doubt that the team is better as a whole with a high average hitter providing opportunities for all of the weapons in the lineup. Cleveland is in good shape without him, but would be in far better shape with Brantley back and contributing the way that he has when at the peak of his game.

Other notable 23’s in Indians history: Vic Wertz (1954-58), Tommie Agee (1963), Lou Piniella (1968), Chuck Hinton (1965-71), Oscar Gamble (1973-75), Chris Bando (1981-88), Mark Whiten (1991-92), Julio Franco (1996-97), David Justice (1997-2000), Ellis Burks (2001-03), Ben Broussard (2004-06)

Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

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