Brantley Inching Closer to Major League Action With Eyes Toward Healthier 2017

There has not been a lot of good news for Michael Brantley and his injured right shoulder since a fateful, late-season attempt to dive for a ball at Target Field on September 22, 2015. Since then, he has undergone two surgeries, multiple setbacks and appeared in just 13 games. Things seem to be headed in a better direction for Brantley these days, however.

Two of those 13 contests he has played in since the initial shoulder woes began came at the end of the 2015 campaign. He missed 10 of the final 12 games that season. Last year, a comeback attempt lasted but 11 games as the one-time All-Star and MVP candidate could not get his ailing shoulder to a point where there was not pain when he swung the bat.

His 2016 numbers – 43 plate appearances, nine hits, two doubles and seven RBI – were more a tease for Tribe fans than anything else. It was a window view of the player the Indians missed during an otherwise unforgettable year that saw the club get so agonizingly close to its first World Series title since 1948.

The entire 2016 season, save for that nearly two week stretch, had to be completely agonizing to Brantley. He was a leader of the squad from 2013-2015 and had to watch as his teammates celebrated 94 victories, a Central Division title, and the American League Championship crown. How much better could the group had been with its superstar left fielder who finished third in the 2014 A.L. MVP balloting?

We may find that out this season. The last couple weeks in Goodyear, Arizona, have been nothing but positive for Brantley. He has been brought along slowly to try and prevent setbacks that happened a year ago. He played in four simulated games, while the rest of the Tribe were beginning the Cactus League schedule, facing live pitching from some members of the Indians pitching staff.

Brantley finally graduated to live game action this past Wednesday, playing in a minor league game against the Dodgers’ Double-A affiliate. It is still not quite Major League action, but Brantley and his shoulder looked good and passed a very important test. In five innings, he batted three times, knocking a double off of the left field wall. He swung the bat five times and made two plays in his time in the outfield. His shoulder held up.

He appeared in another minor league contest Saturday. If he wakes up Sunday morning without a sore shoulder and feeling good, he could be a matter of days from being inserted into the lineup for a Cactus League game. After watching his teammates from the sidelines much of last season, he may be very close to finally joining them on the field.

Despite having yet to play in an MLB game, Brantley has been working out and facing live pitching. Given that he holds up, it is now not out of the realm of possibility that he could be ready for the regular season opener on April 3 in Arlington, Texas.

That would be welcome news to the Indians and their fans. As good as the offense was last year, when they were fifth in the Majors and second in the A.L. in runs scored, Brantley’s bat would be a welcome addition to the lineup.

When Brantley was in the MVP discussion in 2014, he hit a career high .327 with 20 home runs, 97 RBI, and 23 steals. That he was even mentioned in the same breath as eventual winner Mike Trout and runner up Victor Martinez tells of the rare air he was in that season.

As a followup, Brantley continued to swing a strong bat in 2015. He hit .310 with 15 homers, 84 RBI, and 15 steals. Injuries limited him to just 137 games or he may have come a lot closer to matching his MVP-caliber numbers of the season before.

Even before his breakout in 2014, Brantley had improved every season. From 2011, when he first became an everyday player, until 2013, his numbers were on the rise. He grew from being a decent player in 2011 to a guy in 2013 who was showing signs of being able to do a lot of things well. His surge in 2014 was not a huge surprise, as he was proving before that to be a talented player. It was just a matter of him coming into his own and hitting his stride.

The Tribe would surely love to add the 2014 or 2015 version of Brantley back into their lineup as soon as possible. He would simply add depth to a batting order that already features the likes of Francisco Lindor, Edwin Encarnacion, Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana and Jose Ramirez.

Brantley, a solid defensive player, would help solidify one of the three outfield spots, something manager Terry Francona did not have last season when he had to juggle all three positions last year with platoons and may have had to do the same this season as well. Center field and right field are set to be platooned, as they were last year. Left field was a multi-man job in 2016 as well. That all changes if the Indians can get one of their best players back on the field on a regular or even semi-regular basis.

Cleveland should, however, continue to proceed with caution. As tempting as it is for the player and the team to get him into the lineup in a hurry, health does need to come first. Brantley got into trouble last year when he tried to push himself too hard, too soon. His shoulder was not ready to carry the burden of swinging the bat every day and diving for fly balls in the gaps. Last year, he wanted to get back by Opening Day and pushed himself to play spring training games before he may have been fully ready. The Indians and their trainers have forced him to take a slower, smarter approach this spring. The team should not stray from that. Even if Brantley is deemed healthy enough to open the year in Cleveland, the Tribe should and likely will err on the side of caution. He could very well start off playing on an every other day type of schedule, getting eased into everyday action. That should be easy enough as Cleveland may carry five outfielders on the Opening Day roster.

If it does appear as it Brantley is going to run out of time to get fully prepared by the end of training camp, then he should open the season on the disabled list and finish off his rehab process in Columbus, however long it may take. It would be much better to have him for the stretch drive than for the first few weeks of the season. Brantley would probably agree. Last year, he pushed himself back and got to play in 11 low-impact, low-importance April and May contests. He probably would have much rather been able to play in and enjoy the glow of the high-pressure moments of September and October.

If Brantley is truly ready on April 3, that is a bonus. However, if he is not, Cleveland should proceed with caution. Getting him back for much more than 11 games should be the goal. Having him around when the games really start to count should be the top priority. This is an Indians team that should be competing for a division and the World Series title come September and October. Brantley being healthy and being the Brantley of old only helps that all the more.

Photo: Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

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