Any questions as to whether Cleveland Indians outfielder Michael Brantley could get back to his former All-Star status were certainly laid to rest this past Tuesday. The second reveal of balloting for the Midsummer Classic was announced and the left fielder had cracked the top three vote-getters among American League outfielders.
If voting ended today, Brantley would join Yankees’ rookie sensation Aaron Judge and Angels’ two-time MVP Mike Trout in the AL lineup in Miami for the annual exhibition. It is quite the comeback story for a player whom many wondered, just a couple months ago, if he could even get through April without a setback to his surgically repaired shoulder.
While last year was quite the journey and quite the memorable one for his American League Championship-winning teammates, Brantley was forced into the role of spectator.
Cleveland’s 2014 All-Star outfielder was around the team for its run to the World Series. However, the one-time MVP candidate spent most of his time cheering on the rest of the Indians as he recuperated from an injured shoulder. He longed to be on the field, celebrating, with the rest of the squad.
The 30-year-old left fielder enjoyed a brief comeback from a late 2015 shoulder injury. He played in eleven games last May. However, that became a merely a cameo appearance as the soreness persisted. Brantley had trouble swinging a bat without feeling a flare up in his shoulder. After other attempts to rehab and perhaps return, he was eventually shut down and could never get healthy enough to return to action for the Tribe in 2016.
Brantley worked hard all of last year and during this past offseason to get to a point where he could get back on the field. He even underwent a third shoulder operation. Still questions persisted all winter and into the spring if the guy who finished third in the AL MVP race in 2014 would ever again be that same player again. Comparisons were starting to be made to former Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore. He was a great player for the Indians from 2005-2008 before injuries robbed what started as a promising career.
Some feared that fate may befall Dr. Smooth.
From 2009 through 2015, Brantley did nothing but improve. Part of the infamous trade that saw Cleveland ship 2007 Cy Young Award winner C.C. Sabathia to the Brewers in 2008, Brantley transformed from a decent major leaguer to an All-Star over the course of six years. He broke onto the Tribe roster in 2009. For the first few years, he was a serviceable player for the Indians. In 2012 and 2013, he became a quality starter.
Brantley broke out in 2014 with that MVP-caliber campaign, hitting a career high .327 with 20 home runs, 97 RBI, 94 runs, 200 hits, and 23 stolen bases. While 2015 was not as good, mostly because he was limited to 137 games due to injury, Brantley was still at an All-Star level as he hit .310 with 15 bombs, 84 RBI, 15 steals, and a league-leading 45 doubles. It was at the end of that campaign when things started to spiral downward. During a late season game against the Twins, Brantley dove for a ball and injured the shoulder that essentially wiped out his 2016 season.
Fans wondered, with good reason, if Brantley would have similar issues this year as he did last. Before the 2016 campaign got underway, Brantley was feeling fine. He even took part in a couple spring training games as he was almost ready for the season opener. This spring was the same, except he was able to play enough in the Cactus League for manager Terry Francona to include him on the Opening Day roster.
While the Tribe faithful were happy to see one of their best players back on the field, they were holding their breath and wondering if he was just one swing or errant dive for a fly ball away from a re-aggravation of that shoulder injury.
So far, so good, as the baseball season nears the half-way point of June. Really, that is an understatement. So far, things could not be going much better for Brantley as he has worked back to the form that made him an All-Star just three years ago and a very good player just two years ago.
Brantley entered Saturday hitting .295, above his career average .292 batting average. He had five home runs, 25 RBI, seven steals, and has been the most consistent hitter in an Indians batting order that has been somewhat inconsistent overall to this point in the season. He had played in 50 of the Tribe’s 58 games. He lost a few games to a sprained ankle earlier in year. Otherwise, he has been able to rebound from the multiple shoulder surgeries to not only regain his status as an everyday player, but his status as an A.L. All-Star.
There is a commercial that often airs during Indians games. It shows Francona packing his bags for Miami. Because of the Tribe’s run to the last year’s World Series, Tito will be managing the American League All-Star club on July 11. He pleads with the voting fans to make him go to Miami alone. It is not a shock that third-year shortstop and 2016 Gold Glove winner Francisco Lindor is almost a shoo-in right now to join his manager as a starter for the Junior Circuit. Many in Cleveland would have predicted and hoped that to be the case when the season began back on April 4.
What few could even fathom or predict was that Brantley, nearly a full season removed from the game, would be at that level. No one could predict how many games that he might play this year, much less just how well he would do. Brantley has served notice that he is back. While he is not a lock to still be one of the league’s top three outfielders in a few weeks when the voting ends, fans have certainly taken notice that the former All-Star has returned to form to try and help the Indians return to the postseason again this year. Last year, Brantley missed all of the fun the Tribe was having. This year, as the Indians are again hanging around the top of the American League Central standings, Brantley is back to having fun on the field and being among the best players for the Cleveland Indians.
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