One of the biggest questions looming for the Cleveland Indians as the regular season concludes is the status of outfielder Michael Brantley.
The two-time All-Star has been shelved since landing on the disabled list on August 9 with a right ankle sprain. His return from the injury has been far slower than expected, as running on the injured ankle and dealing with the ligament issue has proven to be much more of an obstacle than initially hoped and anticipated.
While Brantley has been able to resume some “land-based” running over the course of the last week and by all reports is feeling good and is in much better spirits, he has been away from live action and real pitching for quite some time. How much rust the 30-year-old may have developed in that time remains to be seen.
Prior to hitting the disabled list for the second time this season, Brantley was hitting .299 with a .358 on-base percentage and a .445 slugging percentage while supplying the offense with 20 doubles, nine homers, and 52 RBI through 88 games.
The Indians outfield has been decimated by late season injuries. Bradley Zimmer appears to be done for the season after breaking his left hand after getting stepped on while diving head first into first base in a game against the Baltimore Orioles on September 10. Brandon Guyer aggravated a wrist injury that kept him on the disabled list for six weeks earlier in the season and has not suited up for the Tribe since September 14. He is still not ready to return and, according to Francona prior to Friday’s game, he is still feeling discomfort at the site of the injury.
Lonnie Chisenhall is just returning from a second calf injury, one that would have landed him on the DL had the team needed to make the move. He missed nearly two weeks with the most recent injury and has had three separate DL stints this season. After slashing .305/.375/.578 before the third injury while ranking at the top of the Indians’ run producers at the time, he has put up a .239/.314/.326 line in 16 games in September with 15 strikeouts in 51 plate appearances.
With Zimmer out of the mix and no idea what, if anything, Brantley, Chisenhall, and Guyer could give the club come October, it leaves just Jay Bruce and Austin Jackson as reliable, veteran outfielders on the roster. Behind them, Abraham Almonte, rookie Greg Allen, and second-year man Tyler Naquin have been getting some playing time as well.
The situation became so dire that, upon his own return from the disabled list, Jason Kipnis traded in his second baseman’s glove for the larger outfielder variety. In his absence, first time All-Star and legitimate MVP candidate Jose Ramirez hopped over to his natural second base position from his spot at third base and filled in there, allowing manager Terry Francona to utilize Giovanny Urshela and Yandy Diaz in tandem at the hot corner. The play from the two minor league call-ups was strong enough that Francona did not want to upset the balance that he had established on his infield, at least from a defensive standpoint, at the two positions, leaving Kipnis without a defined role moving forward.
While Kipnis had played outfield in college, the university experience was quite some time ago. He has not made a mistake that has proved notably costly to the club so far, but his route running, speed, and arm could each prove exploitable by aggressive teams in the playoffs. Situations in which a team can claim an extra base, first to third, second to home, could prove to be significant issues if the opposition decides to test his arm.
Kipnis was a key part of the Indians’ run in the playoffs last season and Francona has always been loyal to his veterans. The displaced second baseman would seem to be on the roster for the postseason as long as he proved himself healthy and able to contribute with the stick, a part of his game that seems to be progressing nicely since his most recent return. He has had three disabled list trips himself, beginning with his season-opening right shoulder inflammation. He followed that up by missing nearly a month from July 9 to August 6 with a strained right hamstring, then landed back on the shelf a third time from August 23 to September 17 with the same injury. Kipnis hit .204 with a .250 OBP in 13 August games between his DL trips; he has hit .296 with a .355 OBP in nine games this month since being activated and relocated to center.
After making such a drastic late season decision, it would seem unlikely that Francona would deviate from the move of Kipnis out of the infield. He will either be manning center field in October or will be coming off of the bench as a bat and late inning sub.
It also seems unreasonable to think that after such a layoff, Brantley would be able to grab his mitt and head out to man left field right away. If he is improved enough physically that Francona and his coaching and training staffs both feel that Brantley can provide the team with, at minimum, a punch off of the bench with the bat, the ripple effect throughout the roster could become dramatic.
Dedicating a bench role strictly for a pinch-hitter could force the Indians to carry an extra bench player for defensive or base running purposes, shorting the roster a spot in the bullpen. They could gamble to the contrary, but it could leave the team in a precarious position, especially with the way the lineup has been handled from a platoon standpoint and with knowledge of Francona’s love for bullpen depth. On the plus side, many of the players on the roster have enough flexibility that they could play out of their conventional spots on the diamond in a pinch, but that is certainly a dangerous roll of the dice in the postseason. One mistake can prove costly when playing against the top teams in baseball.
While the roster has not yet been announced or even hinted much at, it would be easily assumed that catchers Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez, first basemen/designated hitters Carlos Santana and Edwin Encarnacion, Francisco Lindor, Ramirez, Bruce, and Jackson are locks for the American League Division Series. This leaves one outfielder and a third baseman unnamed, in addition to a couple of bench pieces outside of backup backstop.
The starting rotation will be four deep and consist of Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, and Josh Tomlin, barring a last minute change. The bullpen, also hardly set, should have at minimum Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw, and Joe Smith. Mike Clevinger appears to be set as a “weapon” for utilization however Francona sees fit, leaving anywhere from two to four spots available for the likes of Dan Otero, Zach McAllister, Tyler Olson, Danny Salazar, and Nick Goody, while assuming an 11- to 13-man pitching staff.
One or both of Urshela and Diaz could be on the roster to handle third base, with Diaz a possible starter and Urshela a late inning replacement and, in essence, the team’s utility man (over Erik Gonzalez). Urshela has logged a pair of innings at first base, including one on Friday, for the first time in his big league career and has now appeared at all four non-catching infield positions this season. His bat, however, leaves something to be desired, as he has hit .226 this season with a .264 OBP and he owns a .225/.273/.315 career slash at the Major League level. Diaz, by comparison, has hit .263 in his rookie campaign with plenty of exit velo on his balls in play.
Kipnis and Chisenhall, if they both pass the remaining on-the-field tests, would provide the remainder of the outfield depth, accounting for 12 position players already.
If Brantley cannot play defensively but is on the roster, it almost assures that Kipnis will be manning the green grass in center with Jackson or Chisenhall in left. But it also means that the team would likely be carrying multiple perceived defensive liabilities instead of going with the versatility provided by the switch-hitting Almonte, who can play all three spots, or the rookie Allen, who could provide an upgrade defensively and a legitimate speed boost off of the bench, as its reserves.
Do the Indians keep Brantley’s bat on the roster, especially if he cannot contribute anything else in the ALDS? Or do they make the decision between a speedier or defensive-minded upgrade or an extra bullpen arm?
It is a tough and lengthy conversation to be continued from the Tribe’s clubhouse by the team’s brain trust with less than a week before the Game 1 opener from Progressive Field on Thursday.
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