On Thursday morning, the Cleveland Indians announced that left fielder Michael Brantley had undergone surgery the day before to help stabilize the ligaments in his injured right ankle, an ailment that deprived him of much of the final two months of the regular season and left him as a bit contributor to the team during its brief postseason run.
In the minutes and hours after news of the procedure hit the press, Cleveland social media burned to the ground.
Brantley made his way to Charlotte, North Carolina, to have surgery to help him recovery from an ankle injury that lingered and lingered over the course of the last two months of the year. He sustained the injury on August 8 against the Colorado Rockies while playing left field, falling to the outfield grass while running towards a fly ball while fearing that he had torn his Achilles.
He is not believed to be able to return to baseball activities for four to five months, placing a potential return to action after the Indians open spring training festivities from Goodyear, Arizona, in February.
“The outcomes with this surgery are really good,” shared Chris Antonetti, Indians president of baseball operations on Thursday. “And based upon the time frame we’ve been given from the doctors, we expect him to be ready for the start of the season or very close to the start of the season next year, which would make him available to us.”
What remains in light of the surgery is a lot of uncertainty about what the future holds for Brantley and his affiliation with the Indians, the franchise that he has known as his employer since coming to the Indians in 2008 as the player to be named later in the CC Sabathia trade with Milwaukee.
The biggest question is the most complex to debate. Brantley has an $11 million team option sitting on the table, one that the Indians will have to make a decision on within three days of the conclusion of the World Series. If Cleveland declines, Brantley will take $1 million home and will become a free agent, although the Indians could attempt to re-sign him on a new contract and at a new rate of pay.
The Indians outfield was in shambles, to a degree, with Brantley’s inability to field his position in the postseason. He was 1-for-11 when thrust into action as the team’s designated hitter after the loss of Edwin Encarnacion in Game 2 of the series with an ankle injury of his own. The team was already missing Bradley Zimmer from its outfield after the rookie broke his hand in mid-September.
Brantley’s $11 million obligation for next season is tough to pay out when considering the amount of time that he has lost over the last two seasons to shoulder, biceps, and ankle injuries. It has drawn some light comparisons to Grady Sizemore, unjustly, but one can falter onlookers for being concerned about the recent slew of lengthy injuries to the two-time All-Star Brantley.
Further complicating things, the Indians have a significant amount of money already on the books for 2018, with several players seeing sizable jumps in their annual contracts and other players awaiting arbitration-related increases to their wages. With big money already tied up, the Indians also have to worry about additional hits to their outfield, with Jay Bruce and Austin Jackson hitting the open market, while Carlos Santana is also set for free agency after another reliable season in the Tribe’s lineup.
If the Indians pick up Brantley’s option, there is a legitimate chance that they would not be able to retain the services of Santana, Bruce, or both, unless the club far exceeds its usual comfort zone from a salary perspective. The 30-year-old Jackson would be a cheaper option to return after a good bounce back season while playing out a one-year deal with the Indians, but his return likely hinges on what happens with Brantley.
The Indians could decline the option, paying Brantley his buyout rate while also hoping to re-sign an outfielder who has been productive when healthy and was once an MVP contender. But playing with that fire could cause the Indians to get burned, as Brantley could bail and move along to another club, especially one with the financial flexibility to sign him and wait for his return to form.
It is hard to envision Brantley in another uniform than that of the Indians, but that has become a reality that all have had to consider over the last couple of months.
“I started a quest back in 2009,” said Brantley after the team was eliminated in Game 5 of the ALDS. “I want to finish it the right way. I don’t want to go out like this, if it’s my choice. It’s not. I just look forward to hopefully being back here with this group of guys.”
A player of Brantley’s ability could fare well in free agency this offseason. There are a handful of players who could cash in, including guys like Justin Upton (if he opts out), Andrew McCutchen (if his club option for $14.75 million were to be declined by the Pirates), Lorenzo Cain, and J.D. Martinez, who is coming off of a fantastic season between Detroit and Arizona. The market afterwards has far more question marks, with names like Jose Bautista, Melky Cabrera, Carlos Gomez, Carlos Gonzalez, and Curtis Granderson, all of whom have concerns moving forward, whether it be age or inconsistent production.
Teams may be willing to look for a short-term fix, knowing that the market after the 2018 season is ripe with attractive options, including front line choices like Bryce Harper, Charlie Blackmon, and A.J. Pollock, to name a few.
Brantley, if he could bounce back, could prove to be a nice upgrade for another team, making the risk of exposing him to the open market all the more dangerous.
While questions persist regarding Brantley and his future with the club, there have also been plenty of queries about the severity of his injury and his selection for the 25-man roster for the playoffs.
If Brantley’s ankle was bad enough to need a surgical procedure that would sideline him for four to five months, how could he have been healthy enough to be on the roster?
The team has stated several times that his injury was not an issue for him at the plate, but more so when he was running, which kept him out of the outfield and would have limited him on the bases.
“His ankle was unaffected when hitting,” said Antonetti again this week. “The places where he would have been limited were when he was running, and he didn’t have a whole lot of opportunities in the series to run. But, to give you an idea of how Michael was feeling and the subjective reports, we were actually considering him as an option in the outfield based upon how he felt.”
Had he been able to remain just a pinch-hitter in the series, his injury and struggles at the plate may not have been as much of an issue. But because Encarnacion went down, he was thrust into frequent action and his minimal production filling in for the Tribe’s big slugger left a significant void in the Indians lineup nightly.
The alternatives to placing Brantley on the ALDS roster were limited, which did not help matters. The club was already pushing second-baseman-turned-center-fielder Jason Kipnis into the lineup and had seen little production from Lonnie Chisenhall, who saw much of his second half disappear to injuries but worked his way onto the playoff 25. Abraham Almonte would have provided flexibility in the outfield and a little bit of speed over Brantley, but he slashed .233/.314/.366 over 69 games in an injury-shortened season and would have been a liability there. Tyler Naquin saw minimal time at the big league level and failed to produce when he was in the lineup. Brandon Guyer was unavailable with a wrist injury. Yandy Diaz would not have solved the lacking outfield depth, but he would have been a better bat than the other options. He hit .263 over the course of the year, but he was also a singles machine in his rookie campaign while being steadily treated as a defensive liability.
The allure of Brantley being able to provide a late-game clutch hit for someone at the bottom of the order may have been too much for Terry Francona to pass up, especially if Brantley’s bat was believed to be unaffected by his ankle.
Brantley played in 90 games for the Indians in his ninth season on the big league roster in 2017, hitting .299 with a .357 on-base percentage, 20 doubles, nine homers, and 52 RBI while making his second career All-Star team. He appeared in just eleven games for the club in 2016.
Has Brantley played his final game with the Indians? If he is done in Cleveland, he would depart the city with a career .292/.349/.423 slash with 212 doubles, 17 triples, 70 homers, 452 RBI, and questions of what could have been the last two postseasons had he been healthy enough to give the Tribe’s lineup something in the form of production.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images