Once the Cleveland Indians best everyday player and MVP candidate, Michael Brantley has become one of the team’s biggest question marks over the last couple of offseasons.
One question surrounding Brantley was answered this offseason already. That happened last week when the Tribe picked up his $11.5 million team option for 2018. In doing that, it put to bed the question of whether or not the two-time All-Star and a former top-three MVP vote-getter would be back for a tenth season in Cleveland.
There are so many more questions, however, clouding the winter and early spring when it comes to the superstar left fielder. As was the case the last two offseasons, they involve an injured body part and recent surgery. Unlike past offseasons, the concern is not with an ailing shoulder. Instead it is with a problematic ankle.
That there are no questions about Brantley shoulder is actually a good thing. He injured his throwing shoulder at the tail end of the 2015 campaign. After several surgeries and an all-but-lost 2016 season, the shoulder woes appear to be a thing of the past. He got through 90 regular season and three postseason games this past season without a setback to his surgically repaired wing. That was the good news.
The bad news is that he spent two stints on the disabled list with an injured right ankle. The injury first happened in June. He spent a little under two weeks on the DL and was back. It seemed like just a little issue at the time. He reinjured the ankle on August 8. Considered a sprain, it was figured he would be back by late August or early September. Instead, the ankle never really was healing correctly.
Brantley did not feel good enough to start taking game at bats until the final two contests of the regular season. He was added to the ALDS roster for pinch-hitting purposes, but was forced into full-time designated hitter duty when Edwin Encarnacion went down with an ankle injury of his own in Game 2 against the Yankees.
By the end of the disappointing ALDS ouster for the Tribe, Brantley’s ankle still was not right and he had surgery on October 18. That surgery is expected to keep him on the shelf, away from baseball activities, for four to five months. That time frame gives him a return sometime during spring training and he should be ready to go by or close to 2018 Opening Day. Sadly, we have heard that statement uttered so many times over the last few offseasons.
Will Brantley truly be ready to go by the start of next season is one big question. The other is, where exactly does he fit at this point?
Between the shoulder and ankle issues, there are some who think playing every day in left field could be a little too rigorous for Brantley. Moving elsewhere would be no small task.
Being in the American League, it would be tempting to play Brantley at designated hitter on a more regular basis. Encarnacion was the primary holder of the DH duties in 2017 with 132 games in that spot. He was a part-time first baseman, playing we games in the field while Gold Glove candidate Carlos Santana played first most of the time.
There’s a chance Santana could be lost to free agency this winter. Encarnacion, a former third baseman-turned-first baseman during his tenure with the Blue Jays, has never played more than half a season manning first base. Brantley could be moved to first, into a platoon role with Double E, splitting first base and DH duties.
I have outlined in past weeks why bringing Santana back makes sense. This is why. Encarnacion is nowhere near the first baseman that Santana is. Brantley has a long way to go to be able to play first for even half a season.
Spring training and preseason games would be the optimal time for Brantley to grasp everything that would go into playing a new position. The problem is, he may not have a full spring training to get there. The best case scenario, four months from surgery, puts Brantley back on the field February 18. That could be fine to start teaching a new spot in the field. However, if there is any sort of set back or if his recovery period gets closer to four-and-a-half or five months, Brantley would not be prepared to start the new season at first base. He would be hard-pressed to get back into game shape in time to play his natural left field spot on Opening Day.
Even with the stress that running down fly balls can put on both his surgically repaired ankle and shoulder, the Indians would be wise to keep him in the outfield. He is the only one of what currently stands as a host of outfield candidates who is both a veteran and finds the outfield as his natural position.
Lonnie Chisenhall is a converted former third baseman now playing in right. Jason Kipnis could see more time in the outfield after transitioning from second base to the outfield at the end of this past season. Abraham Almonte and Brandon Guyer had their own bouts with injuries in 2017 while also scuffling at the plate throughout the year. Bradley Zimmer and Greg Allen, rookies during the 2017 campaign, are just emerging as Major League outfielders. Brantley, if healthy, can help to settle a possibly in flux outfield rotation.
Of course, the “if healthy” phrase again comes back. Before the 2016 season, it was said a great deal. It turned out Brantley would only be healthy enough to play eleven games that year. His bad shoulder cost him a chance to play in the World Series with the rest of his teammates.
In 2017, Brantley showed he could come back from the shoulder issues. He played most of the first half of the season, earning his second career All-Star nod. It was in the second half that the ankle became a serious problem. He ended up this past year playing in 90 games, hitting .299, with nine home runs and 52 RBI while adding in eleven steals. During the times that he was healthy, he showed the skills that made him so great in 2014 and 2015.
Brantley has answered one lingering question regarding whether he could come back from the multiple shoulder surgeries to be an effective MLB player again. Now he is looking to answer the questions about the ankle in the same manner.
The Indians were wise to bring Brantley back on what amounts to one more year to see if he can, indeed, still play at an All-Star level. If the Tribe had let him become a free agent, there surely would have been a team out there who would have given him a one or two-year contract worth more than the money Brantley will earn in Cleveland in 2018. It does not hurt for the Tribe to have him in the lineup, especially if Santana and Jay Bruce both go elsewhere this winter.
If healthy, Brantley should be near All-Star form. He should be there playing his natural left field, rather than trying to learn a new position while working back into baseball shape. Manager Terry Francona has always been creative with moving players around the diamond, splitting guys up at the DH position and giving off days where needed. That will surely be the case for Brantley next year.
Hopefully, this time next offseason, the questions will not be about Brantley’s health and ability to play in 2019. The hope is that the Indians are asking even tougher questions about whether or not they can afford to keep him and for how many years. That would mean he had, at least, a mostly healthy and productive 2018 season.
Brantley has answered past offseason questions in a big way. He will certainly put in the game effort to do so one more time this winter.
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