One of the biggest questions about the Cleveland Indians this offseason was whether or not the club would pick up the team option on left fielder Michael Brantley after another injury-shortened campaign.
While the answer to whether Brantley would be back with the club was answered when they picked up his $12 million option, the Indians will not get a full season’s return from that investment, at least in regards to Brantley’s on-the-field contributions to Cleveland’s efforts in 2018. Manager Terry Francona announced on Sunday that the two-time All-Star would start the season on the 10-day disabled list.
“After we put our heads together, it would be good for him [to start the season on the DL]. He’s just not quite ready maybe to carry enough of the load,” said Francona on Sunday of the decision. “There’s no setback or anything like that. It’s just [what they decided] after putting our heads together, and I give him a lot of credit for his honesty.”
The Indians have once again taken a slow and conservative approach to Brantley’s return to regular duty after offseason surgery on his right ankle to stabilize the ligaments. He did some light work in simulated and minor league games this spring and was on no restrictions to hitting work, but his return to Cactus League action has come in just the last week. He debuted on Wednesday night, homering in his first plate appearance, and appeared in games on Friday and Sunday, totaling four hits in the three games. But with the lack of game activity under his belt this late in the spring, the time on the disabled list will allow the 30-year-old to continue to work on his timing while making sure that he gets his legs underneath him.
That part will be the key after the ankle injury, as his running work has been a work in progress. The team has moved forward slowly in that regard, but Francona noted that Brantley is still working on endurance and wants to get his outfielder prepared in real-time scenarios, including periods of inactivity that simulate game situations.
Each of Brantley’s last two seasons have been drastically altered by injuries. He was absent for nearly all of the 2016 campaign after shoulder and biceps issues. Last year, he started out well and even made the American League’s All-Star team before the ankle injury cut short much of his second half. He made it back just in time to conclude the regular season and was forced into action in the American League Division Series, but he did not quite look himself at the time while replacing the injured Edwin Encarnacion in the lineup.
“[He’s] close enough where we certainly talked about him making the ball club,” said Francona. “But it made sense to let him have some more time playing.”
Brantley’s absence to start the year means that Tyler Naquin will make the Opening Day roster for the Indians.
Naquin came to camp in Goodyear fighting for a chance to head north with the Indians, something that he had done each of the last two seasons. Rajai Davis beat him out for a bench spot and Naquin appeared to be heading to Triple-A, had Brantley and Brandon Guyer been healthy enough to start the season with the club. Instead, he will get another opportunity after a good spring, as through his first 21 games of Cactus League action, he has hit .294 with a .357 on-base percentage with seven doubles, two homers, and ten RBI in 56 total plate appearances.
While Naquin started last season with the Tribe, the experiment was short-lived as the previous season’s third-place finisher in the American League Rookie of the Year voting was optioned back to Columbus in the middle of April. He returned for three games after the All-Star break and was called back up in September, playing sparingly down the stretch. He finished the year with a .216/.250/.270 line at the plate with two doubles and one RBI in 40 total plate appearances for Cleveland in his limited appearances at the MLB level.
The previous season, the former 2012 first round pick was one of the surprises of the junior circuit, working regularly as the Tribe’s center fielder. He played 116 games that season, slashing .296/.372/.514 with 18 doubles, five triples, 14 homers, and 43 RBI over the course of the year.
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