The Cleveland Indians went to the World Series without arguably their best hitter in 2016. What could a healthy Michael Brantley mean to the team in 2017?
The saga of Michael Brantley in 2016 became something of an epic tragedy. The Cleveland Indians left fielder and former all-star, who underwent surgery on his right shoulder following the 2015 season, found attempt after attempt to return to the club frustrated, like Sisyphus rolling his rock up a hill.
Initial projections had a May target for Brantley’s return, yet in late March he appeared in a Cactus League game against the Chicago Cubs in Goodyear, Arizona. He both homered and threw a runner out at the plate in that game (this author saw it live and in person), and the enthusiasm among fans was buzzing.
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But, we all know what happened from there. Brantley was shut down shortly after his heroic return, beginning the regular season on the disabled list. Cleveland activated him on April 25th, he appeared in 11 games, and then it was back to the DL. The 29-year old would go on a rehab assignment in mid-July, but the shoulder just never responded, and it was back on the shelf once again.
Despite the absence of a player who in 2014 and 2015 was among the best batsmen in the American League, garnering an all-star nod, a Silver Slugger award, and a third place finish in the Most Valuable Players voting, the Indians still managed to win the AL Central Division, dispatch the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays in the ALDS and ALCS, and were within one win of a World Series championship against the Chicago Cubs.
It begs the question, “What might have been?” What if Brantley had been healthy? What if, like Yan Gomes, he had managed a miraculous recovery and been available for the Tribe in the postseason?
We’ll never have that answer, of course, but the next question that arises is “What could be?” How might a healthy Brantley impact Cleveland’s on-field performance in 2017?
As the club’s president, Chris Antonetti, recently told Jordan Bastian of MLB.com, the Tribe expects to find out the answer to that question:
"“Michael’s progressing really well. He’s right on schedule for his rehab. Our expectations at this point are that he’ll begin baseball activities at some point in December and then be fully ready by the time Spring Training rolls around.”"
The Indians did a solid job of replacing his production in left field in 2016, using a small army of players to slash .286/.350/.437 with 41 doubles, 14 home runs, 78 RBIs, 24 stolen bases, and an OPS+ of 114. For comparison, Brantley’s numbers in 2014-15 were .319/.382/.492 with an average of 44 doubles, 17 homers, 90 RBIs, and 16 steals.
In the first half of the season, the bulk of that production was turned by Jose Ramirez, who is slated to be the Tribe’s Opening Day third baseman in 2017. The platoon of Rajai Davis, Abraham Almonte, Brandon Guyer, and Coco Crisp was not nearly as effective after Ramirez shifted to the hot corner in the second half.
Assuming Brantley experiences a small regression after essentially being out of the game for an entire year, though, it still appears safe to assume that what Cleveland would get from him would surpass what the many-headed platoon hydra is capable of. Crisp will not be back, and Davis may not be, which leaves the team with some combination of Almonte, Guyer, and in all likelihood a scrap heap free agent or unproven farmhand if Brantley is unable to return.
"“We are planning for him to be an everyday player,” Antonetti said. “Now, part of our responsibility is to always plan for contingencies, not only just with Michael, but with other players on our roster. If something unexpected happens, whether it’s injuries or unexpected performance, we need to make sure we have quality alternatives.”"
Given Ramirez’s breakout season and the fact that the Indians’ entire core group of players will be back, a healthy Brantley could only improve an offense that finished second in the league in runs scored. Whether he’s the same hitter of 2014 and 2015 or not will be the question both the Tribe and its fans will be anxious to see answered.
Cleveland defied expectations in 2016, nearly reaching the summit of the game without Brantley and others. Those expectations will likely skyrocket for the 2017 club with their left fielder’s presumed return, and if Brantley can return to being an everyday fixture in the lineup, the lofty goals will be justified.