Michael Brantley played most of the 2015 with a sore back and after injuring it further on a dive late in the season, he ultimately had to have arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder. Because he played through the end of the season, then tried to rehab the injury for a month after, he didn’t have the surgery until November 9th. At the time, the Indians said he would likely be out six months before even beginning baseball activities.
This original timetable would have had Brantley beginning to work out some time in late April or early May, but instead, he practiced from day one with the team defensively and started taking live batting practice in the second week of March. He played in his first game, a minor league intrasquad game in Goodyear, on March 16th and made his Spring Training debut on Saturday, March 19th. He played in his second game on March 21st and has yet to have issues with the pain returning, going 1/5 with a walk and a two run home run in the two games.
The Indians spent almost the entire off-season attempting to fill the void they knew losing Brantley would create and they did an excellent job considering their budget. In addition to Abraham Almonte, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Tyler Naquin, who we”girre already with the team, the Indians added Rajai Davis, Collin Cowgill, Joey Butler, Shane Robinson, Robbie Grossman, Will Venable, and finally this week, Marlon Byrd. Of these, Davis and Chisenhall are essentially guaranteed spots, as was Almonte until he removed himself from contention with an 80 game PED suspension. Among the rest, some have hit better than others, but with so many options, the Indians would at least have someone to cover each outfield position once the season started.
Brantley returning early creates a massive change in this, though. Now, instead of having to find enough bodies to fill the void, the Indians have to slim down that group into the one or two players who will most help the team. At the moment, those outfielders look to be Naquin, who was on the roster the whole time, and Byrd, who is a non-roster invitee. With Brantley in left, Davis in center, and the platoon of Chisenhall (vs RHP) and Byrd (vs LHP) in right, the outfield could actually a positive part of the club instead of a glaring hole. There would also be room for one more bench player, possibly another outfielder like Naquin or Butler. The bonus here is that the Indians wouldn’t need to waste the space on a defense only player like Cowgill, Robinson, or Venable.
It is still yet to be known whether Brantley will play on Opening Day, and the Indians have talked about keeping him out of MLB games the last week so they could make his DL stint retroactive to early March. This would allow him to be on the DL for only a day or two once the season started if necessary. Given that there are still two full weeks of games, however, that should be ample time for Brantley to be ready Opening Day.
Having watched his batting practice and first two games back, it is clear that Brantley is not favoring his shoulder in his swing and is back to shooting line drives. He also had an assist in both his minor league appearance and his first MLB game showing that there is nothing wrong with his left arm (of course, the surgery was on his right). Either way, there is almost no chance that Brantley will miss more than a series or two in the beginning of the season, a far cry from the original guess of early May and even further than the “scoop” that Peter Gammons had when he said Brantley would be out until August.
The Indians are notoriously tight-lipped when considering injuries and it is possible that they intentionally overestimated the amount of time for Brantley’s recovery so that fans wouldn’t be as disappointed if he did have a setback. Given their outfield additions, particularly those like Cowgill and Davis who are guaranteed money for 2016, it is more likely that Brantley has simply worked hard at getting back and done nothing to further aggravate the injury.
There is no player more important to the Indians lineup than Brantley. and being able to plug him back into the three hole to start the year while removing someone like Cowgill or Venable should raise win expectations by at least a couple. Given that offense is really the only questionable part of this team, the inclusion of Brantley should easily place the Indians among the favorites in the AL Central.