Slowed by a shoulder injury for much of the season, if Michael Brantley can return to form in August and September he would provide a big shot in the arm for the first-place Cleveland Indians.
Tell me if you’ve heard this before: Michael Brantley’s shoulder is feeling better and he has started a rehab assignment. Brantley, who had offseason shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum, has played just 11 games this season for the Indians. After returning too quickly from surgery Brantley was shut down again in early May and has taken a more cautious approach to his recovery this time around.
His first rehab stop is with the Indians’ Low-A affiliate, the Lake County Captains, where he went 2-for-3 with a double in his first game back. As long as everything goes well with his rehab the team is hoping he can return to the big club in late July or early August. While there is still no firm timetable on when he will be activated, he is expected to spend about two to three weeks in the minors as he works his body back into game shape. Easily the Indians’ best all-around position player, Brantley’s return would be the equivalent of trading for an All-Star caliber outfielder.
The Indians have played quite well in his stead, holding a 6.5 game lead over the Detroit Tigers as the team is set to begin the second half on Friday in Minnesota. The defending champion Kansas City Royals are also lurking in the tall grass, seven games behind the Tribe, so Brantley’s return will be a welcome sight.
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In his absence Cleveland has received surprise contributions from Jose Ramirez and rookie Tyler Naquin. Ramirez has shuttled between third base and left field while providing a solid .295 batting average. Naquin has also played admirably in the outfield as he has hit .314 with 9 HR over 58 games. Upon Brantley’s return to left field, Naquin figures to stay in center field, with Ramirez shifting back to third base. Juan Uribe would no longer play every day, thus giving manager Terry Francona a veteran hitter with some pop off the bench.
The Indians have the pieces in place to make a run into the postseason. They were led by a strong pitching staff over the first half and Brantley’s return should add even more depth to their lineup. Since they are a team with a relatively modest budget, it’s unlikely they will be in position to make a big splash at the trade deadline. The team does have some prospects at their disposal in the likes of Clint Frazier and Bradley Zimmer, who would be appealing to most any team. However, it remains to be seen whether the team will be inclined to part with such high quality prospects.
While it seemed like a long shot a month ago, the Indians front office will now be factoring Brantley’s return in their plans as they head toward the trade deadline. It is still a bit unknown how well or how much he will play once he returns to Cleveland, but if all goes as planned he will be just hitting his stride as the team looks to close down an American League Central crown in early October.