When Michael Brantley was shelved for the remainder of the 2016 season due to chronic biceps tendinitis and right shoulder surgery, Cleveland Indians fans did not expect such a prosperous postseason journey.
After all, the 29-year-old slashed .327/.385/.506 with a career-high .890 OPS in a 2014 campaign that landed him third on the MVP ballot to go along with his first All Star Game selection. 2015 nearly matched the production of the prior season thanks to a league-leading 45 doubles in 137 games played.
Since then, the accolades have been held to a minimum for a player that proved to be an integral piece of the club's future plans.
"When something’s taken away from you that you love and care so much, especially with the group of guys we have here, it’s like a family," said Brantley. "You just want to be back out there with your family at full strength and help them win some baseball games."
This statement comes as a result of the Tribe's historic 2016 postseason run that culminated in a World Series Game 7 loss to the Chicago Cubs on home turf. Brantley could only be a spectator for the organization's valiant attempt at their first championship title since 1948.
"Well, I got to be there with the fellas and understand media, the grind, understanding what you have to do for pregame, during the game, all that stuff," Brantley said of what it was like to be with the team in 2016 despite his right shoulder injury. "Just being there with my teammates in that situation, it’s a great feeling. We did a great job last year and I just want to be a part of it."
Dr. Smooth will finally have his opportunity to contribute and be a part of a World Series caliber roster beginning on Feb. 15 when the club travels to Goodyear, AZ for spring training. According to Brantley, the progression is gradually moving along after taking non-contact swings and hitting of a tee this January.
"I’m prepared for it, mentally and physically. I’m going to do everything in my power to help put myself in the best possible scenario to be ready for that situation," said Brantley in regards to playing in an MLB game. "When it comes, I’m prepared for the best. It all depends on where I’m at and how everything is going progression wise and the schedule they have me on."
Currently, there is no date set for Brantley's return. He has not played in a Major League Baseball game since May 9, 2016. Thankfully, the veteran outfielder claims he is further ahead of schedule in January of 2017 than he was in January of 2016.
"I did everything in my power to get back, strength wise, building wise, just anything that I could do. It just didn't work out," Brantley said when asked if he would do anything differently from last season. "I am, I am. I’m ahead of where I was going into spring training last year."
Brantley's undying passion for playing defense was evident both on the field and in his interview. The thought of being a designated hitter this upcoming season rather than an outfielder was quickly put to rest.
"That's the whole goal. I love playing defense and love being out there with my teammates," said Brantley.
On a multitude of occasions, Brantley referred to his "progressions" and where he is at within the rehab process. It appears the Indians are taking a more methodical approach in 2017 after he suffered countless setbacks in 2016. His early clearance to play 11 MLB games and 11 MiLB rehab contests last year aggravated the injury to an even larger degree.
Although his view from the dugout was less than ideal, Brantley still appreciates the support he has garnered from the fan base. His appearance at this weekend's Tribe Fest justifies that notion.
"I hear it all the time and I appreciate every one of them. I want to be back more than anybody, I know you guys know that," Brantley said. "Just having the support of fans and how appreciative of everything this team did means a lot to us. I just want to be a part of it and contribute."
As he mentioned, Brantley is letting the process run its course and refusing to set a target return in stone. With Coco Crisp, Rajai Davis and Marlon Byrd gone, only Abraham Almonte and the newly acquired Austin Jackson act as insurance for Brantley. Whether or not another free agent outfielder signs with the franchise remains to be seen, but Terry Francona still has the Fort Pierce, FL native atop his early-season priority list.
"I think he feels like he's making great progress, he's got to let it play itself out" said Francona. "There's a program in place and he follows it and hopefully as he gets into games, we won't run into that last hurdle. That would be wonderful for us, we miss him a whole lot more than people realize."
Only time will tell if Brantley is ready to clear the injury hurdle and emerge back onto the MLB scene.
"We got such a great group of guys around here, learned so much from last year, got so much experience and are hungry to get back," Brantley said.
John Alfes has covered the Indians for IBI since August of 2016. Follow him on Twitter @JohnAlfes for breaking news and in-depth coverage all season long.