The Indians enter the 2017 season with a different vibe from what Tribe faithful are probably used to feeling over the past decade. The club is coming off of its best season since the late-90s and for the first time in a long time, the Indians are the team to beat in the American League.
Even though the Indians have lost a few pieces to that championship puzzle over the offseason, they have also retooled and added other pieces in different regards. The front office has made plenty of adjustments and upgrades to the roster heading into spring training, including the signing of first baseman Edwin Encarnacion and, most recently, a minor-league deal with outfielder Austin Jackson and a one-year deal to reliever Boone Logan.
But in 2017, there is one piece that won’t come at a monetary price, and his return could provide a big boost to the outfield. The return of outfielder Michael Brantley from shoulder surgery and rehab is imminent, but there are concerns with how effective he could be, having played in only 11 Major League games last season, and as a piece that is returning to an already dangerous lineup.
We will not know what Brantley can bring to the table in 2017 until he steps onto the field and produces this spring, but we can always speculate and project what he may do as a result of almost a full year’s worth of rehab. The Indians obviously made it very far without much help from him last season, but an addition of a healthy Michael Brantley takes the lineup to another level and can jet this club above and beyond expectations in 2017.
Every year before spring training, the ZiPS and Steamer projections are released. Though they just are projections, they could serve as a decent litmus to what we could see from a healthy Brantley in 2017. The 2017 ZiPS projections set Brantley at a .292/.353/.443 slash line with 9 home runs, 65 RBI, and 105 hits in 399 plate appearances. The 2017 Steamer projections see Brantley at a .291/.359/.442 line with 11 home runs, 55 RBI, and 113 hits in 437 plate appearances.
Once again. these numbers are only projections based on advanced analytics and algorithms, but both sources take the thought of Brantley missing between 55 and 70 games into consideration. The signing of Austin Jackson along with Abraham Almonte and Brandon Guyer provide insurance policies to account for that 40% or so of the season that Brantley may miss.
One thing the Indians front office has done is act as if Brantley will not be back to “old form,” as they kept true to adding smaller pieces and keeping the farm intact with Bradley Zimmer, Yandy Diaz, and Greg Allen as the next few options that should come up from Triple-A. There were options in free agency like Joey Bautista, Mark Trumbo and others to sign, but that sort of signing probably would have created a bigger logjam than they wanted to see.
Let’s say, God forbid, that Brantley does not revert back to this “old form.” The Indians have plenty of options to work with in left field either as regular options or in a platoon. The Indians have the depth to survive his absence again, but a lot of that depth is unproven or bring question marks of their own, so it presents a big of uneasiness going into the season.
In Brantley’s case, it’s more practical to project stats closer to his “old form,” but we truly won’t know anything about his game until he sees live pitching again. The encouraging news is that Brantley is back to hitting off of a tee and claims to be healthy. But a lot of what we are hearing now is exactly the same talk we heard last year at this time when he was returning from the same shoulder injury.
In a perfect world, Brantley will show up to Goodyear and not have any setbacks and be ready for Opening Day. But the reality is that his recovery may take more time and he should not be rushed by any means. This is why the more realistic approach going into spring training is that he will not perform like his has in the past and that he will probably fall in line more with the projections, if even that. If he does come back at full health and performs like an All Star again, then it should be a bonus.
The Indians managed to get by without him last season, but who knows where they could go with a healthy Brantley in 2017?
Corey Crisan is a columnist for the Cleveland Indians and the Mahoning Valley Scrappers on Indians Baseball Insider on Scout.com. You can listen to him on IBI’s Farm Report Podcast and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @cdcrisan.