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2017 IBI Preview Capsule: Michael Brantley

After sitting out most of 2016, Michael Brantley is a subject of news, speculation and discussion this spring as his health and timetable to return are still up in the air. The IBI's Jake Dungan concludes the 2017 IBI Preview Capsule series with a look at whether the Tribe left fielder can return to playing at his All-Star form as well as if he can return at all.

The IBI Preview Capsules are back for 2017 as Jake Dungan takes an in-depth look at all the players who could impact the Tribe in the upcoming season from the established stars to the prospects on the verge of being called up to the majors to the non-roster invites to spring training.

Michael Brantley, LF

Throws: Left -- Bats: Left -- Entering his age-30 season -- Contract: Fourth year of a 4-year/$25 million deal with a team option for 2018 (Free agent in 2018-19)

2016 In Review: Last season was a magical ride for the Indians, but also somewhat unexpected given the fact that arguably their best hitter was on the shelf for all but 11 games. Michael Brantley was, obviously, as overjoyed as his teammates on their run to the World Series, but was frustrated all the same that he had to watch it all from the bench after multiple surgeries on his ailing shoulder during the season and several failed attempts try and get back on the field. The Indians All-Star left fielder initially injured his shoulder late in the 2015 campaign when attempting to dive for a fly ball beyond his reach in Minnesota. So far, the news seems to be as encouraging as it was last spring as far as his progression, but most recent reports now say he will not be ready for the start of exhibition play. Of course, sitting out a few Cactus League contests is no big deal, but will he be ready for when the games matter?

Versus Right-handers: One of the great developments in Brantley's game since his breakout season in 2014 has been the evening out of his splits. In fact, dating all the way back to 2011, the 29-year-old has consistently put up a batting average of at least .285 and an OPS of at least .780 against right-handed pitching with those marks skyrocketing over the .320 and .900 marks, respectively, in 2014 and 2015. That is, of course, not including his 2016 splits of .219 and .504 due to the small sample size of 11 games and the physical limitations he was likely experiencing at the time. In his career overall, Brantley has hit and even .300 against right-handers with a .799 OPS and only 17 more strikeouts than walks over 2,349 total plate appearances.

Versus Left-handers: While his numbers have been exceptional against right-handed pitchers, Brantley's career splits against lefties are not far behind at .274 with a .706 OPS. He does have less power and about one more strikeout per walk against southpaws, but he's still not at any significant matchup disadvantage. In fact, he has had much more success against left-handers in recent years, particularly in 2014 where splits adding up to a .307 average and .826 OPS, helping him to finish third in the AL MVP voting. Even in severely limited at-bats last season, Brantley still went 2-for-7 with two doubles and three RBI's against lefties. His professional approach and ability to drive the ball to all fields make him a tough at-bat no matter who's on the mound.

Defense: Brantley's defense is one of those examples of where traditionalists and advanced metrics folks tend to butt heads. In the four years leading up to 2016, Brantley has played left field regularly and put up a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage in two of them. Also in those two seasons, he has racked up double-digit assists, showing off his strong arm. Sabermetrics, on the other hand, are not as complimentary as they have him posting overall solid numbers in left, but also negative UZR marks of -4.1 and -5.7 in those same two years where he put up the immaculate fielding percentages and impressive assist totals. On the whole, Brantley sits at 15 career DRS and a -5.4 UZR. Obviously the question now, though, is going to be whether he can play left field everyday anymore, if at all?

Fantasy Impact: No one has to inform Tribe fans of Michael Brantley's value when he's healthy. And with the hitters the Indians have added to their everyday lineup while he's been on the mend, such as Edwin Encarnacion, adding a vintage Michael Brantley to the mix would make for a challenging trip through the order for any pitcher. Of course, the 6.0 WAR and 151 wRC+ he posted in 2014 are a pretty tall order even if he hadn't undergone major shoulder procedures. However, Fangraphs is a bit optimistic in their projections with both Steamer and Depth Charts anticipating over 100 games played with a batting average around .290, double digit homers and somewhere in the neighborhood of 50-60 RBI's. Additionally, both models have him at a WAR between 1.5 and 1.9 with 114 wRC+. While that may not be the best we've seen from the former All-Star, it's still better than a lot of players in this league and certainly better than no production at all.

Summary: Okay, now that the optimism and good vibes are out there, here's the harsh reality. The issue with Brantley's recovery is not getting him to a point where he can just get back on the field. It's about getting him to a point where he can stay out there, as manager Terry Francona explained, himself, last week. We can get all the news and positive updates about his progression that we want. It doesn't change the fact that he's been in recovery for this injury for over a year and has gone under the knife multiple times since then. We don't know if he can play in the outfield or even if he can be an everyday position player anymore. Plus, how much strain can his shoulder and biceps take before they start acting up again? These are all questions we need to keep in mind to maintain our grasp of the reality of the situation. That all being said, the organization is being much more cautious this time around and will not bring Brantley back until he is ready to come back, whether that be opening day, June or until after the All-Star Break. There's no timetable for his return and there likely won't be one at any point from here on out. This Indians team is good enough to win the World Series on paper, but they know they can be at a whole other level with a healthy and productive Michael Brantley. So they will wait, and wait as long as they need to.

This marks the final installment of 2017 IBI Preview Capsule series. Be sure to check out all of our capsules here:

Jake Dungan is the Managing Editor for IBI and a podcast host on the Smoke Signals Network. Email him at jdungan@indiansbaseballinsider.com or follow him on Twitter @JakeDBaseball.


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