The Cleveland Indians have a lot of hope for 2016. They have the best starting pitchers in the league, a rebuilt defense and some punch on offense -- though they could always use more. The problem is that Michael Brantley, one of the centerpieces of the offense, is out at least until May while recovering from shoulder surgery.
It’s a big blow to the Tribe -- the man just hits and hits and hits, terrorizing division rivals and putting runs on the board. The Indians have to make due in April, hopefully with a Mark Reynolds circa 2013 type of output from someone. But Brantley will be back, it’s just about what kind of player he will be when he does arrive. It could go several different ways, depending on what kind of view you want to take.
In short, baseball murder. Brantley comes back and hits like he has the last few years. Best case would be he’d hit in May like he did in 2014. After an April with a .756 OPS, a new month dawned and that number jumped more than 200 points to .969, and it pretty much didn’t end. In the second half of 2014, Brantley hit .335/.388/.488. That’s the type of batting line Indians fans would hope for out of him. Shoot, in the first half of that same year he "only" hit .322 but rocked a .922 OPS. Brantley was incredible pre-All-Star Break. That could be what he gets after returning in 2016 -- without having the cold of April to deal with and an extra couple of months of rest, he becomes the "young power hitter" that MLB '11 The Show thought he was for some reason.
Combine all that with an extra year of Dad Strength and Grown Man Strength -- two "scientifically proven" phenomena -- and all of a sudden Brantley would jump from great hitter to star slugger for the Cleveland Indians.
The best way to describe it would be purely average. His first two years in the league, Brantley was the summation of the average hitter. He had a 105 and 101 wRC+ in 2012 and 2013 respectively, and he was worth a combined 4.2 fWAR. The average hitter logs a 100 wRC+ and is generally worth 2.0 wins but that’s not what a centerpiece of an offense should be doing.
If Brantley is out there just kind of getting it done we’d have to hope that Francisco Lindor’s rookie year wasn’t a fluke, Jason Kipnis keeps doing what he did last year, Yan Gomes returns to form, Mike Napoli flashes power and a good eye and Carlos Santana is fully healthy and recovered from his nagging injury of a season ago. Maybe not all those things, Brantley is good but not THAT good, but at least two or three would have to happen for the Indians to contend and deal with their best hitter descending to mediocrity. Perhaps it's a salute to his leap to stardom that Brantley being bad means being perfectly average, but the guy set a pretty high bar for himself and he's earned it.
Torn labrum surgery is no joke, seeing as that piece of the body is needed to lift things and, in Brantley's case, club baseballs. But it’s also relatively routine and safe for a player his age and ability, just a bit more severe than the "cleanup" surgeries that football players seem to get.
It’s probable that he comes back and performs like he has in the past, though perhaps with a bit of time to round into form. I also wouldn’t expect him to have a slugging percentage north of .500. Jeff Zimmerman at The Hardball Times has noted in the past that a shoulder injury can cause a roughly 20 point reduction in OPS for a player the year following surgery, which wouldn’t be terrible considering Brantley notched a combined .856 OPS the last two years since finding himself. That’s what I would expect. Double-digit home runs might happen with a sudden hot streak in the right park with the right pitcher, but it’d be more like 10 to 12 than the 20 he hit in 2014. Unless some sort of complication rears its ugly head, a similar year to last season is totally viable.
Brantley is going to be a shot in the arm for the Indians once he returns in May, but if anyone out there is expecting a prorated year like he had in 2014, reassess your chemical intake. That was the outlier year, the breakout. Which isn’t a bad thing; he proved he could hit with the best of them last season and that’s pretty much what you should expect out of him in 2016. Maybe a few less ringing shots off the wall and a few more sharp grounders up the middle as he works his way back, but he’ll work counts, get on base and get in runs.
Brantley will likely get some rest every few days and DH a decent amount though that role might be a bit clogged with Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana alternating. Perhaps against tough right-handers, Brantley will DH, Napoli will sit, Santana will play first and Rajai Davis will cover left.
The recent suspension of Abraham Almonte makes things a bit more curious, but the Indians will figure it out. And with his needing partial days off, Brantley plays right into the hands of Terry Francona’s platoon love. April will be a tough go without Dr. Smooth, but they can do it especially if the pitching and defense shows up on time. Then once that calendar flips, it’s game on.