Michael Brantley’s return to the Cleveland Indians has hit another roadblock, as the All-Star left fielder reporter more soreness around his right shoulder after taking batting practice last week. He went to a specialist and has been diagnosed with chronic biceps tendinitis. Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti says another surgery for Brantley is "a possibility," but that the team is waiting to hear the full recommendation from a team of doctors.
Brantley first injured his shoulder last September 22, while diving for a ball in a game against the Twins. He underwent surgery in early November, made his Cactus League (spring training) debut in late March, was on the disabled list for the first three weeks of the season, played poorly in 11 games during late April and early May, and has been back on the DL since May 14. Since then he’s received a couple cortisone shots and undergone a procedure to remove scar tissue around his shoulder.
I think many most Tribe fans had already mentally prepared themselves for the possibility that Brantley wouldn’t be back this season, and this latest setback should force the holdouts to accept that possibility, because even if the team of doctors decides that surgery isn’t required, Brantley is running out of time to rest and rehab.
At this point questions and wonderings may turn from what’s left of 2016 towards 2017 and beyond. And when Indians fans start to wonder about a great hitter returning from shoulder problems, it’s natural for the minds to wander towards Travis Hafner.
(Many fans' minds will also wander to Grady Sizemore, an even better player whose career was dramatically altered for the worse by injuries, but his injuries were more varied, making Hafner the more accurate comparison point for Brantley.)
Pronk was awesome
From 2004 to 2006, Hafner was the best hitter in the American League, posting a batting line of .308/.419/.611 during those three seasons, with a wRC+ of 167. The only other Indians hitter in the last decade to have even one full season with a wRC+ within 20 points of that is Brantley, in 2014. Hafner was hampered by some non-chronic injuries in 2007, then in 2008 his shoulder began to bother him. He missed more than 100 games that season. During his final five seasons with the Indians (2008-2012), Hafner averaged only 86 games a season, which means he was out for more than 47% of the team's games during that time. When he was able to play, he was still a decent hitter, with a wRC+ of 114 during those years, but that was a far cry from his peak. Brantley was a great hitter in 2014 and 2015, but not nearly as great as Hafner, and a similar drop in his wRC+ would make him a below-average hitter.
Obviously, it's too soon to say what sort of total damage Brantley's shoulder problems are going to do to his career. They've cost him one season at this point, but it's possible that will be it, and that he'll be back to something like his old self come Opening Day next season. He's two years younger than Hafner was when Hafner's shoulder troubles began, and it's reasonable to point out that Hafner's production had already dipped a great deal in 2007, before the shoulder trouble. Based on age and build, I think a betting man would favor Brantley's chances for recovery over Hafner's. On the other hand, Hafner's shoulder pain was never bad enough to limit him to only eleven games in a season.
The other key difference in assessing the situations is the contract status of each player. The Indians signed Hafner to a large contract extension during the All-Star break in 2007, so that he was highly paid all the way through 2012. The Indians were able to sign Brantley to a more team-friendly extension years ago. 2017 is the final guaranteed year of that deal, and he's only going to cost the team $8.375 million. The $11 million team option for 2018 once seemed almost certain to be picked up (and if Brantley plays 120+ games next season and is above average at the plate, that option will still be picked up), but if things don't get much better between now and then, the Indians can instead buy that option out for just $1 million. Obviously, we want the healthy version of Brantley back, but there's no danger this time of 20% of the team's payroll being tied up for four frustrating seasons.
No blame, just sadness
A number of fans will tell you that Brantley's repeated setbacks are a sign the Indians have mishandled his recovery and that his situation's similarities to Hafner's mean the Tribe's medical staff is flawed. I don't put any stock in those theories, though, because I lack real knowledge of both what all was really done, and how all of that compares to what any other medical staff would have done. I prefer not to attack someone's professionalism and character unless I know more about the situation.
The memories of Hafner's trouble that Brantley's situation have brought back for me aren't about blaming anyone, they're just a painful reminder that in a world where greatness is so closely tied to the human body's ability to perform near flawlessly, greatness can be incredibly fleeting.