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Michael Brantley, past, present, and future

What’s past is prologue, but which past will Brantley draw from?

MLB: Cleveland Indians-Media Day Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Oh, Michael.

I don’t know what we can possibly say at this point. Of course we want you to be on the team. Of course we want you to be healthy. A season of 600 plate appearances would so satisfy that the results might become secondary. Once, a third of the outfield felt secure for perhaps an entire decade. Now, we would settle for a third of a season from you.

This year, we enjoyed 90 games and 375 plate appearances. For many of those, you seemed to be fully healthy. Your stat line on the year - .295/.357/.444, with 11 stolen bases and 9 home runs - isn’t something anyone can get too upset a vacuum. We feel pretty sure that a fully healthy Michael Brantley is good for another 20-20 season, and might even knock on the door of the 30-30 club the way the ball flies now.

Defensively, you played a competent left field. This season you appeared to be fine, but nobody really hits balls into play anymore, so who knows? Glove is not time’s fool, though agile legs and hands within his bending sickle’s compass come, as does the rest of the body.

It’s not just future defense that worries us deeply enough to butcher Shakespeare for the sake of making a point, Michael. It’s that we may never see the peak again. The aging curve in baseball is all too often the final drop of a theme park water ride, except it’s the team that gets soaked. We don’t think that the Cleveland front office is wandering around the Flats mumbling, “I’ve made a huge mistake,” but maybe, just maybe, they’ll be doing that next August.

We want to believe that the latest surgery you underwent is the last. We want to see you sprinting, mashing, and sliding only as often as absolutely necessary in March. The current timeframe makes it seem like this isn’t possible, but we can believe. We want to see you representing us in the midsummer classic, an event which you have the talent to reach every year. And you did it this year, too, riding your early season health. You missed only two weeks of baseball before the break, and all felt wonderful.

Then you missed nearly two months at the end of the season. Normally this is when we would have needed you most, but as you sat in the dugout the team ripped through the longest winning streak in league history. How are we supposed to feel about this? On one hand, we would have loved to have one of our best players on the roster during that stretch. Could 22 wins have turned to 23? On the other hand, few teams have ever looked as dominant as the Indians did during that stretch, Michael. We watched them do it without you.

There are other things we wonder about, too. Is your increased strikeout rate just an aberration? Maybe a result of seeing less actual game time? It’s climbed up to 13-14% rather than the customary 8-9% we’re used to. Are those hands beginning to slow down? Your swinging strike percentage is up two points over the last two years. You’re pulling fewer balls. You’re rolling over into more grounders. None of these have advanced by leaps and bounds, but it gives us some pause.

I think many of use have accepted that we will never see 2014 Michael Brantley again, no matter how badly we want to. Few players are as effective at 31 as they were at 27. Fewer players miss the majority of their prime due to injury. As bittersweet as it is, we’d love for you to be one of the select few who claims membership to both groups. And maybe if we’re truly bold, we can imagine that you’ll grow old like Hank Aaron, for whom the approach of old age seemed more like a retreat.

If we had our way, we would bottle up opening day from last year — your walk off hit, a moment that seemed to signal the end of struggle and a return to greatness — then distill it across an entire season. We can’t do that, but we’re going to be rooting for you no matter what.