Spring training stats aren’t worth paying attention to, but spring training performance certainly is, on a day-to-day basis. Each day, we here at FanRag Sports will be singling out one player who had the best performance of the day, and what it might mean going forward.
Monday’s Player of the Day honors go to Cleveland Indians outfielder Michael Brantley, who finished the day 2-for-3 with a run scored and a run batted in while playing left field in the Indians’ contest with the Los Angeles Dodgers; he was pulled after 3 at bats with the game still underway.
It’s almost a cliche at this point to look at a player who missed quite a bit of time the previous season as “an addition,” but it holds true in the case of the defending American League-champion Indians. Cleveland won first its division, then its league, and very nearly the World Series despite having Brantley in the lineup for just 11 games and 43 plate appearances last season. Dealing with shoulder surgery and a few setbacks in his rehab, it’s easy to forget just how good Brantley is, especially given Cleveland’s success despite his absence.
Brantley, now 29 and turning 30 in May, took over full-time duties with the Indians in 2011, and played between 114 and 156 games each season through 2015. Over that time, he slashed .297/.354/.436, hit 177 doubles and 58 home runs, drove in 360 runs, scored another 354, and stole 80 bases in 100 attempts. He was a top-30 player in baseball by bWAR over that time, and in 2014 made the All-Star team while finishing third in the MVP race. He’s very, very good.
But we didn’t get that Brantley, or any Brantley, last season. Even though Cleveland played well without him, he adds another dimension to the lineup, one that makes the team that much better on paper. An outfield of Brantley, Tyler Naquin and a platoon of Brandon Guyer and Lonnie Chisenhall has potential to be one of the best in the league; if you replace Brantley with, say, Abraham Almonte, it’s still good, but the drop-off is noticeable — especially if Brantley is fully healthy and returns to his normal form.
He may not be able to do that right away; Brantley only just started playing the field in spring training, and still has a long way to go to prove that he’s healthy, can maintain that health, and will be back to his usual self once he is. A leap back to his All-Star-caliber self from Day 1 is as unlikely as it is unfair to expect. But as the season goes along, and Brantley is able to play himself back into game shape while letting his muscle memory take over once again, we could be looking at a 2017 Cleveland team that’s better than last season’s 94-win version that came within a win of its first World Series title since 1948.
A (hopefully) healthy pitching staff and the addition of Edwin Encarnacion should already make the Indians better. The continued growth of youngsters Naquin and Francisco Lindor will help as well. But the return of Michael Brantley to Cleveland could be the difference between pennant and World Series if everything else breaks just right.
Monday was, perhaps, one of the first steps in making that a reality.