The Indians announced on Thursday that outfielder Michael Brantley underwent arthroscopic surgery yesterday to stabilize the ligaments in his ailing right ankle. Brantley is expected to require four to five months of recovery time before he’s cleared to resume baseball activities, per the announcement. The news of surgery comes as a fairly notable surprise, as the Indians had deemed Brantley healthy enough to carry on their postseason roster in the American League Division Series against the Yankees.
The shorter end of the provided timeline would put Brantley on track to be ready for baseball activity just before position players report to Spring Training, though if his recovery extends to the five-month mark or even a bit beyond, he’d only be ready for the tail end of Spring Training.
Brantley’s timeline is of particular note given that the Indians hold a club option over him for the 2018 season. As MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian points out (via Twitter), Brantley’s third-place finish in the 2014 American League MVP voting boosted the value of that option from $11MM to $12MM, though the $1MM buyout price remains unchanged. That option long appeared a virtual lock to be exercised, but Brantley’s durability issues in recent years will at least somewhat cloud the possibility given the team’s relatively tight payroll capacity. After the season, president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti told reporters that the team has envisioned Brantley as part of the organization not only in 2018 but beyond (Twitter link via Ryan Lewis of the Akron Beacon Journal).
The 30-year-old Brantley suffered a severe shoulder injury while diving for a ball in left field late in the 2015 season and ultimately required a pair of shoulder surgeries. He was limited to just 11 games and 43 plate appearances in 2016, though he did return with a considerably healthier and more productive campaign in 2017. This past season, Brantley took the field for 90 games and hit .299/.357/.444 with nine homers and 11 steals in 375 plate appearances. His shoulder held up throughout the year, but he still missed nearly half the season due to the ankle issue that necessitated yesterday’s surgical procedure.
Certainly, the upside of a fully healthy Brantley is enormous. The former seventh-round pick broke out as one of baseball’s best pure hitters in 2014-15, and a one-year commitment worth $12MM would represent a clear bargain. However, the Indians already have a bit more than $73MM committed to next year’s payroll plus another roughly $33MM worth of projected arbitration salaries. Adding Brantley’s $12MM to the books would bring next year’s projected payroll to a fairly hefty $118MM before the team even began to address any offseason needs. Cleveland’s payroll this season opened at $124MM and came in around $133MM in total, but the team also had a bit of added revenue from last year’s deep World Series run — a benefit they obviously won’t enjoy this year.
[Related: Cleveland Indians payroll outlook]
Bastian has written that the Indians could explore the possibility of shifting Brantley from the outfield to first base, and doing so would cross off one notable offseason need while also allowing for the possibility of Jason Kipnis playing left field, Bradley Zimmer manning center, Jose Ramirez handling second base and Yandy Diaz slotting in at the hot corner. It would also mean less running and diving for Brantley, which could bode well for the health of both his ankle and his shoulder.
On the other hand, buying out Brantley’s option would leave the Indians with a bit more offseason maneuverability as they look to address potential holes at first base/DH and potentially in the corner outfield and the bullpen. The team has until three days after the conclusion of the World Series to ultimately make a call on Brantley’s option, but that decision certainly looks more complicated in light of a significant operation and a potential five-month recovery period.