The Indians announced that they’ve activated outfielder Michael Brantley from the 10-day disabled list. Fellow outfielder Tyler Naquin was optioned to Triple-A Columbus to clear a spot on the 25-man roster for Brantley, who’d opened the year on the DL while finalizing his recovery from offseason ankle surgery.
Durability has been a major concern for Brantley in recent years, as he’s undergone a pair of shoulder operations in addition to this offseason’s ankle surgery. Those ailments combined to limit the 30-year-old to just 101 games since Opening Day 2016.
Given Brantley’s recent rash of injuries, it’s easy to forget just how great of a player he can be at full strength. Long a quality outfield piece in Cleveland, “Dr. Smooth” broke out as one of the American League’s best all-around players in a 2014 season that saw him finish third in the AL MVP race after posting a superlative .327/.385/.506 batting line with a league-leading 45 doubles, 20 homers and 23 steals. Brantley followed that up with a similarly excellent .310/.379/.480 slash the following season and looked to be an emerging star before initially injuring his shoulder while diving for a catch in the left-center gap at Target Field in Minneapolis that September.
His injury troubles notwithstanding, Brantley saw his $12MM club option exercised by the Indians last November. Given the offseason surgery and the manner in which corner outfielders were further devalued in free agency this winter, the Cleveland front office may prefer a mulligan on that decision, though Brantley was worth more than $12MM in just 90 games last season when he hit .290/.357/.444 with 20 doubles, nine homers and 11 steals.
The 2018 season will be a crucial one for Brantley, whose contract expires at season’s end. If he can steer clear of the DL for the first time since 2014 and convince clubs that his shoulder and ankle are largely healthy, then it stands to reason that a player with his ability and track record could land a nice multi-year deal in his first foray into the open market. If the 2018 season is again marred by injuries, however, that outcome seems decidedly less likely.
As for Naquin, he’ll head back to Columbus and hope for yet another opportunity to prove that his terrific 2016 campaign wasn’t a fluke. The former first-rounder had seen his prospect star fade but was called upon in the wake of Brantley’s injuries and capitalized in surprising fashion. Through 365 plate appearances that season, Naquin slashed .296/.372/.514 with 14 homers — good enough to finish third in AL Rookie of the Year voting. That production, though, was accompanied by a sky-high .411 BABIP and 30.7 percent strikeout rate, so it’s perhaps not hard to see why the Indians remain unconvinced that he can replicate those numbers.
[Related: Cleveland Indians depth chart]
Naquin has since been leapfrogged by Bradley Zimmer on the team’s depth chart, and with Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall, Rajai Davis and Brandon Guyer rounding out the big league outfield. Brantley, Chisenhall, Davis and possibly Guyer ($3MM club option) are all free agents after the 2018 season, though, so keeping Naquin on hand as depth makes sense for Cleveland.