The Astros have been without Michael Brantley for six weeks, and there’s no clear timetable for his potential return. Acting manager Joe Espada told reporters this afternoon that the veteran outfielder was currently away from the team as he sought a second opinion on his injured right shoulder (via Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle). Espada declined to elaborate when asked whether that meant surgery was on the table.
Houston hasn’t revealed many specifics about Brantley’s injury — the Astros tend to play things close to the vest when providing health updates generally — but the announcement of a second opinion certainly seems alarming. It comes just days after general manager James Click acknowledged that “with every passing day, you have to kind of take an honest look” at whether the five-time All-Star will be able to make it back at all in 2022. At the very least, it doesn’t seem he’ll be back imminently.
Owners of an 11-game cushion in the AL West, the Astros can certainly afford to play things cautiously with their injured players. They’d obviously love to top the Yankees for home field advantage in the American League playoff field, but Houston’s a virtual lock to hold onto one of the top two seeds in the Junior Circuit to earn a first-round bye. Still, it’d be ideal to get Brantley some at-bats late in the regular campaign to get back to game speed before the playoffs. Whether the 35-year-old will be able to make it back at any point, regular season or postseason, appears murky.
Losing Brantley for the postseason, if it comes to that, would be a tough blow to the Houston lineup. He’s remained one of the game’s preeminent “professional hitters,” carrying a .288/.370/.416 line across 277 plate appearances. Brantley only has five home runs, but he’s picked up 14 doubles and walked more often than he’s struck out (11.2% against 10.8%, respectively). He’s in the waning months of the two-year, $32MM contract he signed to return to Houston over the 2020-21 offseason.
Since Brantley went down, the club has relied on Chas McCormick and Aledmys Díaz as its primary left field options. Both players are having nice seasons, but Díaz is the top depth infielder while McCormick would be in the best position to take center field playing time if the team were to move away from the struggling Jake Meyers. They’ve rotated Yordan Alvarez into left field on occasion, but keeping him primarily at designated hitter could be the best way to ensure he’s holding up physically to have his bat in the lineup on a daily basis. Rome tweeted yesterday that newly-acquired Trey Mancini was taking some pregame reps in left field as well. Mancini started 13 games in the corner outfield with the Orioles this season but spent the bulk of his time at either first base or designated hitter. He’s not logged substantial outfield playing time since 2019.
While the club awaits further word on Brantley, they are set to receive one notable reinforcement over the next few days. Lance McCullers Jr. will be reinstated from the 60-day injured list to start Saturday against the A’s, Espada announced (via Mark Berman of Fox 26). It’ll be the righty’s season debut, his first appearance since he suffered a flexor strain in his forearm during last year’s postseason. Houston will need to create a vacancy on the 40-man roster, although that can be achieved by transferring Brantley to the 60-day injured list (a procedural move since the outfielder certainly won’t be ready for an MLB return within the next two weeks).
McCullers has made four rehab starts over the past couple weeks. He topped out at five innings and 86 pitches with Triple-A Sugar Land on Sunday. It’s unlikely the Astros will throw him right back into a typical starter’s workload out of the gate, but he should have plenty of time to build into that role before the postseason gets underway.
It’s another addition to a rotation that already boasts the majors second-best ERA (3.18). McCullers was arguably the team’s top pitcher in 2021, tossing 162 1/3 innings of 3.16 ERA ball with a quality 27% strikeout rate and an excellent 56.4% ground-ball percentage. If he recaptures that kind of form after nearly a year of rehab, he’ll add another high-octane arm to a playoff rotation that’s sure to feature Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez and could also include any of Luis Garcia, Cristian Javier or José Urquidy.