Even though he said he was happy for his teammates and had a great attitude, it had to be killing Michael Brantley to miss the amazing postseason run by the Tribe last fall. Leading into last season, Brantley had been the club’s most consistent and productive players for a few years. He really began to become popular and recognized around the majors when he emerged during his all-star season in 2014 and became Cleveland’s consensus best all-around player.
Brantley was one of the finalists for AL MVP that year as he hit .327 with 20 home runs, 97 RBI, and 45 RBI. He also did a great job in the outfield with 12 assists throwing out baserunners. Brantley mainly played left field but also did a pretty good job in center as well. He was having another great year in 2015 with a .310 batting average, 15 home runs, 84 RBI, and 45 doubles, but he went down late in the year with a shoulder injury. He tried to come back last year but only played in 11 games because of lingering issues and didn’t look like himself.
All throughout last season, Tribe fans kept talking about how great the lineup would be if we could just get Brantley back and healthy, but a lot of people around baseball cautioned them that he may never be the same. Shoulder injuries can linger and affect a player’s swing and throwing ability, and some players never recover completely from something like that. Throughout the offseason, I kept thinking about how a healthy Brantley and the addition of Edwin Encarnacion could be like adding bona fide 3 and 4 hitters to an offense that was already one of the best in the American League last season. Encarnacion is off to a slow start, but if he can get anywhere near the numbers he had the last few years, he will be an improvement over Mike Napoli from last years lineup.
So far this year, it looks like “Dr. Smooth is back and looking to regain his form from the 2014 and 2015 seasons. He may not be the consensus best all-round player anymore because of the emergence of a youngster named Francisco Lindor, but he is batting .300 with 4 home runs, 15 RBI, and 4 doubles through 18 games so far. He has also shown some of the clutch hitting ability that helped earn him the Dr. Smooth nickname, and it included an emotional walk-off hit to win the home opener against the White Sox.
I have tried not to count on Brantley contributing what he did in the 2014 and 2015 seasons because I didn’t even know if he would be ready to go at the beginning of the year, and I didn’t know if he would continue to have lingering issues with his shoulder. However, after watching him play at a high level for almost the entire first month of the season, I’m starting to get very excited. Combining his smooth swing with the inevitable improvement from Encarnacion and getting Jason Kipnis reacclimated to the lineup could give the Indians an offensive jolt to add to their already solid, young lineup.
Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez have started the season as hot as they were last year. Lonnie Chisenhall is providing a steady bat at the bottom of the lineup and is doing a pretty decent job defensively in center field. This lineup is starting to take shape and looks like it has the ability to strike fear into pitchers around the major leagues. As a cornerstone of this organization for many years, it would be really cool to see Dr. Smooth become the missing piece that puts the Indians over the top and helps them win their first World Series Championship since 1948.