Posted on July 10, 2016 by Bryan Zarpentine

Cleveland Indians Michael Brantley

Image via Cleveland.com

The Cleveland Indians may soon add an x-factor capable of altering the hierarchy in the American League. Outfielder Michael Brantley is scheduled to begin a minor league rehab assignment on Monday and could be ready to return to the Indians after a week or so of playing in the minors. The Indians hold a 6.5 game lead atop the AL Central heading into Sunday, but the return of Brantley could shift the power in the American League in Cleveland’s favor.

Brantley has played just 11 games for the Indians this year, but he emerged as one of the best outfielders in baseball in recent years. He hasn’t played since May 7 due to pain in his shoulder and biceps. Brantley recovered from a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder that he suffered late last season, but the injury flared up soon after his return in late April after he began 2016 on the DL.

Last Tuesday, Brantley took batting practice for the first time since going to the DL. “I feel normal,” Brantley said afterwards. “For the last week or so, I’ve been swinging the bat great in the cage. I’ve been itching to get back out here, but with the same swing I’m taking in the cage every day, transition that out to the field and BP outside. That’s all we’re doing different. It’s very exciting how I feel right now.”

Brantley has continued to take batting practice since then, and now the plan is for Brantley to play five innings on Monday for Cleveland’s short-season affiliate before moving onto A-ball on Wednesday. By next weekend, Brantley is expected to be moved up to double-A if all goes well. From there, it could only be a matter of time until Brantley returns to the Indians.

With the best pitching staff in the American League, one could describe the Indians as being one bat away from being a serious contender to reach the World Series, and Brantley could be that bat. If Brantley is able to come back healthy and start producing the way he has the past couple of seasons, he’d be a difference maker in Cleveland’s lineup.

Players like Rajai Davis and Jose Ramirez have done well to fill the void left by Brantley, but the player Brantley has been the past couple of years has a chance to be the best hitter in Cleveland’s lineup. His return could allow Ramirez to play third base, which is his natural position, and give the Indians more depth in their lineup and on their bench.

Brantley’s return could also take away any pressure the Indians have to add a hitter via the trade market this summer. When asked last week how Brantley may impact any trades, Cleveland’s President of Baseball Operations Chris Antonetti said “There is no bigger acquisition we could make than getting a healthy Michael Brantley back.” Antonetti didn’t rule out trading for another bat, but if Brantley can give Cleveland’s offense a boost, the Indians could use their resources to address other areas of the team, such as the bullpen.

Obviously, it will take Brantley at least a week of rehab games to be ready to return to the Indians. However, Cleveland has been without him for most of the season and is in good shape heading into the all-star break. If the Indians are able to get one of their best players back from injury the second half of the season, it could help put them over the top and make them one of the leading favorites in the American League moving forward.

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