CLEVELAND -- The Indians were optimistic that Michael Brantley would avoid an operation this offseason. During his sit-down with reporters at the end of last season, the outfielder also expressed confidence in his ability to rehab his ailing right shoulder in order to circumvent surgery.
Reality caught up to Cleveland on Monday morning, when Brantley underwent an arthroscopic procedure on his non-throwing shoulder that will cost him 5-6 months of recovery time. The hope was to sidestep this day, but now the Indians need to adjust their offseason plans accordingly and be ready for the possibility that their star left fielder might not be available until late April or early May.
"Our goal is to have him ready for the start of the season, obviously," said James Quinlan, the Indians' head athletic trainer. "But we need to be prepared for this to carry on a little bit into April."
The surgery -- performed by Dr. Craig Morgan in Wilmington, Del. -- was aimed at repairing a small labral tear, which was first detected by the Indians after an MRI exam late in the season. Quinlan said Cleveland's medical staff knew that surgery was a possibility, but both the Indians and Brantley wanted to try a conservative rehab program before taking that step.
Following the initial injury, which occurred on a diving catch attempt by Brantley in the third inning of a game against the Twins on Sept. 22, the left fielder missed 10 of the Tribe's final 12 games. Brantley received an injection, went through a period of rest and then continued through a two-week program that included strengthening exercises and a return to light hitting.
Other players have had success with similar programs, but Brantley's discomfort persisted throughout the process. Quinlan said any injury involving the shoulder is "challenging," noting that a lot of times it comes down to the individual player.
"When we saw his labrum tear, there's obviously some thought that surgery would be a possibility," Quinlan said. "But we've seen in the past that a lot of guys are able to get through [it with] conservative management. Really, you let your symptoms dictate that. So sometimes it's just something that you have to go through, a process of strengthening and rest and, if the symptoms subside, then you know you're in a good spot.
"If they don't, you're balancing out how much strengthening you give it vs. the fact that he needs to be ready for a full baseball season. You have a certain amount of time to work with and [Brantley] did a great job of trying to balance that out and get through with the conservative approach, until it got to a certain point where he knew that he was going to need to get something done so he could be his normal self."
Brantley asked to seek a second opinion, and Quinlan said the Indians always support their players' requests along those lines.
At the end of the season, Brantley said, "Nobody ever wants to go under the knife. As it stands right now, we're heading in the right direction. We have a great game plan going forward, a great week-and-a-half, two-week process that we're going to move on from this point and see how it goes."
Quinlan also noted that Brantley, who lives in Florida during the offseason, will spend a large portion of his winter in Cleveland in order to stay on top of the surgery rehab under the watch of the Indians' medical team. Brantley will then likely head to the team's complex in Goodyear, Ariz., before position players are required to report for Spring Training in February.
Barring any further setbacks, Quinlan said the hope is Brantley will be able to begin a hitting program by the four-month mark before transitioning to rehab game action by five months. If everything goes according to plan, that would put Brantley on target for Major League games by six months, or around May.
While the injury does not involve Brantley's throwing arm, the issue does affect his hitting.
"It's his lead shoulder with hitting," Quinlan explained. "So from our mindset, from a rehab standpoint for him, it's almost just as stressful. You've got to follow through, and that shoulder really needs to be strong with initiating his swing and follow-through."
In 137 games, which marked Brantley's fewest in a season since 2011, the left-handed hitter turned in a .310 average to go along with 15 home runs, 84 RBIs and a Major League-leading 45 doubles. Brantley added 15 steals and 68 runs, and he finished with more walks (60) than strikeouts (51), while battling issues with his back and both shoulders at various points throughout the season.
"He's unbelievable," Quinlan said. "He comes to the field every day and really works his tail off to play through everything, and to play with injuries or sorenesses or things like that. He has great feel for what he needs to get to to be productive on the field. It's impressive."
Brantley led the Majors with 90 doubles combined over the 2014-15 seasons, and he hit .319 with an .876 OPS in that span. In '14, he became the first player in Indians history to have at least 20 steals, 20 homers, 40 doubles and 200 hits in a single season, a year in which he was an All-Star, a Silver Slugger Award recipient and third-place finisher in American League Most Valuable Player Award voting.
Brantley and Roberto Alomar (1999-2000) are the only players in Cleveland history to have two seasons consisting of at least 15 steals, 15 homers, 40 doubles and 150 hits.
The Indians ended last season with an outfield trio of Brantley in left, Abraham Almonte in center and Lonnie Chisenhall in right. Cleveland might be in the market for a center fielder, enabling the versatile Almonte to transition to a fourth-outfielder role. Chisenhall displayed above-average defense in right, but might need a part-time platoon partner for facing left-handed pitching. In light of Brantley's injury, left field now has a question mark for Opening Day as well.
Brantley said he hated missing time due to healthy issues throughout last season.
"The competitor I am, I wanted to be out there," Brantley said. "You've got to listen to your manager, the doctors, the trainers and listen to what they say, take into consideration that as well. Deep down inside, any game that I miss, I want to be out there with my teammates."