GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- On a day meant for celebrating that pitchers and catchers officially reported for spring duty, it was what took place in the outdoor batting cages at the Indians' Arizona headquarters that stole the spotlight on Wednesday morning.
Left fielder Michael Brantley emerged from the clubhouse -- batting gloves on and bat in hand -- and headed to the hitting tunnels for a round of non-contact swings. With hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo and a team trainer keeping an eye on the workout, Brantley went through a series of swings, testing the right shoulder that was surgically repaired in November.
"It's just a good sign to see that he's this far along in his rehab, that he's able to go out and take dry swings," Van Burkleo said. "And he's getting closer to transitioning to hitting off a tee and doing the stages to getting to where he's taking BP, and then getting in a game. It's encouraging to see where he's at. He's done a really good job of rehabbing it and getting it to where he's at this point."
Van Burkleo noted that Brantley began this first step in his hitting progression a few days ago. The outfielder moved into his stance, focused on the part of the tee where a baseball would typically sit and then repeated his swing for a couple of minutes before taking a break. Brantley went through a few sets of swings before heading back inside the clubhouse to resume his rehab program in the training room.
Not a great photo, but this is as close as I could get to Brantley's 1st hitting session of spring. Important step. pic.twitter.com/4AufXlV29C
For now, Brantley is not on a strict hitting program. Instead, the Indians' medical and training staff is assessing how the outfielder feels each day and planning accordingly. With that approach, days off from hitting can be taken if the team feels rest would be more beneficial than increasing the workout intensity. After all, Cleveland wants to make sure that Brantley is pacing himself, rather than pushing too hard too soon.
"That's our job, and that's our medical staff's job," Indians general manager Mike Chernoff said. "If you ask him, he'll probably tell you [he's aiming to be ready by] Opening Day. So it's on us to make sure that we do this for the long haul, and that it doesn't end up being something that lingers, because we rushed his rehab process."
Van Burkleo noted that Brantley's right shoulder plays a critical role in the outfielder's consistent swing mechanics.
"It's very important, especially his swing," Van Burkleo said. "His bottom hand is really what he likes to maintain and do drills to keep that where it needs to be. So, yeah, that bottom hand is important."
Coming off a third place finish in voting for the American League Most Valuable Player Award in 2014, Brantley hit .310 with 15 home runs, 45 doubles, 84 RBIs and more walks (60) than strikeouts (51) in 137 games in '15 for the Tribe. Last season, Brantley endured a handful of health issues, including the right shoulder injury that necessitated surgery on Nov. 9.
The procedure, performed by Dr. Craig Morgan in Wilmington, Del., repaired a torn labrum and came with an initial timetable of five to six months for Brantley's return. The Indians have been consistent in saying that Brantley's comeback could be delayed until April or May. Needless to say, his progress to date makes a swift return seem possible.
"In the winter, I heard a report of August and I was like, 'Whoa,'" Van Burkleo said. "But, knowing him and his makeup and how hard he works, and our training staff, how diligent they are, I'm pleased, but I wouldn't say I'm surprised [by his progress]."
Chernoff echoed that sentiment.
"Everything has been encouraging so far," said the Indians' GM. "He has been super diligent in his rehab and has put himself in a position to get on the field as early as possible. He committed himself completely this winter. He came into Cleveland. And, given the kind of leader and type of person he is, it's not surprising at all that he did that. But it's still important and encouraging."