Francona has been encouraged by Brantley's progress in his comeback from offseason shoulder surgery, but the manager will only go as far as saying that the left fielder appears to be ahead of his initial timetable. After Brantley underwent an operation to repair a labral tear in his right shoulder in November, Cleveland estimated that he might be ready by late April or sometime in May.
"I don't think it's going to be that long," Francona said on Wednesday morning. "He's trying to push to get ready. In fairness to him, if I say that [he'll be back for the opener on April 4] and then he doesn't play on Opening Day, it's like, 'Well, what happened?' That's not fair to him. He's doing a really good job of getting ready. That's good enough."
This week, Brantley has advanced to soft-toss hitting sessions in Cleveland's indoor batting cage at its Arizona training facility. The outfielder went through non-contact swinging workouts and then hitting off a tee before moving to the current step. When the training staff feels Brantley is ready to take another step, he will take batting practice in the cage before eventually doing so on the field.
Brantley will likely need to hit in live batting practice or in a simulated environment before being cleared to play in Cactus League games. The Indians have not given a firm timetable for those steps in Brantley's return to the field.
"He's kind of flown through this," Francona said. "Now, to his credit, he spent a ton of time in Cleveland [in the offseason]. Then, instead of going home, he came out here. So, he has given himself every chance possible to get better as quickly as possible. We appreciate it. Guys don't have to do that. They have families and kids and stuff. He really understands how much we rely on him."
Last season, the 28-year-old Brantley hit .310 with 15 homers, 45 doubles, 84 RBIs and more walks (60) than strikeouts (51) in 137 games for the Indians, while battling a variety of health issues. One year earlier, the left fielder finished third in American League Most Valuable Player Award voting and picked up a Silver Slugger Award.
When Brantley does make it back to the lineup, he will likely return as the Tribe's No. 3 hitter.
"He's such a consistent presence," Francona said. "He may not hit 30 home runs, but sitting wherever he hits -- in the three hole -- you know that he's going to give you good at-bats every day. Even when he doesn't feel good at the plate, he's still that presence and he's going to give you a good at-bat. He's a really nice guy to have."