Brantley to make Cactus debut tonight

First spring appearance follows Minors intrasquad game; Opening Day still on the table

Brantley to make Cactus debut tonight

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Opening Day has always been Michael Brantley's target date for his return. Up to this point this spring, Indians manager Terry Francona has downplayed that possibility, noting the many hurdles remaining in the left fielder's comeback from right shoulder surgery.

On Friday morning, Francona finally admitted to feeling a bit more optimistic about Brantley's chances of opening the season with Cleveland.

Spring Training information

"I'm optimistic, just because of how he's feeling and how he's doing," Francona said. "Again, I'm not ready to [say he will be on the Opening Day roster]. I don't think it's fair to him. I'm just really excited about where he's at in his progression. Other than that. I'll just let it play itself out."

The next step for Brantley arrives on Saturday night, when he is scheduled to play left field and get a handful of at-bats in the Tribe's 10:05 p.m. ET Cactus League game against the Cubs, live on Gameday Audio. It will mark Brantley's first official Spring Training appearance, following his game debut in a Minor League intrasquad game on Thursday morning at Cleveland's complex.

In that game between the Indians' Triple-A and Double-A affiliates, Brantley grounded out twice and had an outfield assist from left field. Francona was not concerned with the end results of Brantley's at-bats, but focused instead on the fact that the outfielder felt fine during the game and rebounded well health-wise on Friday morning.

"I couldn't care less if he gets a hit on Field whatever it is," Francona said. "Just the fact that he's in the game, I think he was excited. He was playing the game, and he was playing left field like he was excited. That's good. The stuff he's been doing is so taxing that, man, he kind of has to be healthy. He's getting after it."

There are only 17 days remaining until the Indians' season opener against the Red Sox on April 4 in Cleveland, leaving little time for Brantley to accumulate the kind of volume at-bats that hitters typically get during Spring Training. Given the nature of Brantley's consistent and compact swing, Francona did not seem too concerned about the timeframe.

"I'm not that worried about his number of at-bats," Francona said. "If he's healthy, and he's able to do what he can do, he's a very good player. Even to the point where, if we had to know going [into the regular season] that maybe he wasn't quite ready to play a day game after a night game, having Michael for three out of four, as opposed to not having him, we'll take."

If Brantley is ready in time for Opening Day, that would solve one hold in the Tribe's uncompleted outfield puzzle.

Veteran Rajai Davis was signed to a one-year contract over the offseason, and he can provide an option for left and center field. Lonnie Chisenhall was a standout defensively as a right fielder down the stretch last year and projects to have a home at that spot to begin this year. Center-field prospect Tyler Naquin has impressed this spring and Cleveland is also looking at Marlon Byrd, Collin Cowgill, Joey Butler and Will Venable, among others.

Whenever Brantley is deemed healthy and available, he will help shore up the outfield situation.

"We'll see how it goes," Francona said. "We will include him in almost every discussion about him. He's earned so much trust."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.