CLEVELAND -- The Indians have an opportunity in front of them. After a strong first half that saw Cleveland build a nice cushion atop the American League Central standings, the team can now search for ways to make a solid roster even stronger in the coming weeks.
As the Aug. 1 non-waiver Trade Deadline approaches, though, the Indians will be dealing with a balancing act. Star left fielder Michael Brantley (right shoulder) could be returning from the disabled list in the near future, throwing a wrinkle into Cleveland's potential search for an impact bat.
"There is no bigger acquisition that we could make than getting a healthy Michael Brantley back," Chris Antonetti, the Indians' president of baseball operations, said recently. "That goes without saying. What we'll continue to do is assess things and where they are week to week, day to day, as we get closer to the Deadline.
"And as Michael continues to make progress and provides us more information about how he's feeling, and when he potentially could come back, we'll weigh that against what opportunities we may have to improve the team."
Under the circumstances, adding an outfielder might not be the direction Cleveland in which wants to go. Jose Ramirez and Tyler Naquin, who both had playing time created in Brantley's absence, were crucial contributors in the team's strong first half. Veteran Rajai Davis and right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall have performed well, too. If Brantley does return, Ramirez would probably garner most of his at-bats at third base down the stretch.
Even with Ramirez's versatility, the Indians might view an experienced utility man as a potential need at the Deadline. Beyond that, Cleveland will surely explore external upgrades for a bullpen that has been inconsistent throughout the first three-plus months.
"We will continue to exhaust all opportunities to improve the team," Antonetti said. "If that ends up being in the bullpen, if it ends up be on the position-player side, we'll really be open to that."
Cleveland has cycled through 18 relievers, and a roster crunch led to the club designating Joba Chamberlain for assignment on July 4. The Indians could use bullpen help, especially from the left side. Six lefty relievers were used in the first half with little in the way of consistency. Someone in the mold of Brewers lefty Will Smith would probably be on the Tribe's radar. In terms of bats, Oakland's Danny Valencia might make sense as a target for the Indians. While Reds slugger Jay Bruce has had his name floated as a possible target, it is hard to see how he would fit into the outfield equation at the moment.
WHAT ARE THEY PLAYING FOR?
The Indians have scrambled to make up ground in the second half in the previous three years. This time around, Cleveland has a chance to put its foot on the gas to aim for the division crown.
THE ROAD AHEAD
Including a nine-game road trip out of the All-Star break, Cleveland will have played 29 road games in a 42-game stretch. In August and September, though, the Indians will have a home-heavy slate. The Tribe ends its year with 23 straight division games, including a season-ending seven-game swing through Detroit and Kansas City.
It goes without saying that Brantley could be a critical part of Cleveland's second half. That said, catcher Yan Gomes has performed well below expectations. A second-half rebound from Gomes would go a long way in helping the lineup.
PROSPECTS TO WATCH
The Indians already used righty Mike Clevinger (No. 7 prospect) as an emergency starter in the first half, but he could also influence the team down the stretch. If there is not room in the rotation, Clevinger could be summoned from Triple-A Columbus to help the bullpen when the roster expands in September. Infielders Giovanni Urshela, Erik Gonzalez (No. 11) and Jesus Aguilar (all on the 40-man roster) could also be on the team's radar for late-season promotions.
Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. 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.