Brantley's return key to Cleveland's '17 outfield

Brantley's return key to Cleveland's '17 outfield

CLEVELAND -- The Indians' roster is formidable with the addition of free-agent slugger Edwin Encarnacion, but it is not without question marks. The outfield currently contains the most uncertainty, though Cleveland believes it can remedy the situation with the options already in hand.

The signing of Encarnacion to a three-year, $60 million contract on Thursday likely brings an end to any lucrative free-agent additions for the Tribe. That means that Cleveland is counting heavily on a healthy return from left fielder Michael Brantley, who missed the bulk of last season due to right shoulder and biceps woes. Now, the Indians are in wait-and-see mode when it comes to Brantley's status.

"We're working through his tolerance," Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said on Thursday. "He's continuing to progress. As each day goes by, we'll hopefully continue to get more and more information and continue to see him make more progress."

Brantley began non-contact swings over the holidays, and he's now back in Cleveland continuing his rehab from right biceps tenodesis surgery in August. Antonetti noted that it is difficult to have specific dates for the next steps in Brantley's hitting progression, as the schedule is dictated on how the outfielder responds to the increased level of activity.

That was the same issue that the Indians dealt with last season, when Brantley was limited to only 11 games while working through a rehab schedule that stalled multiple times. Last year's comeback bid came after Brantley underwent surgery on his right shoulder in November of '15. The hope this time around is that the earlier surgery will have Brantley feeling strong come Spring Training.

"It does help," Antonetti said. "If you think back to the points of time that Michael felt symptoms again, that was more towards the end stages of his return to hit progression, where he was feeling great all along the way. And it wasn't until he got to game activity that it started to bother him. I don't think we're going to have a great feel for it until after he passes that last hurdle."

In the meantime, consider Brantley's name penciled in for Opening Day.

For center field, Cleveland has Tyler Naquin, who is coming off a solid rookie campaign but was used primarily against right-handed pitching. In right, the Indians have a promising platoon of Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer. The Tribe also has Abraham Almonte, who switch hits and can play all three outfield positions. Third baseman Jose Ramirez can also handle left field, as he did for a time last year in Brantley's absence.

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This spring, the Indians will also take a long look at No. 10 prospect Yandy Diaz, who has been considered a third baseman. However, he began playing outfield in the Minors last year and has continued to do so in winter ball this offseason in Venezuela. Cleveland might also have top prospect, outfielder Brad Zimmer, pushing for a big league promotion this year.

Veteran Rajai Davis played a big role for the Indians last year, but he recently signed a one-year, $6-million contract with the A's. The Indians had interest in re-signing Davis, but the Encarnacion deal tightened the team's financial resources. If Cleveland adds to the outfield before Spring Training, it will likely be via the trade route.

"We'll continue to look for opportunities to improve the team," Antonetti said. "But, in terms of any significant financial investment, I don't think we'll have any more of those. We believe [we can fill the outfield internally]. We have a good group of guys. We think we can put the pieces together in the outfield. It may take some time as we progress through Spring Training to see how that all aligns.

"If we feel like we need an external acquisition, we'll certainly explore those. Most likely, it will be a trade at this point than any meaningful free agent."

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.