GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Michael Brantley has yet to change his answer this spring. When his comeback from shoulder surgery comes up, the Indians outfielder has been consistent and insistent that he is targeting Opening Day for his return.
Indians manager Terry Francona loves hearing that from his star left fielder.
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"Players get competitive in everything they do," Francona said. "It gives him something to shoot for, which I think is good. But, when you really sit back and think about it, if it's April 10, if it's April 20, that's not the end of the world. The more we have him available, the better."
Brantley's progress from November surgery on his right shoulder has been increasingly encouraging with each passing day and week this spring. Come Thursday, barring a change in plans, Brantley is scheduled to make his game debut in a Minor League contest. According to Francona, Brantley is slated to log four or five innings in the outfield, while garnering a handful of at-bats.
The details of Brantley's game schedule are still being worked out, and Francona noted that he plans on sitting down with Brantley and members of the medical and training staffs soon to discuss the plan. One thing Cleveland needs to keep in mind is that March 25 is the cutoff for a retroactive disabled list stint, meaning Cactus League appearances after that day would push Brantley's regular-season availability back.
Given Brantley's progress, there is a chance he could be ready in early April, if not on Opening Day.
"I don't think he's a big fan of wanting to play in Minor League games. He wants to play in our games," Francona said. "That's fine. We're just going to have to sit down with him and the trainers probably in the next week and just gauge, because if he does start on the DL, but he's really close, he can't play in Major League games at the end. So, we just need to explain that to him."
Francona said an important aspect of Brantley's comeback is not just how he feels each day, but how he feels the day after increasing his activity. Once the outfielder begins playing in games, his condition the next day will help Cleveland know how to proceed with his schedule.
"It's more [the] bouncing back," Francona said. "If he plays and the next day is tough, well, maybe that's telling us something. He hasn't run into that yet. Plus, he's a lot tougher [than people might think]. Guys that are quiet, it doesn't mean that they're not tough. I think sometimes that gets lost. He does things seemingly so easy and so fluid, but he's a tough kid, man."
If Brantley is not ready by Opening Day, Cleveland's outfield could align in an assortment of ways.
Veteran Rajai Davis can handle left or center field, and Lonnie Chisenhall projects to handle the bulk of the workload in right. Collin Cowgill is in the mix as a platoon option capable of handling all three spots, and Joey Butler provides right-handed depth for the corners. Prospect Tyler Naquin has impressed this spring and is trying to convince Cleveland to give him a chance in center. Will Venable, Shane Robinson and Robbie Grossman are among the others being looked at this spring, too.
Over the past two seasons, the 28-year-old Brantley has hit a combined .319 with 35 home runs, 38 steals, 90 doubles, 162 runs, 181 RBIs and more walks (112) than strikeouts (107). He hit .310 with 15 homers, 45 doubles and 84 RBIs in 137 games in 2015, while battling a variety of health issues. An ill-fated dive in Minnesota on Sept. 22 resulted in the right shoulder injury that necessitated surgery in November.
Brantley has been in the Tribe's Opening Day lineup for each of the past six seasons. While he is hoping to extend that streak to seven years, Francona said the Indians plan on balancing Brantley's rapid progress with caution.
"We've been pretty honest about where we think he is," Francona said. "We've tried not to put a timetable, just because I think we think it's unfair to him. He's done such a good job of pushing while cooperating. He hasn't done anything he's not supposed to do. Yet, he's getting ready quick."