Astros outfielder Michael Brantley still hasn’t played this season, repeatedly struggling to get fully back to health after last year’s shoulder surgery. Now manager Dusty Baker tells Chandler Rome of The Athletic that Brantley has “plateaued” in his attempt to come back (Twitter
links). “He’s plateaued somewhat,” Baker said in response to a question of whether Brantley had increased his workload. “We want to increase it, but then we don’t want to have to go backwards either. I’d rather have it plateau for a while then increase it.”
Brantley, now 36, underwent the shoulder procedure in August of last year. He reached free agency at the end of last season and re-signed with the club on a one-year, $12M deal with performance bonuses. Since then, he has made repeated attempts to get into game shape but has continued to hit speed bumps along the way, with the timeline continually pushed back.
He once seemed like he was going to be ready for Opening Day, but in early March, the expectation changed to “a week into the season at the worst.” He began the season on the injured list and the timeline then became that the club was hoping for a return in the “next couple of weeks.” He was sent out on a rehab assignment in late April but was shut down in early May due to inflammation. Since then, he has attempted to some baseball activities but hasn’t yet progressed enough to start another rehab assignment.
At this point, it’s very difficult to know what to make of Brantley’s current status or the likelihood of him returning to the field at all this year, let alone at his previous level of performance. The Astros are arguably the most evasive club in the league when it comes to providing health updates on their players and the ongoing Brantley saga has often been difficult to parse from the outside. While the long-term picture remains murky, today’s update seems to indicate that Brantley isn’t close to a return in the short term, since he’s still struggling to push his activities into another gear.
It’s undoubtedly frustrating both for Brantley and the Astros, who were surely hoping he could return as the consistently above-average hitter he’s been in his career. As recently as last year, prior to the surgery, he hit .288/.370/.416 through 277 plate appearances for a wRC+ of 127. But the club has been without that production at any point this year and has also seen Yordan Alvarez miss almost a month at this point due to a strained oblique.
Those two injuries have left Kyle Tucker the only left-handed bat to feature as a regular in the club’s lineup over the past few weeks and general manager Dana Brown has repeatedly
highlighted another lefty bat as a deadline target. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the club is expecting Brantley to miss the remainder of the season, but perhaps the continual setbacks have made them realize that they can’t be wholly reliant on his return either.
The trade deadline is now effectively four weeks away, giving the club some time to gauge the market and continue to monitor Brantley’s progress. They are currently in possession of a Wild Card spot and figure to be making additions at that point regardless. They might also need some time to figure out who is available in trade talks since few teams are clear-cut sellers at this point thanks to the expanded postseason and weak Central divisions.
Jeimer Candelario is a switch-hitter and should be available as an impending free agent on a rebuilding Nationals club. The Astros would likely prefer someone who can play the outfield, which Candelario has never done, but he could play the infield corners and serve as the designated hitter. Cody Bellinger could be available, though he’s struggled since coming off the injured list about three weeks ago and the Cubs are only six games back in the NL Central right now. Yasmani Grandal and Carlos Santana are switch-hitters that could be available, though both are hitting around league average so far this year, in addition to being in their mid-30s, making significant salaries and not being options for the outfield. Both of their clubs are also just 5.5 games back in their respective divisions.
The market will undoubtedly change quite a bit in the next few weeks as the on-field results push clubs in one direction or another, but the Astros seems likely to be shopping in this aisle. A return from Brantley could impact how aggressive they are in that pursuit, though it seems as though that’s not something they want to be banking on.