When it comes to what he does on the field, there really isn't much risk with Michael Brantley.
He has developed into one of the most dependable hitters in the league, following up a .327/.385/.506 line in his breakout 2014 campaign by going for .310/.379/.480 in 137 games a year ago. With solid pop and nearly unmatched contact skills at a time when strikeout rates are rising across the league, Brantley has a solid skill set you can rely on.
Of course, he isn't being viewed as dependable coming into this season, and for good reason: he is just five months removed from shoulder surgery.
Brantley very well could be one of the top outfielders in Fantasy, just as he was in each of the previous two seasons, but you're taking a risk if you pick him this spring. The question you have to ask yourself is, "Is he worth it?"
The first step to answering that question will be determining when you might actually have him on your roster. Brantley took part in batting practice with his teammates for the first time in the spring last week, and manager Terry Francona told reporters via Cleveland.com Brantley is "flying" through his rehab. Brantley underwent surgery in early November to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder, a procedure that was supposed to take five to six months to recover from.
That initial timetable put him on pace for a late debut, but he is still hoping to be ready for Opening Day, April 4. He is expected to be able to participate in some minor league games later in the month, but his potential return is still very much up in the air. If you are drafting now, it seems impossible to say for sure whether he will be ready for the start of the season, though it is starting to seem unlikely his absence will creep into May, barring a setback. All indications are he is on target for a relatively early return.
So the question now shifts to what you might be able to expect from him whenever he does return. This is an especially tough question to answer for a number of reasons, not least of which is that there just isn't a ton of data available on how hitters come back from torn labrums. Because labrum tears can be career-enders for pitchers, it isn't difficult to find information on how the injury impacts them -- finding it about hitters is quite a bit trickier.
Still, shoulder injuries are obviously bad news. They can sap strength and compromise leverage, with the most obvious impact coming with regards to power. Brantley's surgery was on his leading, non-throwing shoulder, an outcome FanGraphs.com found tends to have less of an impact than if it was the other shoulder. Of course, it still tends to sap production, predictably. It makes sense to discount Brantley even beyond the time he might actually miss as a result of the injury.
The FanGraphs data shows a 6.2 percent dropoff in wOBA for players who injure their non-throwing shoulder. That would see Brantley drop off from his .368 mark last season to about .345 -- still very much the production of an above-average hitter, but not a star. It's not hard to see Brantley's power taking a hit as he works his way back to full strength, making his chances of hitting 20 homers again seem slim. A homer total around 15 might be the best you could hope for while accounting for time off, and we might see him run less often to boot, though there is some good news here. Brantley tends to slide feet first when he steals bases, somewhat mitigating the risk that he might suffer a re-injury.
You have to expect some dropoff and the various projection systems are all baking that in. BaseballProspectus.com's Weighted Mean projection for Brantley has him hitting .296/.354/.436 with 9 homers in 471 plate appearances this season. That kind of projection would see him average about 3.12 Fantasy points per game, a bit behind the 3.43 mark he posted last season that was good for fifth among all outfielders. However, that would still be enough to crack the top 15 at the position who played at least 100 games a year ago.
The nice thing about Brantley is, because he doesn't rely on power for much of his Fantasy appeal, he probably has a pretty high floor despite the injury. Even if the power is an issue, his ability to put the bat on the ball at an elite rate -- no player had a lower swinging strike rate than Brantley's 3.1 percent mark last season -- should help Brantley remain productive when he returns.
Brantley is definitely a risk on Draft Day, no doubt. Between the knowledge he will likely miss the start of the season, the likelihood of some injury-related struggles and the potential for a setback or aggravation, you have to discount him coming into the season. However, he is still someone with the potential to be a top-five outfielder, with a fairly safe floor if he can avoid re-injury.
That discount is already being taken on his Average Draft Position, of course, which sits at 30th among outfielders at NFBC. He is going off the board between Ben Revere and Hunter Pence. You have to like that price.
Far from being scared off, I think Fantasy owners should be bullish on Brantley at his current price. He's well worth the risk there.