Brantley eager to earn starting role

Brantley eager to earn starting role

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Indians' bus motored down Interstate 71 on Thursday afternoon, bound for the state capital.

On the schedule for this final day of the Tribe's winter Press Tour was a Town Hall session at Gameworks at Easton Center. But first, the bus made a pit stop at Huntington Park, home of the club's Triple-A affiliate, for a meet and greet with some of the Clippers' sponsors.

Michael Brantley was aboard that bus, and when he stepped into the Clippers' clubhouse, a team staffer pulled him aside and said, "It's great to see you. But I hope I don't see you again."

Brantley, no doubt, has the same wish.

After ascending to the Major Leagues for the final month of the 2009 season and making an immediate impact on a Tribe team closely evaluating its young talent, Brantley is hoping he's seen the last of Huntington Park. In a few weeks, he'll head to Spring Training camp in Goodyear, Ariz., with, as manager Manny Acta said, "a leg up" on his competition for the starting left-field job.

But even when Acta used those words, he quickly followed them with a caveat.

"We all know he's just 22 years old," Acta said. "We're not going to be handing out jobs. We have to do what's best not only for the Indians but also for the kid himself."

The kid in question serves as a poster boy for the promotion that took place during this swing through cities in northern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. The Tribe is trumping its young talent, and Brantley's big league debut provided plenty of reason for optimism about the Tribe's outfield outlook.

Brantley, in his first year in the organization after the Indians acquired him from the Brewers as the player to be named in the 2008 CC Sabathia deal, had a bit of an odd '09. His best stretch of the season came at the big league level, not the Minors.

At Columbus, in his first exposure at the Triple-A level, he batted .267 with six homers, 21 doubles, two triples and 48 stolen bases in 116 games. He fought through a nagging ankle injury and never truly caught fire. Yet in 28 games with the Tribe, Brantley batted .313 with four doubles, 11 RBIs and four steals, taking over the leadoff duties from an injured Grady Sizemore.

"I hope I showed them that I was physically and mentally ready each and every day to play in the big leagues," he said. "They saw what I bring to the table, and hopefully they liked it."

The Indians certainly liked it. But did they like it enough to slot Brantley into the open left-field spot full-time from the outset of 2010? That's a matter of debate. The signing of veteran Austin Kearns to a Minor League deal earlier this month added a bit of competition to the mix. It's also still possible that Matt LaPorta, once fully recovered from surgery, will slot in at left, though LaPorta is more likely to land at first base.

Given the nature of the business side of the game, the Indians must be mindful of Brantley's arbitration status. Once they promote him, his clock toward arbitration-eligibility (and its inherent bumps in salary) starts ticking. So they don't want to pull the trigger prematurely.

Brantley, the son of former Major League outfielder and hitting coach Mickey Brantley, has been around the game enough to know how this works. And he's going into spring ready to do everything in his power to prove his preparedness and his worth.

"I just want to be more physically and mentally ready, each and every day," he said. "Sometimes last year I did have some injuries with my right ankle. Now that I'm 100 percent healthy, I want to stay that way the entire season."

Brantley bulked up a bit this winter. He said he put on about 10 pounds of muscle by increasing his lifting regimen.

"I put on some weight, but it's all good weight," he said. "I'm the strongest I've ever been in my life. ... I've been running each and every day, so I'm still light on my legs. I couldn't be happier with my weight and conditioning."

If Brantley reaches his potential, he could be the one who allows Sizemore to slide down in the order and become more of a run-producing threat.

For now, if Brantley makes the club, he'll bat in a less-prominent spot in the order and he'll look to make the inevitable adjustments that will come after his stellar September last year.

"I don't think I earned anything," Brantley said. "I think I earned a chance to win a job out of spring, and that's all I can ask for. I just want to go out each and every day and show them what I can do. Whatever's best for the team, that's what I'm going to do."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.