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Indians' Michael Brantley (shoulder) may return ahead of schedule

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Cleveland Indians outfielder Michael Brantley is making steady progress in his return from November surgery on his right shoulder, and there's a growing sense that he could return ahead of the initial projection of late April or early May.

Brantley has advanced from non-contact swings to tee work to soft tosses in the first two weeks of spring training. The next step will consist of swinging in a batting cage before he advances to the field. He has been taking part in daily defensive and baserunning drills, and has been able to throw because the injury is to his non-throwing shoulder.

"He's kind of flown through this," manager Terry Francona said Wednesday. "To his credit, he spent a ton of time in Cleveland, and instead of going home [to Florida], he came out here. So he's given himself every chance possible to get better as quickly as possible, which we appreciate. He really understands how much we rely on him.

"He's doing terrific. It's really encouraging."

Brantley, 28, made the American League All-Star team and finished third in MVP balloting in 2014. Last year, he hit .310 with an .859 OPS and a league-leading 45 doubles even though he missed 25 games with a variety of injuries.

He hurt his shoulder Sept. 22 while trying to make a diving catch in Minnesota, and he had surgery Nov. 9 to repair a torn labrum.

Although Brantley has told reporters that he's aiming to return Opening Day, he has acknowledged that might not be realistic.

"I'm glad he feels that way, because he's trying to push to be ready," Francona said. "In fairness to him, if I say that and then he doesn't play on Opening Day, it will be like, 'What happened?' It's not fair to him. He's doing a really good job of getting ready. That's good enough."