Will Jhonny be good?
Peralta's improvement pivotal to Tribe's contention hopes
WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- Those who view the world with a "the glass is half-full" mentality will label his 2006 season a mere sophomore slump.Those who view it with the glass half-empty will call his '05 season a fortunate fluke. For his part, Jhonny Peralta's just happy to be viewing the world with clear vision. Offseason eye surgery, a more dedicated approach in the weight room and a new wedding ring on his finger have Peralta feeling like a revitalized man these days. But the burning question in Indians camp is whether he'll look like a revitalized shortstop in '07. The club's contention hopes could very well hinge on the answer. "Every team has holes," general manager Mark Shapiro said. "But the reason Jhonny's performance is so important to us is we don't have an alternative at that position. It's less about Jhonny Peralta, and it's more about there being only one or two spots on the field where we don't feel we have quality depth, and that's one." And so, all eyes are on Jhonny. He knows he's under particular scrutiny, but the 24-year-old Peralta doesn't mind. "I don't feel pressure," he said. "[The Indians] give me a lot of confidence. They say they know I can do good. We'll see what happens this year." What happened last year was, from the Indians' point of view, unacceptable. After agreeing to a five-year, $13 million contract and $1.25 million signing bonus last spring, Peralta embarked upon a trying season in which his performance both at the plate and in the field simply wasn't up to par. Placed in the No. 3 spot of the lineup, where he had thrived in '05, Peralta looked lost. Opposing pitchers caught on to his struggles with breaking balls and offspeed pitches and made him pay. His .257 batting average ranked 68th out of 75 qualifiers for the American League batting title, and, disturbingly, he didn't hit over .300 in any month of the season. "They used a lot of breaking balls against me," Peralta said. "They didn't throw me too many strikes. I would strike out on a pitch, then see the video and say, 'Wow. That was a bad pitch. I need to take that pitch next time.'" Those problems at the plate only served to heighten awareness of Peralta's flubs in the field.
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
In the first half of the season, Peralta committed 13 errors at short. He was able to temper that ugly stat with a 41-game errorless streak that lasted from July 9 to Aug. 30, and his season total of 16 errors was actually three shy of his total in '05.But errors aren't necessarily what concern the Indians when it comes to Peralta's defensive play. He's adequately sure-handed on the routine balls he gets to. It's the balls he doesn't get to that stand out. Peralta's limited range from side to side -- brought on, no doubt, by his big frame -- prevented him from nabbing some ground-ball singles that probably could have been outs, and that proved a tremendous burden on the pitching staff. "Last year, I felt like I needed to work more with my legs," Peralta said. "I didn't feel as strong last year as I did in 2005." When Shapiro and manager Eric Wedge sat Peralta down for his end-of-season review last September, they laid out a list of offseason demands and expectations. For one, they wanted to see Peralta amplify his workout routine to strengthen his leg muscles. They also wanted him to be more proactive in keeping his weight in check. And they wanted him to work with infield coach Luis Rivera on his fielding fundamentals in the Dominican Republic before reporting to Spring Training. Upon first glance, Peralta, who married the former Molly Urig in January, doesn't look any different now than he did in '06. But in the field during the Tribe's slate of Grapefruit League games, his motion and agility is noticeably improved. "I've been working hard every day," he said. "I feel a little different. My legs feel strong, and I can go hard to my left. It's good when your legs are strong, because you feel great in the field." He can see great, too. By the tail end of last season, Peralta, who had been diagnosed with near-sightedness a year ago, was privately complaining that he couldn't read the catcher's signs from his position and was having trouble picking up the seams of the ball during night games. He began wearing contact lenses that had been prescribed for him in the spring, but they irritated his eyes. With Lasik surgery having addressed that problem, Peralta is hoping he'll see himself put together a bounceback year. As for what the Indians have seen this spring, well, so far, so good. "He came in here prepared, and he came in with some urgency and determination," Shapiro said. "Everything we've seen from the moment he got here has been very positive. If he can sustain the attitude and approach he has now, he'll go a long way toward helping us win this year." Wedge, who was uncharacteristically critical of Peralta quite often last season, has gone out of his way this spring to praise the youngster's potential. He's even accepted some of the blame for Peralta's struggles, saying he shouldn't have put him in such a high-pressure portion of the lineup. "Arguably, last year will be the most important year of his career, when he looks back 10 or 15 years from now," Wedge said of Peralta, who will initially bat seventh in the order this season. "What he's done beyond [the season] is the most important part. What he did this winter -- mentally, physically and fundamentally -- is what we wanted him to do. He's right on line, and I'm excited for him." Consider that a glass-half-full view.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.