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01/14/09 5:51 PM EST
Nothing guaranteed for Garko
Competition looms for first baseman looking to keep job with Tribe
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
CLEVELAND -- This much is clear, relative to the Indians' catcher and first base conundrum: The Tribe isn't giving Kelly Shoppach $1.95 million in 2009 to be your typical backup catcher. And that has the potential to be bad news for Ryan Garko. When Victor Martinez had elbow surgery last season, Shoppach proved himself as deserving of a regular opportunity in the Indians' lineup. With Martinez presumably back up to full speed in '09, the Indians might give Shoppach, who avoided arbitration by signing a one-year, $1.95 million deal earlier this week, more time behind the plate and Martinez more time at first. And first, of course, is Garko's domain. "We'll see how it goes," said Garko, checking in recently from Phoenix. "The one thing I'm focused on is staying in the present and working every day to get a little bit better." As '08 proved, there is work to be done. Garko, in his second full season as the Indians' primary first baseman, wasn't all that consistent. While he tied a team high with 90 RBIs for the season, he batted just .241 in the first half and notched just three extra-base hits in 43 games from May 18 to July 9. Garko, though, finished with a much-needed flourish. He batted .319 after the break, and he hit .352 with six doubles, six homers and 34 RBIs over his last 36 games. "I made some nice adjustments after the All-Star break," Garko said. "I started doing the things I know I'm capable of. This is a really important offseason for me, because I know how much work I need to do to get stronger and hit the ground running. I want to pick up where I left off at the end of the season." The important work, training-wise, is being done primarily at the Indians' new spring complex in Goodyear, Ariz., not far from Garko's winter home. But the mechanical and mental adjustments Garko made at the plate in the second half are what he hopes carry over into '09. "I think I just dedicated myself to staying in the middle of the field," he said. "I was not trying to do too much, and I was driving the ball to right-center field. Having the discipline to stick with that is what helped." Was it enough to help Garko, who just turned 28, keep his job as a full-timer? That's ultimately up to manager Eric Wedge, who will make the decision on what amounts to a Garko vs. Shoppach situation each night he fills out the lineup card. The Indians, unquestionably, would be a better defensive team with Shoppach behind the plate and Martinez at first. But Garko's run-production capabilities are a strength, and Shoppach's strikeouts could grow to become a concern. "We'll go with the best team," is all general manager Mark Shapiro is allowing for now. No matter how the situation shakes out, it's quite clear that Garko, who still has two Minor League options remaining, will have to continue to prove himself to the Tribe. He's no stranger to that scenario. Even after Garko drove in 45 runs over the final 50 games of the '06 season, the Indians didn't award him a spot on their Opening Day roster for '07 until the final week of Spring Training. Garko said he understands the situation. "It was the same way even when I was a junior or senior in college," he said. "I was always going to lose my job to a freshman. It's a tough game, a tough sport to do. Everybody takes a different path, and this is mine. The one thing I try not to do is complain or be bitter about it. I just try to be the best player I can be. The best way to end all [this talk] is to play to the best of my ability. We'll see."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.