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02/21/10 5:07 PM EST
Questions linger for Branyan, LaPorta
Veteran's physical to impact prospect's future
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Pitchers and catchers officially reported to the Indians' Player Development Complex on Sunday. That date, however, was merely ceremonial, as many of them had been here for several days and, in some cases, weeks. In fact, nearly all of the 59 pitchers, catchers and position players on the Tribe's spring roster are already in camp and ready to gear up for the 2010 season. On Tuesday, the guy likely to become the 60th member of that roster will arrive. Russell Branyan, who agreed to terms with the Indians on a one-year contract on Friday, is slated to show up that day to take the physical examination that both sides hope will complete the deal. If all goes well with the physical -- and it generally takes a day for the Tribe to have the final results -- Branyan is slated to sign his name on a contract that will pay him a base salary of $2 million, with up to $1 million more in possible incentives. The deal also includes a 2011 mutual option worth $5 million. That much is known. What's unclear is how the Indians will divvy up the first base at-bats between Branyan and highly touted youngster Matt LaPorta. "Let's wait until everything becomes official," manager Manny Acta said Sunday. "Then we'll answer all those questions." There are questions to be answered this spring regarding LaPorta's health. In October, he had arthroscopic surgery on his left hip, as well as a second surgical procedure to address a turf toe injury he suffered on the last day of the '09 season. Acta said that, to this point, all the reports on LaPorta's recovery and potential preparedness for Opening Day 2010 are positive. "He has already been working out on the field," Acta said. "We're going to monitor his at-bats and keep an eye on him." Acta indicated that LaPorta might be a week behind his teammates, in terms of getting into Cactus League games. "We still have to wait to see how he responds to everyday work he puts in before the games," Acta said. All winter, Acta has made it clear he intends to give LaPorta, who batted .254 with a .750 OPS, seven homers and 21 RBIs in 52 games in his first exposure to the big leagues last year, the bulk of his playing time at first base. General manager Mark Shapiro, meanwhile, hasn't been so quick to make that assertion, as he's often listed left field as a possibility for LaPorta, who was solely an outfielder in his professional career before taking on some first base at Triple-A Columbus last season. It could be that Branyan's presence bumps LaPorta back to left field, thereby bumping Michael Brantley back to Columbus. Or it could be that the left-handed-hitting Branyan and the right-handed-hitting LaPorta serve as a platoon, of sorts, at first base. Ultimately, it will be up to Acta to decide, and he wasn't divulging his plans just yet. When asked who his first baseman would be "in a perfect world," he paused before giving his response. "In a perfect world?" he said. "Albert Pujols." Alas, the Indians operate in a world with a payroll somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 million. That's why they were quiet all winter before this recent activity in the bargain basement portion of the Hot Stove calendar. The 34-year-old Branyan went into the winter looking for a multiyear deal, but concerns about his back, which prevented him from playing the last month of the '09 season with the Mariners, hurt his market. The Indians and Rays were in on Branyan last week, reportedly with similar offers. Ultimately, Branyan chose to sign with a Tribe team with which he has a long history. Branyan was a seventh-round selection by the Indians in the 1994 Draft, and he made his Major League debut with the Tribe in 1998. In 2002, the Indians dealt Branyan to the Reds in the deal that netted them Ben Broussard. They reacquired Branyan in 2004, and he spent a couple months with Triple-A before he was traded to the Brewers. Near the end of the '07 season, the Indians signed Branyan to a Minor League deal, then dealt him to the Phillies two days later. The '09 season saw Branyan's career resurrected with a strong first half in Seattle. For the season, he batted .251 with 31 homers, 76 RBIs and an .867 OPS before the back issue shut him down. For now, the question is whether Branyan and his back will pass the Indians' physical exam. If Branyan gets past that stage, the next question will be how the Indians intend to use him and how his presence will affect the fate of LaPorta.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.