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02/26/10 4:59 PM EST

Wanted: Position for LaPorta to play

Indians haven't divulged their plans for young slugger

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- What, exactly, is Matt LaPorta? An outfielder or a first baseman?

"I haven't known my whole life," LaPorta said with a laugh. "Even in college, people would ask me, and I'd just say, 'I'm a hitter.'"

LaPorta, acquired in the 2008 trade that sent CC Sabathia to the Brewers and brought up to the big leagues for the first time last season, is a promising enough young hitter that the Indians are expected to find some place for him in their everyday lineup in 2010.

But now that Russell Branyan is in the fold on a one-year contract, it appears the previous plans to turn LaPorta into a full-time first baseman have been put on hold and left field will be his domain.

But the Indians haven't divulged their intentions for LaPorta to anybody, LaPorta included.

"Right now, the focus is on getting me back to 100 percent," LaPorta said. "We can't talk about my position until I'm 100 percent."

LaPorta is now 4 1/2 months removed from a pair of surgeries last October. Doctors cleaned out his left hip joint and repaired a sprain of the joint at the base of his left big toe. He's been rehabbing ever since, making the Tribe's Player Development Complex his winter home away from home.

Cleared to resume baseball activities last week, LaPorta was a full participant Friday, as the Indians held their first full-squad workout of spring camp.

"The last couple days, I've really been getting after it," LaPorta said. "I've felt great, and I'm really pleased with where I'm at. I've reached one level of the ladder, and I feel great."

Although nothing is set in stone when it comes to rehab, the tentative date for LaPorta to join his teammates in Cactus League games is March 10. That's just five days after the Tribe's exhibition opener against the Reds, so he's currently not far behind at all and appears on track to be ready by Opening Day.

The right-handed-hitting LaPorta, who can spell Travis Hafner at the DH spot, if need be, is also on track to be a full-time player, no matter what position he happens to occupy on a given day.

"He's going to get 500 at-bats, if he's healthy," manager Manny Acta said. "That's what's important here."

This is viewed as an important developmental year for LaPorta, a power bat the Indians hope to build around in the middle of their order in the not-too-distant future. His long-term future will likely see him at first base, which is why the move back to the outfield puzzles some.

LaPorta will see the majority of his reps at first base this spring, because the outfield is his more natural position and because the 2009 season marked the first time in his professional career that he played at first.

"I put in a lot of time at that position last year to make up for the two years I missed," he said, when he played solely in the outfield.

LaPorta's rookie season not only saw him work in at first but also saw him get his first 181 at-bats in the big leagues. His first stint with the Tribe from May 2-26 saw him hit just .190 (8-for-42) with a homer and four RBIs. After a little more grooming time at Triple-A Columbus, he came back on Aug. 19 and batted .273 (38-for-139) with 12 doubles, six homers and 17 RBIs in 39 games through the remainder of the season.

The Indians don't think LaPorta, who batted .299 with a .917 OPS at Columbus last year, has anything left to prove at the Triple-A level. They're not as sold on another Sabathia trade acquisition, Michael Brantley, who had a strong September in the big leagues but will probably get bumped back to Columbus because of the Branyan signing and the ensuing move of LaPorta to left.

LaPorta said he's fine with moving back and forth from one position to another, if need be.

"Wherever the team needs me most," he said, "I feel I can fill that position."

Because no matter where he plays, LaPorta expects to hit.

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