November 23, 2014

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LaPorta looking for shot, happy to play left or first

PEORIA, Ariz. — Matt LaPorta had a trying offseason, but there was a silver lining. The key acquisition in the CC Sabathia trade with Milwaukee in 2008 was coming to spring training as the Indians’ starting first baseman.

Then, Cleveland signed Russell Branyan.

“It’s one of those things that I can’t control,” said LaPorta, who was not in the lineup Sunday in the Indians’ 5-3 loss to the Padres at the Peoria Sports Complex. “I can only focus on getting better and helping the ballclub. You start focusing on things like that and it takes your eyes off the main goal, which is to get better.”

Though it stole a starting spot from him, LaPorta is playing the good soldier, claiming he was actually behind the move.

“I played with Branyan in Milwaukee a little bit (in spring training of 2008), so I got to know him,” said LaPorta, the Brewers’ first-round draft pick (seventh overall) in 2007. “He’s a great guy. I think it was a good pickup. He’s a veteran guy who knows how to play. I think he’s going to help the team.”

The Indians brought Branyan aboard because they didn’t believe LaPorta, a career outfielder, was ready to play first base on a regular basis in the big leagues. Probably also playing into the decision was that LaPorta was coming off a pair of offseason surgeries (left big toe and left hip).

The medical procedures provided a negative finish to an otherwise positive year for LaPorta, who made his major league debut with Cleveland on May 3 and was among the International League leaders in a number of offensive categories for Triple-A Columbus.

In separate stints with the Indians (May 2-26 and Aug. 19 to the end of the season), LaPorta batted .254 with seven home runs and 21 RBIs in 52 games. He hit .299 with 17 homers and 60 RBIs in 93 games for the Clippers.

“It was a great learning experience with a little bit of ups and downs,” LaPorta said. “Overall, I think it helped me become a better man and a better baseball player.”

With Branyan in the fold, LaPorta’s best shot at a starting job with the Indians appeared to be in left field. But ironically enough, it may be an injury to Branyan that opens the door for LaPorta to return to first base.

While manager Manny Acta expected both players to make their exhibition debuts Wednesday, only LaPorta pulled it off. Branyan lags behind thanks to lower-back problems that ended his career year prematurely last season with the Mariners.

LaPorta has played in two games this spring (1-for-3, two RBIs and two walks) and is expected to be in the lineup on a more consistent basis from here on out.

Branyan, meanwhile, doesn’t appear close to playing, though it still sounds as though the Indians plan on their newly acquired slugger opening the season at first.

“I think we all knew going in that Russell was in the middle of his rehab,” Acta said. “He’s a veteran guy who has been doing this for a long time. As long as we have him for the last week of the exhibition season, that’s enough time.”

If the Indians are confident Branyan will be able to go, LaPorta will return to a battle with Michael Brantley, Trevor Crowe and Austin Kearns for the starting job in left field. He would be a front-runner along with Brantley, but Cleveland isn’t expected to keep both of their top prospects on the 25-man roster that opens the season April 4 against the White Sox in Chicago.

“Who knows, it could be left. It could be first base,” LaPorta said. “I just want to help the ballclub, wherever it is.”

Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7136 or cassenheimer@chroniclet.com.