Caught in a bind, Garko goes to first

Caught in a bind, Garko goes to first

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- First base? Anyone can play first base. And Ryan Garko is just moving from catcher. Why, that's even simpler. He's already used to the oversized mitt, after all.

Of course, things are rarely so simple. Garko knows better than most.

He was drafted by the Indians out of Stanford in 2003. In four years with the Cardinal, he twice was named to the College World Series All-Tournament team as a catcher. He was named All-American as a catcher. He won the Johnny Bench Award for best collegiate catcher.

Ryan Garko was a catcher. He liked being a catcher.

"I really liked catching, because it's like being a quarterback," Garko said. "You got to call the game. And you take that away, there's a lot of missing."

He caught in the Minor Leagues, and despite the grind of the position, he never stopped hitting. His batting averages at the various levels of the Indians system were consistently excellent. Coming into 2006, his career Minor League average was .310. His lowest on-base percentage -- .337 -- was at Class A Mahoning Valley in 2003. Since then, he's never had an OBP lower than .380 in a full season.

"Overall, yes, he's got a definite plan every time he steps into the box," Indians farm director John Farrell said. "Where Ryan gets in trouble is that he's got such a confidence that he can put the bat on the ball, he'll expand the strike zone a little bit too much early, rather than staying in a ... more specific area inside the strike zone."

A catcher with those kinds of numbers is of exceptional value at the big-league level.

But the Indians already had a catcher whose numbers provided exceptional value in the big leagues.

Victor Martinez was just establishing himself as a viable Major Leaguer in 2003. By 2004, Martinez was an All-Star. And Garko's chances of ever seeing the back side of home plate seemed minimal. Garko was facing the ultimate dilemma for Minor League players: He was producing, had always produced, but elements beyond his control were conspiring against him.

"I'm not the first guy and I'm not the last guy in that spot," Garko said. "We were just in Durham. B.J. Upton's there, Delmon [Young] is going to be there -- they've got guys who can play in the big leagues right now, and they're just stuck. I think you're only cheating yourself if you don't come out and play well. Because you never know what's going to happen."

So with the greater organizational view in mind this offseason, the Indians told Garko he would exclusively play first base in 2006. It's a tough thing, moving someone from a position he's played all his life. But the Indians dangled quite the enticing carrot in front of Garko: a clearer path to the big leagues.

"Ryan's an extremely intelligent person," Farrell said. "And to sell this move, logically, was to sit down and educate him on the reasons why. The more likely, and quicker, defensive path to the Major Leagues we felt was at first base. So when it was explained to him, he understood it. And his bottom-line goal is to become a Major League player. He trusted in the feedback we were giving him."

The first full season as a first baseman has been a solid one for Garko, who has committed five errors on the year.

"Ryan Garko is going to impact our planning and our decision-making, based on what he does at Buffalo."
-- John Farrell,
Indians farm director

"The most important thing is that I feel really comfortable over there," he said. "I feel like, as the season began, I was making all the routine plays. Now I'm making above and beyond the routine plays, and I'm making some good plays over there. I'm picking more balls out of the dirt."

Garko still wraps his massive legs in ice after each game. But his knees feel better now than they have in years. And the organization has noted his progress at first base.

"Right now, he would be an adequate defender at the Major League level," Farrell said. "His progression over the past year, since we've made the move to switch positions, has been a steady progression. The last points, the finer points, such as positioning, being the trailer on an extra-base hit, positioning for cut-offs, some of those decision-making [aspects], was, I think, the last portion of him as a defender.

"Now, he's making those decisions naturally."

Of course, first basemen are expected to hit, and Garko will only go as far as his bat takes him. While his batting average has fallen to .259 in 2006, the peripheral statistics remain sound. He's drawing walks at a better clip than he has in the past, and his power is still impressive.

In recent days, Martinez has played a few games at first base. It's back to the Minor Leaguer's dilemma: You don't really control your destiny. But Garko hasn't fallen off the organizational radar.

"Ryan Garko is going to impact our planning and our decision-making, based on what he does at Buffalo," Farrell said.

Garko is 25, barely at an age when he can rent a car. But in the world of prospect evaluation, it is a dangerous age. It's a strange thing, being 25 and old.

"It's a weird situation, because this is my third year of pro ball, but I'm 25," Garko said. "The guys that I played with in short-season A ball, a lot of them are still in [Class A] Kinston or [Double-A] Akron, and this is the third year I've spent some time in Buffalo."

While this third year in Buffalo has been successful, it's also bittersweet, in a way, for Garko. He acknowledges missing the catcher position and all the responsibilities that come with it.

"It's OK," Garko said. "I still bug [Buffalo manager] Torey [Lovullo] to try and get behind the plate. I do miss catching."

Andrew Bare is an associate reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.