One year ago, Matt LaPorta picked up his crutches, hobbled his way out of a clinic in Vail, Colo., and headed into an offseason that was anything but off. LaPorta spent all winter recovering from two October surgeries -- one was an arthroscopic procedure on his left hip, the other addressed a turf toe injury sustained on the final day of the 2009 season. Rehab took the place of rest and relaxation.
"I was on crutches from the middle of October until almost December," LaPorta said. "That's a long time." All winter, LaPorta had a goal of being ready to take the field with his teammates on Opening Day. He made that happen, but at the expense of actual baseball conditioning. He made it through 2010 without any significant relapses in terms of health, but he never fully felt that he had his legs under him, either. "I don't try to make excuses or anything," he said. "But obviously, it takes a while to get healthy from two surgeries like that. If you look at it in that sense, we accomplished a great goal, where I was ready to play the first day in April. "Now, was I able to play at my highest level of performance for the whole season? Probably not. But it was a great learning experience in learning how to deal with the mental part of the game." LaPorta doesn't need to make excuses for his disappointing season, in which he hit just .221 with a .668 OPS. His manager does it for him. Manny Acta gives LaPorta "a mulligan." "It was a long year, mentally and physically," Acta said. "[This winter] he's going to get to train for a 162-game season." Acta's outlook for LaPorta is indicative of the Indians' patience with this potential power slugger. When the Indians made LaPorta the primary acquisition in the July 2008 trade that sent CC Sabathia to the Brewers, they figured they were getting a right-handed bat that could one day augment the heart of the order. They still believe that's what they have in LaPorta, if he can learn to adjust to Major League pitching. They have no plans to use the winter market to find a more veteran option for first base. LaPorta, who turns 26 in January, is their guy. LaPorta showed flashes in 2010 but not consistently. He spent three weeks of June with Triple-A Columbus to try to gain some confidence, and he came back to the bigs when the Tribe traded Russell Branyan to make room for LaPorta as an everyday member of the lineup at first base. Initially, LaPorta seemed to relish in the role, hitting .429 with three homers and seven RBIs in his first six games back. Alas, this was a mere mirage. He hit .195 in the season's second half. Acta and the Indians took some comfort in the way LaPorta handled the first real struggles of his baseball career. He didn't sulk or turn within himself. He just kept going about his business in the cage and on the field. And it's important to note that he at least made some major strides defensively, an area for which it was feared he might be a bit of a liability. "You don't want to get caught up in how well you're doing, and you don't want to get caught up in how bad you're doing," LaPorta said. "I just want to focus on my task at hand every day. You can't control the past, you can't control the future." But he can control how he approaches what could be an important offseason. He'll spend the next four months preparing his body for the rigors of Spring Training and the six-month season. "I just want to use this time to get in shape," he said. "Baseball shape. I'm healthy. I can walk around and still play the game. But I want to get to a point where I can play the game to the best of my ability."