CLEVELAND -- The Indians head into Spring Training with glaring holes at second and third base. More important than the uncertainty at those spots, however, might be the certainty of who's on first.
Matt LaPorta is currently entrenched as the Tribe's first baseman and the club remains hopeful -- even after his turbulent 2010 campaign -- that he can serve as a productive cog within the infield's future core. That makes the coming season a critical one for LaPorta and for Cleveland's plans.
"This is going to be a good test for him," Indians manager Manny Acta said.
That is why LaPorta looms as arguably the most important part of the infield equation for the 2011 season. Sure, third and second are areas in need of immediate attention, but highly-touted third-base prospect Lonnie Chisenhall and second-base prospect Jason Kipnis could very well assume those spots before season's end.
The Indians' hope is that Chisenhall and Kipnis will soon provide the long-term solutions for those spots, joining LaPorta and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera as fixtures at their respective positions. The way Cleveland sees it, that concept is cause for excitement, and the players involved are quick to echo that sentiment.
"I'm extremely excited about what we have going on here with the Indians," LaPorta said. "It's going to be great, because I think we have the ability, with a lot of these young players, to make some noise. It's just a matter of putting it all together."
LaPorta, who turned 26 in January, might very well have been talking about himself. This is the season he is hoping to put it all together for the Tribe, showing the team and its fans that he can provide a powerful right-handed bat for years to come. He is entering this season brimming with confidence, too.
A main reason for LaPorta's positive outlook is the fact that he experienced a normal offseason this year. Heading into 2010, the first baseman was coming off arthroscopic surgery on his left hip and an operation to address a turf toe injury. LaPorta spent much of last winter on crutches, robbing him of a normal workout routine.
This winter gave LaPorta a chance to train properly.
"I actually got to prepare for a Major League season," LaPorta said. "It's a lot different than last year. It's been great. It's been fun actually to do stuff. It's given me more confidence."
A productive LaPorta -- not to mention a complete return to form for Cabrera, who missed two months in 2010 due to a broken left forearm -- would do wonders for Cleveland's offense. Last year, LaPorta hit .221 with 12 home runs and 41 RBIs in 110 games, falling far below expectations.
When the Indians acquired LaPorta as the primary piece in the July 2008 trade that sent CC Sabathia to Milwaukee, the hope was that they landed the power-hitting first baseman who tore through the Minor Leagues. In 242 career games in the Minors, LaPorta has hit .296 with 56 homers, 181 RBIs and a .953 OPS.
"He's done everything people were expecting him to do through the Minor Leagues," Acta said. "He's not rehabbing any injuries now. He's just training for baseball. Hopefully he learned from 2010 and he can help us out this year."
Chisenhall and Kipnis might receive an opportunity to help the Indians at some point this year as well, but it seems most likely that they will wind up at third and second base, respectively, for Triple-A Columbus to open 2011. That leaves a wide-open competition for the jobs at the Major League level.
"It's going to be interesting, but it's competition," Acta said. "Competition brings the best out of people. Obviously, our most glaring hole is at third base, where as of now it's going to come from an internal option."
Chisenhall will get a look this spring, but other candidates to begin the season as the Indians' third baseman include Jason Donald, Jayson Nix, Jack Hannahan and Luis Valbuena, along with prospects Jared Goedert and Cord Phelps. Donald, Nix, Valbuena and Phelps, along with Kipnis, will be in the running at second this spring.
During a Town Hall Meeting with Indians fans in January, Acta was asked if moving a player such as Donald -- a middle infielder by trade -- to third base was a realistic possibility.
"He plays a premium position," Acta explained. "When you play shortstop, it's not that tough to move to the left or to the right. It's quite different if a guy plays first base. Just an example, it would be very tough to ask LaPorta to play shortstop for us next year."
Indians general manager Chris Antonetti, sitting next to Acta, chuckled.
"That's not going to happen," chimed in Antonetti, generating laughter from the audience.
No, LaPorta's future is at first base. And the Indians hope he can stay there for a long time.
"You have to earn everything," LaPorta said. "And that's what I want to do."