Decisions depend on Branyan's readiness

Decisions depend on Branyan's readiness

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Russell Branyan is simultaneously listening to his body and listening to the ticking of the clock.

One week remains in Spring Training camp, and Branyan, the Indians' purported starting first baseman, has yet to appear in a Cactus League game because of a herniated disc in his lower back.

"It's getting to be crunch time for me," Branyan said. "If I'm going to make it to Opening Day, I've got to push myself this week. But I've also got to be smart about it."

The Branyan situation will directly impact at least two other players in camp, both of them highly touted youngsters acquired in the 2008 CC Sabathia trade. Matt LaPorta, fully recovered from October surgeries on his left hip and left big toe, would move from first base to left field if Branyan is ready for Opening Day. But to date, LaPorta hasn't done any work in the outfield this spring.

If LaPorta makes the transition to left, that would bump Michael Brantley down to Triple-A Columbus to start the season.

So several sets of eyes are on the 34-year-old Branyan, who was signed to a one-year, $2 million deal largely on the basis of the 31 homers he hit for the Mariners last year.

On Saturday morning, Branyan and the Indians' athletic training staff finally felt good enough about the condition of Branyan's back to allow him to take outdoor batting practice for the first time all spring. He also was set to take ground balls and do some running.

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Branyan's goal is to get in a Minor League game Monday and in a Cactus League game on Tuesday. But that schedule is not a firm one and could be pushed back, depending on how Branyan's back responds to the increased activity this weekend.

Every day of exhibition play that Branyan misses directly impacts his chances of being ready for Opening Day.

"If you look at Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, that's only three days, but, in the scheme of things, that's a lot of time," Branyan said. "Monday means a lot more than Wednesday, as far as getting ready for Opening Day."

Manager Manny Acta has suggested the Indians could manipulate Branyan's schedule to ensure he gets sufficient at-bats in the final week of Spring Training. For instance, Branyan could play in a Minor League game and lead off every inning to guarantee himself nine at-bats.

But at-bats aren't what worry Branyan. The grind of playing in the field and being on his feet for the better part of three hours is the more pressing concern, given the state of his back and the questions that have yet to be answered.

"I'm not fooling anybody," he said. "I've got to be in condition to go day in and day out."

Though Branyan missed the final month of the 2009 season with the Mariners, the Indians were comfortable enough with the condition of his back, following a full physical examination, to sign off on his contract. But Branyan had a setback when the volume of his workload increased in camp, and he's spent much more time in the trainer's room than on the field.

"There isn't a sense of desperation here," he said. "We're calculated here ... At the end of each day, we reassess, and that helps us build for the next day. Today is another step going forward."

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