Popular Garko still learning on the job
Slugger to continue workouts at first base
By Sheldon OckerBeacon Journal sportswriter
WINTER HAVEN, FLA. - Ryan Garko already is an Indians fan favorite, and never mind that he has only one major-league at-bat.
'`I spent the whole offseason in California,'' said Garko on Saturday, pleading ignorance about his popularity.
It was not his sole trip to the plate that endeared Garko to Northeast Ohio baseball partisans. He was called up from Triple-A Buffalo to be an emergency third catcher in September and got his first chance to face big-league pitching against the Kansas City Royals at Jacobs Field.
Garko struck out, ending the competitive part of his season, though he didn't know it at the time.
Nevertheless, every Tribe fan who has not been vacationing at the North Pole knows that Garko has a chance to be the Indians' next big thing.
``I'm going to be there,'' he said after a workout at Chain O' Lakes Park. ``One of my goals is to be an everyday player, not a bench guy.''
Having matriculated at Stanford, Garko was taken in the third round of the 2003 draft and began climbing through the Indians' farm system, making resounding noises with his bat each step of the way. Last year, he reached Triple-A, compiling a .303 average while hitting 19 home runs and amassing 77 RBI in 452 at-bats.
Offense never has been a question mark in the Garko file. It was where to place him in the field. Though he is a career catcher, Garko never was touted as a defensive wizard.
And with the Tribe's No. 1 catcher, Victor Martinez, being both young and talented, there didn't seem to be much reason to keep Garko behind the plate.
First base was the option of choice, and he began playing the position last summer at Buffalo. He continued his education with the Tribe in September and at the Arizona Fall League in October. So how much more time does he have to spend learning to play first?
``He's getting there, and he wants to do it,'' manager Eric Wedge said. ``We wouldn't have asked him to prioritize this way, if we didn't think he could do it.''
In addition to the 30 games he played in Arizona, Garko spent the winter in Southern California, doing agility drills and jumping rope.
``I also lost about 10 pounds,'' he said. ``I was doing all of this stuff to make my feet quicker. I've had plenty of instruction at first. What I need more than anything is innings.''
Garko looks comfortable taking ground balls off a coach's fungo bat, but he is keenly aware of the difference between receiving a pitch and scooping up balls slapped off maple or pine.
``The hardest thing is reading balls off the bat,'' he said. ``I'm used to reading balls out of the pitcher's hand.''
Most fans think it should take a professional baseball player about 45 minutes to learn to play first base. While the position is less demanding than, say, shortstop or catcher, it is not as easy as it looks.
In addition to fielding ground balls and learning to judge high pop flies, a first baseman has to know how far to his right to range for a bouncer, where to position himself for throws from the outfield and when to cover second base or even home plate.
There also is the matter of picking low throws out of the dirt while keeping a toe on the bag and tagging a runner bent on knocking the ball out of the first baseman's glove.
``If you have a bad first baseman, you really notice it, because the other guys start picking up errors,'' Garko said.
Indians officials also have said that Garko is not a finished product at the plate, despite a persistent .300 batting average and obvious power potential in the minors.
``I think the biggest thing I have to learn is the way big-league pitchers work a hitter,'' Garko said. ``Pitch selection is very important.''
At 25, Garko is anxious to begin his major-league career, but he is wise enough to know he can't push it. The Indians will begin the season with a platoon of Ben Broussard and Eduardo Perez at first. That leaves Garko back at Buffalo.
``The worst thing for me would be to come up here and not be ready,'' he said. ``Starting with opening night in April, games in the big leagues speed up a lot.''
Barring an unexpected event during spring training, Garko will wait his turn, but he might not have to wait long.
``I would expect Ryan to be up here sometime during the season,'' Wedge said. ``I just don't know in what role it will be.''
While manager Eric Wedge wants Garko to concentrate on learning first base, he does not want him to forget how to be a catcher.
``Ryan will catch until we start the full camp (position players report),'' Wedge said. ``Once everybody is here, his primary focus will be first.''
Even if Garko becomes the team's everyday first baseman, he can also be the emergency No. 3 catcher.
It appears obvious that Garko will start 06 in Buffalo, working on his D and fine-tuning his swing. When he does get called up, I expect him to replace Perez in the 1B platoon with Broussard.
If Garko hits and plays competent defense, do you think he could take over the 1B duties full-time in 06? Broussard seems to always be on the block, and I have to think that Shapiro will look to move him if Garko plays to his potential this season. I question, however, whether Wedge has the guts to go with a rookie as the full-time 1B on a team with playoff aspirations.