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LaPorta, Brantley showing off

By Sheldon Published: March 14, 2009

They are two of the most talked about players in the Indians' training camp, yet the odds are overwhelming that neither will be on the Opening Day roster.

Spring training is not all about Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley, it only seems that way.

‘‘Brantley is very mature, though LaPorta has the stronger pedigree,’’ Indians General Manager Mark Shapiro said. ‘‘Both have a chance to be very good. We don't bring guys to camp for ceremonial reasons. We want to see if they are ready ` maybe not in April but in July.’’

Shapiro is prepared to make changes if the club needs reinforcements later in the season. If so, LaPorta and Brantley are two players expected to deliver.

‘‘It's all been good as far as the impression those guys are making,’’ Indians manager Eric Wedge said. ‘‘Both are pretty good all-around baseball players. They are both very mature young players.’’

LaPorta and Brantley were part of the spoils that came the Tribe’s way when Shapiro traded CC Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers last July. By now, Northeast Ohio fans know that both players were among the Brewers’ best minor-leaguers; LaPorta was ranked by Baseball America as the No. 2 prospect in the Brewers' system.

Because spring training is one week longer than usual, LaPorta and Brantley have received more playing time in exhibition games, but at some point in the near future, both will head back to the minor-league complex to prepare for the Triple-A season.

So far, LaPorta is batting .286 with one double in 21 at-bats; Brantley is batting .391 with two doubles and one home run in 23 at-bats.

Brantley hopes some day to work his way to the top of the Indians' lineup.

‘‘I would like to be a leadoff hitter,’’ he said Friday. ‘‘I've done it my whole career, either that or I've hit in the second spot. I feel more comfortable up there.’’

That means Brantley probably can run and bunt. In fact, he enthusiastically supports the use of both skills.

‘‘I use my legs as a weapon,’’ he said. ‘‘There's nothing better than when a pitcher thinks, ‘I have to watch out for this guy because he might be running.' And as a leadoff guy, you have to be able to bunt. It's a skill set I happen to have.''

Last year at Double-A Huntsville, Brantley batted .319 with 80 runs and 28 steals in 36 attempts. He also hit four home runs, 17 doubles and accumulated 40 RBI in 420 at-bats.

LaPorta is the more renowned outfielder, having played on the U.S. Olympic Team in Beijing and in the Futures Game in New York last year. He also spent time at Huntsville, where he batted .288 with 20 homers, 23 doubles and 66 RBI in 302 at-bats.

After the trade to Cleveland, LaPorta batted .233 with two home runs and eight RBI in 60 at-bats at Akron.

‘‘Last year was crazy,’’ LaPorta said. ‘‘But it was a good experience. It was definitely fun and exciting. But toward the end, I started to get tired, living out of a suitcase.

‘‘I think the experience definitely helped in teaching me how to deal with adversity and changes. There are always changes in baseball.’’

The adversity lesson occurred after his return from China. On the way back, LaPorta's mother was stricken and learned after she arrived home that she had multiple sclerosis.

‘‘She's doing better, coping with it,’’ LaPorta said.

Maybe his most bizarre moments followed getting hit in the head by a pitch in the Olympics and being taking to the hospital.

‘‘It was a military hospital,’’ LaPorta said. ‘‘Everybody was wearing a uniform, and there were guards at the gates. One doctor spoke English, but I remember eight or 10 doctors all standing around me. I guess that's how they do it there, or else they just wanted to look at an American. I didn't understand a word they were saying.’’

LaPorta's strength is strength. Tribe officials hope that he turns into a middle-of-the-order hitter who amasses 30 or more home runs a year. His defensive prowess was questioned, but after seeing him in the outfield, he has been better than advertised.

‘‘I'd say that's fair,’’ Wedge said. ‘‘Not that we really had any bad reports on him. For a big guy, he's does a pretty good job on the bases and the outfield.’’

Asked if he thought he could play in the big leagues now, LaPorta said, ‘‘If the opportunity were to arise, I think I could compete up there.’’

More than likely, he and Brantley will get their chance before October.

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