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03/14/10 9:35 PM ET
Peralta ready to start fresh at third base
Indians slugger thinks full season at position will be beneficial
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Jhonny Peralta grew up in the Dominican Republic wanting to be a Major League shortstop. But not initially. Peralta's first sporting dream was actually to be a basketball star. The sport was his first love. "I was a little bit like LeBron James," Peralta joked. "A little bit." Peralta said he was 14 or 15 years old when he realized his chances of becoming a professional baseball player were much better than his chances of ascending to NBA greatness. He's barely touched a basketball since. So when the hoop dreams diminished, Peralta had his mind set on shortstop. And that made what transpired last season all the more frustrating for him. Opening Day 2009 was Peralta's fifth straight as the Tribe's starting shortstop. In the winter before the '09 season, the club had Peralta play third base in the Dominican, and there was plenty of speculation among fans and the media that the Indians would eventually transition Peralta to third and Asdrubal Cabrera from second to short. Peralta, though, didn't pay much attention to that speculation. And it's his contention that, in a face-to-face meeting before the season, manager Eric Wedge and general manager Mark Shapiro did nothing but ensure him he was their shortstop going forward. "Then one day in the middle of the season," he said, "they say I'm playing third base." That day came in mid-May, and Peralta was never the Tribe's regular at short again. His inconsistency at the plate and struggles in the field are well-documented. What's not discernible is whether they are attributable to the distraction of the midseason position switch or whether Peralta just simply had a bad year. There is probably at least a sliver of truth to both possibilities. Peralta was struggling at the plate long before the switch was made, and he never really got on track after it was made. Prone to slow starts as it is, Peralta had a particularly brutal April, batting just .211 with five doubles and no homers in 19 games. He was hitting .198 as late May 4.What's it going to take to get the 27-year-old Peralta to avoid another sluggish April? "Maybe," he joked, "heated batting gloves?" Chalk that up as one possibility. But what the Indians are counting on is Peralta entering the year in a better frame of mind, more comfortable at his new position and ready to produce from April on out. One of new manager Manny Acta's first orders of business upon taking the Tribe job was reaching out to Peralta to express how much the Indians have riding on him this season. Because Acta is bilingual and shares Peralta's Dominican ties, the thinking is that the two will have a better relationship than the one shared by Peralta and Wedge, who picked multiple spots over the years to be publicly critical of Peralta. Thus far, the Acta-Peralta relationship has been a positive one. And Acta certainly got his message across to Peralta this winter. "They need me," Peralta said. Yes, they do. The Indians are loaded with left-handed hitters, so Peralta's performance in the middle of the order will be all the more vital to their success in generating runs consistently. On Sunday at the Peoria Sports Complex, Peralta was doing his part on the offensive end against the Padres by going 2-for-3 with his first homer of the spring, a solo shot in the third. Alas, on the defensive end, he made his first error of the spring when he made a wayward throw to first in the second inning. Sunday's gaffe aside, Peralta said he's gained confidence in his defensive play at third. "I know I have good hands," he said. "I only need to see which guys can bunt and see that some guys have a different angle on their swing. Little things like that. I work every day to get better." Peralta knows he has plenty of room to improve and grow from last year. After all, he turned in his lowest OPS (.690) since his rookie year of 2003, and his home run total dropped from 23 in '08 to 11. Acta, obviously, has confidence in Peralta improving on those numbers. "I think he's ready to put [shortstop] behind him," Acta said. "Having a whole Spring Training to work [at third base], with all the other guys around him, is going to help him out." The Indians have shown unshakable belief in Peralta's abilities over the years, and that's evidenced by the multiyear contract they gave him before the '06 season. But that contract is nearing the end of its course. The Indians will pay Peralta $4.6 million this season and hold a $7 million option on him for 2011. At this moment, it's tough to tell which direction they would go, though it's certainly not out of the realm of possibility that Peralta would either be dealt by the Trade Deadline or the option would be denied at season's end. The Tribe has a highly touted third baseman coming up the pipeline in former No. 1 Draft pick Lonnie Chisenhall, who should be at Triple-A Columbus by year's end. Does Peralta think he'll still be in a Tribe uniform a year from now? "I don't know what I can say," Peralta said with a smile and a shrug. "Hopefully. I want to be here. But I don't know what can happen." So Peralta will enter the season not knowing for sure if it's his last with the team that was his first professional home. Hey, maybe he is a little like LeBron, after all.
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Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.