Whitney Healthy And Ready To Play

Matt Whitney: "All will be well this year."

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- A year ago this time, reality was slapping Matt Whitney in the face. And it hurt. Boy, did it ever!<br><br> Despite more than a year of intense rehabilitation, the young player once described as the best minor league hitter in the Indians' organization since Manny Ramirez was coming to grips with the fact he would not be breaking camp with a team when the season began in early April.<br>

The broken left leg Whitney suffered when he stepped on a sprinkler head in March of 2003 would keep him in extended spring training. Not only was his lateral movement still restricted, but just running from home to first base was difficult. That's a bad combination.

So, while the majority of his teammates headed north, Whitney stayed in Winter Haven with a couple of dozen young players who were destined for short-season clubs, along with a handful of injured players like veteran pitchers Bobby Howry, Scott Sauerbeck, Brian Tallet and Billy Traber.

Whitney, a sandwich pick (33rd overall choice) in the 2002 June draft, was a shadow of the third baseman who had burst onto the pro baseball scene by hitting .286 with 10 homers and 33 RBI in just 45 games at Burlington in 2002.

Whitney finally was healthy enough to land with the Class A Lake County Captains last June, but watching him try to play was painful at times.

He could barely run, and playing in the field was out of the question. The only goal was to get him as many at-bats as possible while serving as the team's designated hitter.

The 6-4, 200-pounder did get 195 at-bats over 55 games, but in no way did he resemble a top prospect. He hit .256 with five homers and 31 RBI while pretty much playing on one leg.

Every game was an adventure. He constantly was changing his stride to accommodate whatever part of his leg or foot hurt most. Sometimes it was the area around his fibia, where a steel rod is permanently inserted. Sometimes it was his foot, where a tendon tightened up and made his toes look like a claw.

"I would compensate for something depending on how I would feel that particular day," said the personable Whitney as he took a break from his workout routine in spring training. "My (batting) stance didn't really change, but my stride direction and other stuff like that was affected."

When the painful 2004 season was over, instead of going to winter ball to get some much-needed at-bats, Whitney headed back to the operating room in late September to have the tendon straightened out. He then spent several weeks at home sitting while the injury healed.

"I couldn't do anything but sit on my butt for several weeks," he said.

Whitney finally got the green light to start a running program in January, initially only straight ahead, and then with a minimal amount left and right.

He worked with Robby Thompson, one of the Tribe's special assistants, at a facility in Jupiter, Fla, not far from his home in Palm Beach Garden. Several pro players were there, including former Indians first baseman Sean Casey.

By the time camp opened this year, Whitney was able to move laterally enough so that he could participate in the team's fielding drills.

"It has felt really good," he said. "I'm pleased."

Sometimes it felt so good that he had to pinch himself just to make sure he wasn't dreaming.

Most pleasing for Whitney is the fact he will break camp with his teammates in early April. Although it has not yet been officially announced, Whitney is expected to start the season with Lake County. There still is a slim chance he could begin at higher-level Class A Kinston, although that is not likely.

Kevin Kouzmanoff, who had a tremendous season playing third base in Whitney's absence last year, is expected to be the starting third baseman for the Little Indians.

At this point, Whitney could care less what uniform he wears. "I'm just happy to get out (break) with a team," he said with a grin. "I want to be a part of a team, contribute as much as I can, and have a lot of fun."

A lot has changed since Whitney last played in the field -- particularly in regards to the tiers of third baseman in the Tribe's organization.

Corey Smith, the Indians' first-round draft pick in 2000, is gone, having been dealt to the Padres for minor-leaguer Jake Gautreau. Smith, with a tremendous amount of physical talent, never could get his career in gear either offensively or defensively. And when the third baseman balked at moving to the outfield, the Indians knew it was time to part ways.

Pat Osborn, a second-rounder selected right after Whitney in 2002, has developed into an outstanding hitter. Osborn hit .342 at Kinston last season and is expected to be Class AA Akron's starting third baseman this year. Osborn has had numerous injuries, however, the most recent of which was a shoulder problem that required surgery last Sept. 22.

Kouzmanoff, meanwhile, was one of the most pleasant surprises in the organization last year. The 6-2, 210-pounder, who was the team's sixth-round selection in 2003, hit .330 with 16 homers and 87 RBI in 123 games for the Captains in 2004.

"We have a lot of talent at third base," said Whitney. "Right now, I just have to see where I fit in."

He knows the 2004 season took a toll. "Last year might have set me back a little bit," he admitted. "I can't be concerned about that at this time. I just look forward to getting back out there.

"All will be well this year," he predicted.

And if all is well for Matt Whitney, then all should be well for the Cleveland Indians.

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