WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- Ryan Garko's reputation preceded him to Spring Training. And in this particular case, that wasn't a good thing. "When you get into the category where you're a liability defensively," Garko said, "it's hard to overcome that."
Had Garko earned himself a reputation for sterling defense, he probably would have come to Chain of Lakes Park with a guarantee of holding down first base for the Indians on Opening Day. His bat certainly did its part to win him a job, as no one in the organization is scoffing at the 45 runs he drove in during 50 games in the big leagues last season. As it stands, though, Garko, regardless of his prominent production at the plate, isn't even promised a big-league job. All this might make it sound as if Garko, a converted catcher who wasn't a full-time first baseman until last year, is out there trying to field ground balls with oven mitts on his hands. But that's not really the case. "When I'm out there, I don't think I kill a team," said Garko, who made six errors in 103 games at Buffalo and another six in 50 games with the Tribe last year. "I don't think I did last year. I made some errors, yeah. But those are errors that I won't make again. I just need to show I'm comfortable and start to make it look easy." Garko, 25, has the next six weeks to do so. But his chances of landing a job with the club aren't totally in his hands. The Indians are planning on giving the bulk of starts at first base to Casey Blake, who will be brought in from the outfield. Garko is hoping to make the roster and get some starts at first against left-handed pitching, but his spot could very well be dependant on whether the Indians carry one or two utility infielders. Count manager Eric Wedge among Garko's many supporters. But don't read that as a given that Garko will be on the team flight to Chicago for the April 2 opener. "There's a lot of people in the organization who are fans of Ryan," Wedge said. "But we have to look at the complexion of our team and how those final spots play out. He's going to have every opportunity to make this team, but the X-factor is not so much him as it is the other personnel." Garko was quite the complement to the Indians in August and September of last season.
Called up unexpectedly in early August to take over an injured Blake's spot on the 25-man roster, Garko forced the Indians to make him an everyday presence in the middle of the order. The Tribe has long been looking for a right-handed run producer to take some pressure off Travis Hafner in the heart of the lineup, and Garko -- for two months, anyway -- looked like the answer to that quest. From Aug. 8 on, he hit .290 with seven homers and 43 RBIs in 48 games. "I never felt overmatched," Garko said. "At the plate, I felt like I could produce. I'm not saying you can project that over a whole year. But I felt I put up quality at-bats, night in and night out." Garko's ratio of 4.1 at-bats per RBI, if spread out over the course of a full season, would have ranked fifth in the American League behind Hafner, Jason Giambi, David Ortiz and Frank Thomas. Of course, that's all conjecture. And late-season numbers, especially those of players on non-contending teams, are usually ingested with a large grain of salt. For his part, though, Wedge believes Garko's production was no figment of the imagination. "His stats were legit," Wedge said. "We were playing legitimate teams, and he was facing legitimate pitching. The difference was we were out of it. It's always a little different story when you break with a team. But I tell you what, he's a smart kid and I don't think he gets intimidated by much. Those are things that are going to work for him." Right now, Garko needs his glove to work for him, and he knows it. "I've talked to [general manager] Mark [Shapiro], and I've talked to Eric," he said. "I understand what's going on. The only way I'd be frustrated is if it wasn't talked about and I didn't understand." Garko, the club's third-round pick out of Stanford in the 2003 amateur draft, is trying to make the Indians understand just how dedicated he is to becoming a full-time Major Leaguer. He spent a month of the offseason playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic, where improving his fundamentals at first was his top priority. When he made the transition to first base in the middle of the '05 season, Garko found the position to be more challenging than it appeared. "Having the right footwork is important," he said. "Fielding a ground ball is not as easy as it looks on TV. I learned that real quick. Especially left-handed batters -- reading the ball off the bat and making sure I'm in the right position to at least keep the ball in front of me. It's just something where the more you play, the better you get at reading balls off the bat." The Indians will give Garko plenty of opportunities to play this spring and plenty of opportunities to improve his defensive reputation. Beyond that, Garko hopes he gets the ultimate opportunity that comes with an Opening Day job. "Last year was a great start," he said. "I really showed that, when given the opportunity, I was an important part of the lineup. I feel like I'm ready for the season, because I want to go out and be a part of this team and help this team."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.