Refined, reshaped Shoppach catches on

Shoppach going on the offensive in '07

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- A bench job and a free pass to the buffet line were not a good combination for Kelly Shoppach's waistline.

"The [food] spreads in the big leagues are pretty good," Shoppach said the other day, and assumedly his stomach would agree.

Shoppach had quite a list of things to get used to last season, as he made the transition from an everyday catcher in the Minors to Victor Martinez's backup with the Indians. Among those was watching his weight.

"I had to be sure," he said, "to keep my body from ballooning."

The 26-year-old Shoppach is listed at 6-foot, 220 pounds in the Indians media guide. He said he weighed roughly 25 pounds more during Spring Training of 2006, after the Indians acquired him from the Red Sox in the Coco Crisp trade, than he does now.

"My diet was a little bit different this offseason," he said. "The resources here [in the Indians' organization] give you every opportunity to do what you need to do. I've lost eight or nine pounds of fat. I'm not on like a crash diet or anything. I just give up that double cheeseburger at midnight now. I've just tried to be smarter with how I eat."

The Indians wanted to see Shoppach smarter at the dinner table so his body can more easily adapt to the grind of a 162-game season.

Manager Eric Wedge, for one, was happy with the Shoppach who walked through the door at Chain of Lakes Park last month and the one whose taken the field this spring season.

"As good as he was before, he's even better now," Wedge said. "It's about redefining his body and giving himself a better chance to move around back there."

Shoppach was "back there" behind the plate for 41 games last season. He also started 21 games for Triple-A Buffalo after the Indians sent him down for a month from late May to late June to get more consistent playing time.

Once Martinez began getting some starts at first base, Shoppach's opportunities with the Indians increased. And that will be the case again, from the outset of this season, especially given the flash Martinez has shown at first.

But Shoppach isn't waiting on Martinez's first-base skills to determine how often he's calling catching for Cleveland.

"A lot of it comes down to if I force the issue," he said. "If I get in there and play well, I'm sure they'd be more comfortable putting me in there. I know my role will be more significant this year."

Shoppach's skills at his position are unquestioned. He's got a gun for an arm, and he used it to nail all three of the Braves -- or should that read brave? -- runners who attempted to steal off him Saturday in Winter Haven. Last season, he threw out 10 of 29 (34.5 percent) potential basestealers, and an informal polling of Indians pitchers reveals Shoppach calls a good game.

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But the Indians want to see Shoppach become as reliable at the plate as he is behind it, and the catcher is hoping to oblige them.

"I'm going to [focus on offense] more this year than last year," Shoppach said. "Last year, I thought it was more important for me to over-prepare myself -- if there is such a thing -- on the defensive side, as far as getting everything set up for the pitchers. This year, I want to focus more on the offensive side of it. I'm going to spend a little more time at the yard and do more things that will make me a better player on the field."

Shoppach's power bat in the Minors is part of what made him attractive to the Tribe. He hit 22 homers in his first season at Triple-A Pawtucket in 2004 and 26 in 2005.

But batting average has never been Shoppach's specialty. He was a career .260 hitter in the Minors, and he batted .245 with three homers and 16 RBIs in 110 at-bats with the Indians.

Wedge doesn't believe Shoppach has maxed out his development as a hitter.

"He's working to have a consistent approach and understand himself," Wedge said. "He's working on his mindset and his approach and what he needs to do to succeed with each at-bat."

Shoppach will get more playing time than the average backup catcher this season, but he still has designs on an everyday role down the line. When asked how many games he'd like to catch, he was quick to reply, "162."

"It's about being a competitor," he said. "You want to compete every day."

For now, the Indians have no plans to make Martinez an everyday first baseman, despite his struggles with throwing out runners last season.

Shoppach has no qualms with the role he's been assigned. And with a more educated approach to that buffet line, he feels ready to contribute to the Indians in a meaningful way.

"I came into this spring more confident than I have been in years," he said. "I'm not saying I'm going to go out and be an All-Star, but being comfortable is a big part of this game. I felt I belonged this year, so I wasn't pressing. Hopefully, I can execute."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.