GOODYEAR, Ariz. —Austin Kearns may not wrestle away the starting job in left field from one of Cleveland’s young upstarts, but it’s a safe bet that when the Indians break training camp, the eight-year veteran will be joining them.
After a slow start to the spring, while the club proceeded cautiously with a player returning from surgery (right thumb), Kearns has improved his chances at landing a roster spot with a hot bat that has come at a perfect time.
“His thumb is good and he’s been swinging the bat a lot better the last week or so,” said manager Manny Acta of Kearns, who is hitting .300 (9-for-30) with three doubles, two home runs and five RBIs in 12 exhibition games. “He’s a right-handed bat with a track record and some power and he can play all three outfield (positions).
“He’s in the mix with (Trevor) Crowe and those guys (Michael Brantley and Matt LaPorta). He’s in that battle. Just like everybody else, he’s tied for first. We’ll make that decision at the end.”
Even if Kearns doesn’t win the job in left, there might be another starting spot available to open the season —first base —where he is considered a candidate along with LaPorta, despite never logging an inning there on the big-league level. With Russell Branyan (back injury) questionable at best to open the season, Kearns has been taking ground balls at first, and is expected to play there before the exhibition season is complete.
At the very least, it would be surprising not to see Kearns’ name on the opening-day roster as a utility player.
“I knew there was an opportunity here, so that’s what you ask for,” Kearns said. “You just try to come in and play and see what happens.”
Kearns, 29, was a first-round draft pick (seventh overall) of Cincinnati’s in 1998, and after finishing third in National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2002, was pegged for stardom in the Reds organization.
Unfortunately for Kearns, that year ended with a strained left hamstring that cut his season short and foreshadowed an injury-plagued career for the Lexington, Ky., native, who has made six more trips to the disabled list since then.
The most bothersome ailment has been an injured right thumb, which according to Kearns, has been an issue since 2004, when he had surgery to remove bone spurs from the area prior to his last full season in Cincinnati. The thumb saga ended on a bizarre note last year, when Kearns underwent more surgery, this time on a cyst and an aneurism.
He was limited to 80 games for the Nationals, batting an embarrassingly-low .195 with just three homers and 17 RBIs.
“It was something that was obviously different,” Kearns said of the aneurism, which is usually associated with the brain. “It was a situation, unfortunately, where I played with it too long and got into some bad habits.
“It hasn’t given me any problems (this spring), so, that’s a good thing.”
If Kearns, a career .256 hitter, does make the team, he will be reunited with Acta, who was his manager for three seasons in Washington from 2007-09. Kearns, who arrived a year after the Nationals’ inaugural season, has high praise for Cleveland’s new manager.
“He’s very positive and upbeat,” Kearns said. He’s a player’s guy. He asks you to show up and play hard. I think, as a player, that’s all you can ask for. His qualities are simple, but they’re much needed.”
Kearns also has praise for what he hopes is his new team when the Indians open the season, April 4, in Chicago against the White Sox.
“I knew a few guys here, but there’s a lot more talent here than I thought,” Kearns said. “It’s definitely a positive outlook, I think. I think there are good people from top to bottom (in the organization). I think that’s important.”
Today, 4:05 vs. Mariners at Goodyear Ballpark. WTAM 1100-AM (delayed, 8 p.m.).
Contact Chris Assenheimer at (440) 329-7136 or firstname.lastname@example.org.