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Indians Indians Archive Whitney's Health Keys Turnaround
Written by Tony Lastoria

Tony Lastoria
Indians first base prospect Matt Whitney's revival this season has been one of the greatest stories in the Indians farm system to follow this year.  He was a high profile draft pick in 2002, broke two bones in his leg and several surgeries later his career looked to be on the outs going into this season.  Whitney hit his 32nd bomb of the year last night and racked up is 111th RBI and is a runaway favorite to win the Lou Boudreau Award which goes to the Indians top minor league hitter.  Tony had a chance to sit down with Matt during his visit last week and talk about everything he has been through.  Yet another outstanding piece from our minor league guru.

Matt WhitneyIndians first base prospect Matt Whitney's revival this season has been one of the greatest stories in the Indians farm system to follow this year, if not THE story of the year in all of minor league baseball.  Seemingly forgotten coming into this season after three rough years in Single-A, Whitney is healthy and is showing why he was once dubbed by some Indians officials as "the next Manny Ramirez" shortly after he was drafted in 2002.

Whitney was drafted out of high school by the Indians in the first round of the 2002 First Year Player Draft.  He was a supplemental pick at the end of the first round, a pick the Indians obtained when Juan Gonzalez (Type-A free agent) was lost in free agency after the 2001 season.  After signing with the Indians, Whitney put up an impressive power display at rookie-level Burlington that year as an 18-year old kid when he hit .286 with 10 HR and 33 RBI in 45 games.

Getting back to where Whitney is today did not happen purely by talent alone, as it took a lot of hard work, a lengthy rehab, extreme patience, incredible resilience, and a drive to come back.  Many players would have given up long ago with the physical problems he dealt with the past four years, and the performance issues on top of it.  But, that is what makes Whitney special.  He is a fighter, a great young man, and most of all a gifted hitter.

"Well, sitting and not playing for a year and having to go through rehab was hard being out of it and stuff, and those thoughts (retirement) always pop up," said Whitney during an interview at Kinston last weekend.  "But, I never really considered ever fully saying 'okay this is it for me'.  I always thought 'okay I am going to get back and get back on the field and keep playing'.  I think that has helped me get back to where I am now."

Where Whitney is now is where a lot of people thought he would be when he was drafted back in 2002, which is a legit high profile power hitting corner infield bat.  This year, in 126 combined games at Lake County and Kinston, Whitney is hitting .301 with 32 HR, 111 RBI and a .920 OPS.  In all of minor league baseball, he ranks fourth in home runs and third in RBI.  Yes, Whitney seems to have once again established himself as the power hitting infield prospect the Indians drooled over back in 2002, he just took a long detour in getting there.

Whitney's career detour happened back in minor league camp during his first spring training in the spring of 2003.  Whitney broke two bones in his leg in a freak accident while playing basketball at the Chain of Lakes spring training complex in Winter Haven, Florida.  Whitney stepped on a sprinkler head the wrong way, and in one snap of the bones in his left leg his once promising career was put in doubt.

"We were shooting around a little bit, and I slipped and ended up breaking both bones in my leg," recalled Whitney.  "Then I went through a year and a half of rehab pretty much until I was able to get back on the field."

Whitney ended up having two different surgeries on his left leg (another one later), and his entire 2003 season was wiped out, one where he was supposed to be the starting third baseman in the inaugural season for the Lake County Captains in Eastlake, Ohio.  Whitney eventually returned in 2004, where he started the year in Lake County playing mostly as a designated hitter as he was still not 100% recovered from the leg injury.  He basically played the 2004 season on one leg as his toes were pointed downward due to the scar tissue that accumulated there during that time, so he was basically running on top of his toes on that leg.
Matt Whitney
Whitney's 2004, 2005 and 2006 largely went down as forgettable seasons for him from a production standpoint, as he hit a combined .230 with 21 HR and 96 RBI in 225 combined games.  He also struckout 275 times in 816 at bats.  The reason for a lot of his struggles was because he still was not completely healthy, and several new nagging injuries cropped up as a result of him compensating for the bad leg.

"I had a whole little string of injuries that cropped because of the compensation [with the leg], and I was doing things different," said Whitney.  "This year it hasn't really affected me as much as it has in year's past, so I am going in the right direction with that."

Fast forward to 2007, and after persevering through a lost season in 2003 and three very rough years at the plate from 2004-2006, Whitney's rebound this year and miraculous turnaround are all the more impressive.  Whether or not the success this year is a result of Whitney finally being healthy or because of a lot of hard work in the offseason that is paying off, the bottom line is Whitney is enjoying playing baseball again.

"I think it is a lot of things put together," said Whitney.  "A lot of it goes back to my health and the strength in my lower half and all that, and getting back to where I was.  A lot of it also has to do with doing a lot of work in the offseason, just getting a lot of swings in and getting my swing down and learning how to do different things and if stuff begins to slide like last year being able to come back and get back on track.  Workout-wise I did pretty much the same thing as the year before.  I think I just hit pretty much every day for a good three months, and I went in and talked to some people and did that and I think it all helped.  I'm about as good as I have ever been since the injury.  Whether I am a 100% or not it is pretty good right now."

Kinston manager Mike Sarbaugh probably is the best person to ask when it comes to finding out what has sparked Whitney's turnaround this year.  Sarbaugh witnessed Whitney when he hit his lowest point of his career last year at Kinston when he went through a rough 0-for-44 stretch and hit only .206 with 10 HR and 38 RBI in 96 games at Kinston.  Sarbaugh is also getting to see firsthand Whitney's resurgence this year, as since his callup in late-June he has torn up the Carolina League.  So, Sarbaugh has seen Whitney at his best and worst.

"I just think he is a little shorter to the ball this year, recognizing pitches a lot better," said Sarbaugh.  "Last year he had a tendency to chase some breaking pitches out of the zone.  He has been much better.  That just correlates to getting better at bats and better pitches to hit.  That's what he has done here, and he has been really good this year.  With what he has been through, especially the tough year last year, and have to go back a level this year, I think the change of position has helped him out a lot too as he looks real comfortable at first.  I think it has been a good fit for him."

Indians Farm Director Ross Atkins says it is Whitney's legs finally getting under him which have played a key part in his turnaround.

"He finally has his legs under him," said Atkins recently.  "He had taken a significant step back in the past three years with the initial leg injury and then the complications that went along with recovering from the injury. Not having your legs inMatt Whitney any professional sport is not good, especially in baseball when you are a power hitter. He feels better, and is back to the more consistent player he was when he first came into the system. He is having a ton of fun, and it is nice to see a smile on his face again."

In addition to being as healthy as he probably is ever going to be, another thing that may have sparked Whitney this year is the very good decision the Indians made this past spring in moving Whitney to first base.  Whitney had played first base and outfield as a high school player, so the move would not come as a complete shock to him, and most importantly he would be able to concentrate more on his offense while playing the much less demanding defensive position at first base.

"Yeah, I think [the position switch helped]," said Whitney.  "Coming from a corner position to another corner position is an easier transition than I think coming from middle infield or the outfield.  It has [allowed] me to concentrate more on hitting.  And, I think over time the more innings I get [at first base] and the more repetitions I get on different plays I think I will be more comfortable there."

Whitney believes that he could play third base again if the Indians moved him back there, and his experience as an outfielder in high school could potentially allow the Indians to try him out in the outfield down the road.  Atkins said he would not rule out Whitney ever going back to third base, or even possibly playing some outfield, although he noted that before making such a decision on moving him to the outfield they would have him workout there extensively before making such a decision.

Another calculated move was starting Whitney this year down a level at Lake County.  Having to move back a level can be hard for some players to handle, but Whitney knew from his discussions with the Indians minor league decision-makers at the end of spring training that the stop in Lake County would only be a temporary setback for him.  The idea was to give him time to work out the kinks at first base at a lower level, and also gain some confidence offensively.

The decision worked beautifully, as like what happened with shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera in starting him off at a level lower to work on his offense, Whitney's offensive game resurfaced in a big way.  Whitney had not been to Lake County since 2005, and now he was one of the "veterans" on a team filled with young prospects in their teens or just turning 20-years old.

"It was different going back there, as it was almost like I was an older guy there," said Whitney.  "Age-wise I was still young, but going in there was good.  I didn't know too many guys there, so it kind of took a while to get to know everybody.  I know the coaches and stuff, and I have known Jimmy (Jim Rickon, Lake County hitting coach) a couple years now so it kind of helped me feel comfortable up there.  Once I got going playing with those guys it was good."

After Whitney's hot start in Lake County, it no longer was about him gaining confidence offensively as the Indians wanted him to shore up some issues at the plate before moving him up to Kinston.  In particular, his approach against right-handed pitching.  While fans were wondering what was taking so long for Whitney to be moved up, Whitney was getting instruction and putting into practice some adjustments to help him have more success against right-handed pitching.

"I was flying open a lot [against right-handers], and I was kind of getting pull happy," said Whitney.  "I think being able to just stay there and slow everything up with my load and everything and being able to see it and basically just drop my hands like I am working on here with John (John Nunnally, Kinston hitting coach).  I think it helped me a lot."

Now in Kinston, and the regular season wrapping up this weekend, Whitney is able to reflect on what has been a tremendous year for him.  He tries to focus on the day-to-day grind rather than get caught up in the numbers, but it is Matt Whitneyhard not to when you are having such a great season and what he has been through the last few years.  Still, in baseball it always comes down to "what have you done for me lately", so he knows he has to try and carry the momentum of this season into next year and beyond and consistently put up good numbers.

"Every once in awhile I will think about it," said Whitney.  "Coming from last year to this year it has been a complete turnaround.  The past few years it was like I had to learn everything all over again.  I sat out so long where I had to go through different situations like it was the first time.  It was like a feeling out process the past couple years.  And dealing with the struggles at the plate it was the first time I ever had a year like that pretty much ever, and going through that it was tough.  But it has been great this year with everything.  I set some goals for myself in the beginning of the year to try to get better with striking out and get better with seeing pitches and it all just came together this year.  As long as I stay healthy and just keep sticking with what I am doing here I think I can not necessarily match these numbers, but kind of have a season like this where I am producing and helping the team win."

Now recovered from the injuries for the most part, Whitney's career is back on track.  This year certainly has been a banner year for Whitney, and he is now once again a premier power prospect in the Indians farm system.

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