July 14, 2008
On the Beat
By all rights, Matt LaPorta should have been nervous. The Indians' recently-acquired prospect was the focal point of the All-Star Futures Game on Sunday at Yankee Stadium. Just six days earlier, he had been the centerpiece of the package of four minor league players that the Brewers traded to the Indians for CC Sabathia, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner.
As a result of the deal, LaPorta suddenly went from merely being one of the minor leagues' top power hitters known just to hard-core baseball fans, to a prospect who now even casual followers of the game have on their radars. After all, it's not every day that you're traded for a guy who was just ninth months removed from being voted the Cy Young. However, LaPorta said he didn't feel any more nervous on Sunday than the other prospects who were getting their first taste of playing in a major league stadium, one that just happens to be baseball's most famous venue. "I really haven't had much time to think about playing here," LaPorta said. "It's fun and it's exciting but there has been a lot going on in my life. It's been a hectic week."
It would be safe to assume that LaPorta is coming off of the most eventful week of his 23 years. It all began last Monday, when the trade between the Indians and Brewers was finalized, and LaPorta switched Double-A affiliates, moving from Huntsville in the Southern League to Akron in the Eastern. LaPorta had to pack up the belongings in his Alabama apartment and have them shipped to Ohio. Meanwhile, his luggage was lost by the airlines somewhere, and he had just reported to Akron and barely began getting to know his teammates when word came that his grandfather had died. Topping off such a challenging week was the trip to the Futures Game. LaPorta was 1-for-3 with a walk while playing all nine innings at first base, and was one of the few bright spots for the United States as they were shut out 3-0 by the World. "It's been a real roller-coaster ride," LaPorta said. "You start wondering what will happen next."
What the Indians would like to happen next is for LaPorta to just keep doing what he did in the Brewers' farm system. LaPorta was considered a bit of an overdraft last year when the Brewers used the seventh overall pick to select him from the University of Florida in the first-year draft. The argument in the scouting community was that LaPorta had only one plus tool-his power-and that the Brewers should have drafted a more well-rounded prospect when picking that high. However, scouting director Jack Zduriencik has rarely been wrong with his first-round picks while helping general manager Doug Melvin build the Brewers into a contender. Zduriencik certainly didn't err in selecting LaPorta, who hit 74 home runs in four college seasons.
LaPorta made his professional debut with Rookie-level Helena in the Pioneer League last season and batted .259/.286/.519 with two home runs in seven games, then showed outstanding production after a promotion to Low-A West Virginia in the South Atlantic League, as he hi .318/.392/.750 with seven homers in 23 games. In 74 games at Huntsville this year, LaPorta hit .288/.402/.576 with 20 home runs in 84 games, and he's hitting .375/.375/.563 with one homer in his first four games with Akron.
LaPorta is exactly what the Indians need, as they have been unable to develop power hitters in their farm system in recent years. With the exception of Manny Ramiez, the other 29 players that the Indians have drafted in the first round since 1988 have combined to hit just four home runs for Cleveland in a major league game: Sabathia had two of them, and first baseman Michael Aubrey hit the other two earlier this year. Furthermore, the 25 players the Indians have picked in the second round in the last two decades have also combined to hit four home runs for Cleveland-three by Herbert Perry and one by Zach Sorensen.
Thus, the expectations will be high for LaPorta to be the next great power hitter along the shores of Lake Erie. Throw in the fact that he was traded for Sabathia, and it might seem a little overwhelming. However, LaPorta insists that he doesn't feel any additional responsibility in joining his new organization. "I look at getting traded for a player like CC Sabathia as a supreme compliment," LaPorta said. "I don't see that as pressure. I'm going to prepare myself and work just as hard, whether I'm with the Brewers or the Indians or whoever. I'm not going to change because I've been traded. My goal when I got drafted was to work hard, get to the major leagues and try to help the Brewers win pennants. The only thing different now is I want to help the Indians win championships."
If for some reason the baseball thing doesn't work out, LaPorta has a fall-back plan. He and Matt Leclerc, his friend and teammate at Florida who's an outfielder in the Cubs farm system, started a wholesale diamond business last winter; Leclerc's father exports diamonds from a mine in Israel. However, before LaPorta puts all his energy into diamonds, he plans on excelling on the diamond. "Baseball is not always going to be there," LaPorta said. "If we start now, it should be a strong business by the time we're 45 or 50. You've got to think big. That's the way I've always been ever since I was a little kid. I've always aimed high, whether it's baseball or anything else in life."