By JAY LeBLANC
September 8, 2008
It certainly has been an eventful summer for Matt LaPorta. The No. 7 overall pick in the 2007 draft by the Milwaukee Brewers started the year by skipping advanced Class A and blasting 20 home runs in 84 games for the Brewers’ double-A affiliate, the Huntsville Stars. He became a household name in early July when he was shipped to the Cleveland Indians along with two lesser prospects and a player to be named later for reigning American League Cy Young award winner CC Sabathia. After a cameo with Cleveland’s double-A affiliate, the Akron Aeros, he joined Team USA for the Beijing Olympics and was briefly hospitalized with a concussion after he was hit in the head with a pitch during a heated game against host China. Sufficiently recovered and now the proud owner of a bronze medal, LaPorta is back with the Aeros and helping them make a run at the Eastern League title.
While many casual fans first heard of LaPorta when he was traded for Sabathia, scouts have known his name for years and Baseball America ranked him as the No. 1 prospect in the Brewers organization entering this season. The Chicago Cubs took the 6’ 2”, 210-pound slugger in the 14th round of the 2003 draft, but he declined their offer and accepted a scholarship from the University of Florida. After a solid freshman season, he hit .328 and led Division I with with 26 home runs as a sophomore and took Southeastern Conference Player of the Year honors. Collegiate players are draft eligible after their junior season and LaPorta looked like a likely first-round pick in 2006, but he struggled with an oblique injury that spring and slumped to .259 with 14 home runs. The Boston Red Sox took LaPorta in the 14th round, but he decided to return to Florida for his senior year. It proved to be a wise decision, as he raised his draft stock exponentially by hitting .402 with 20 home runs and winning SEC Player of the Year honors for the second time.
Milwaukee’s decision to select LaPorta with their first-round pick last year came as a surprise to many because he played first base in college and the Brewers already had a budding star there in Prince Fielder. However, the Brewers saw LaPorta’s bat as simply too good to pass up and figured he’d be able to play at least a passable left field. So far, LaPorta has proven them right on both accounts. He hit .304 with 12 home runs in 115 at bats while splitting time between Rookie ball and Class A last summer and followed that up by hitting .279 with 22 jacks in 101 regular-season games in double-A this year. And while the 23-year-old probably won’t ever be an above-average outfielder, he’s worked hard on his outfield defense and has done well out there this season considering his lack of experience. It remains to be seen whether Cleveland will keep LaPorta in the outfield or move him back to first base, but regardless, it’s his potent bat that will punch his ticket to the big leagues and, quite possibly, to stardom.
I caught up with LaPorta Wednesday night after he collected four hits, including a pair of home runs and the game-winning RBI single in the 12th inning, to lift the Aeros to a 6-5 win over the Bowie Baysox in Game 1 of their Eastern League playoff series. LaPorta added a third longball in Game 4 and finished the series with a .462 average and five RBI as the Aeros beat the Baysox three games to one to advance to the Eastern League Championship Series against the Trenton Thunder. The series kicks off Tuesday in Akron.
Q: You were drafted twice before you finally signed with the Brewers last year. Did you come close to signing with either the Cubs or the Red Sox?
A: You know, it was one of those things where I just really prayed about it and tried to follow what the Lord wanted me to do, so yes and no. I just really had to look at the situation and decide what was best for me.
Q: What was your reaction when you learned you’d been traded to the Indians in the CC Sabathia deal?
A: Well, I was excited for the Brewers. They got a quality player in CC and I’ve been saying since the beginning that I wish the Brewers the best of luck. I hope they make the playoffs and do well in the playoffs, but I’m excited to be an Indian. The Indians are a great organization.
Q: You’ve played both first base and the outfield this season. What position do you think you’ll end up at?
A: Ain’t no telling. All I can do is go out there and practice at both and play hard at both, and we’ll see.
Q: Could you describe your approach at the plate? Do you try to get into the pitcher’s head, or do you just react to what’s thrown?
A: I just kind of react to what’s thrown. It’s a game of reactions and if you think too much, I think you’re getting yourself in trouble.
Q: You were a member of the U.S. Olympic team that took the bronze in Beijing. What will you remember most from that experience?
A: Just the entire experience. I mean, I was very blessed to be able to go out there and represent my country. It was an amazing feeling to get that bronze medal up on the podium with all those other great athletes in the world, and again, I’m just very thankful.
Q: Do you feel like the beaning in the game against China was intentional?
A: You know, some say it was, but it doesn’t matter to me. It’s water under the bridge. It’s not a big deal anymore.
Q: What were some of your goals for this season? Do you feel like you’ve accomplished them?
A: I think I did well in accomplishing a lot of my goals. There’s a lot of things I’ve still got to get better at and work harder at, but I’m pleased with my season. But I know there’s always room for improvement, so that’s what I’ll do in the offseason.
Q: Any plans for fall or winter ball?
A: Yeah, I’m going to go down and play baseball in Venezuela.
Q: How soon do you think you’ll be ready to help the Indians?
A: I mean, whenever … it’s one of those things where you just keep working hard, and when they feel it’s time for you to come up, they’ll bring you up.
Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times and Mayor of the National Pastime web community. His Prospect Q&A column runs every Monday and Thursday throughout the season. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be sure to check out our previous National Pastime Prospect Q&A’s: Matt Wieters, Orioles; Ross Detwiler, Nationals; Adrian Alaniz, Nationals; Jake Arrieta, Orioles; Greg Golson, Phillies; John Shelby III, White Sox; Brandon Erbe, Orioles; Chris Marrero, Nationals; Jason Donald, Phillies; John Ely, White Sox; Nolan Reimold, Orioles; Michael Burgess, Nationals; Wes Hodges, Indians; Colton Willems, Nationals; Chris Tillman, Orioles; Dominic Brown, Phillies; Brandon Hicks, Braves; Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals; Nick Weglarz, Indians; Gorkys Hernandez, Braves; Beau Mills, Indians; Stephen King, Nationals; Brad Bergesen, Orioles; Fernando Martinez, Mets; Derrick Robinson, Royals; David Hernandez, Orioles; Jason Castro, Astros; Bobby Parnell, Mets; George Kontos, Yankees; Brian Matusz, Orioles.