Then & Now: Matt LaPorta

Then & Now is a weekly feature at Indians Prospect Insider during the offseason that takes a look at a prospect’s past and present while also offering a possible glimpse into the prospect’s future.

During the past few seasons, there has arguably been no Cleveland Indians player more polarizing than Matt LaPorta.

LaPorta has spent the past four seasons bouncing between the minor leagues and Cleveland. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Most fans believed that LaPorta was the long-term answer to the Tribe’s first base woes. When he was acquired as the centerpiece in the C.C. Sabathia deal in July 2008, LaPorta was viewed as a cornerstone; a franchise-altering player who would serve as the foundation of the team’s rebuilding process.

Unfortunately for both LaPorta and the Indians, things have not gone exactly according to plan. LaPorta has failed in repeated attempts to secure a permanent spot on the Major League roster, and first base remains an ominous question mark past the 2013 season.

It’s been quite a ride for LaPorta throughout his career, and unfortunately it has not been the smoothest ride either.

Then:

Following a stellar collegiate career at the University of Florida, LaPorta was drafted seventh overall in the 2007 Draft by the Milwaukee Brewers. When he was drafted, the thinking was that LaPorta was nearly a finished product and would rise through the minor leagues in just a couple of years.

He seemed to prove that thinking right upon making his professional debut in 2007. In 30 games and 130 plate appearances between Milwaukee’s rookie-level team Helena and Single-A West Virginia, LaPorta compiled a .304/.369/.696 line with 12 home runs, nine doubles and 31 RBI.

The power numbers were astonishing. LaPorta hit either a double or a home run nearly 15 percent of the time that he stepped into the batter’s box. He clearly was facing competition that was noticeably below his level, but the numbers could not be denied. And they weren’t.

Following that season, the national pundits started to take notice of LaPorta. Baseball America ranked him as the No. 23 prospect in all of baseball, and it seemed as if everyone was starting to take notice of the Brewers’ young, slugging prospect.

The Indians front office can be counted as one of the interested parties. The following summer, after LaPorta compiled a .288/.402/.576 line with 20 home runs in 84 games with Double-A Huntsville, the Indians traded C.C. Sabathia away to the Brewers for a package of prospects. The centerpiece of the prospect package was none other than LaPorta.

Finally, it appeared as if the Indians had acquired their first baseman of the future. Or so they thought.

The next three years is unfortunately a sad tale of unrealistic expectations, underwhelming performances and an unabashed fan base.

LaPorta spent part of the next three seasons in Cleveland and while there were signs, it never seemed to completely click. In 2009, after posting a .299/.388/.530 line with 17 home runs in 93 games at Triple-A Columbus, LaPorta came to Cleveland and hit .254/.308/.442 with seven home runs in 52 games. The numbers were not spectacular, but they did seem at least good enough to warrant a Major League roster spot for LaPorta in 2010. Yet, oddly enough, the Indians went another route.

Instead of giving LaPorta the opening day first base job in 2010, the Indians signed Russell Branyan to handle the duties. LaPorta started back in Columbus where he continued to rake: .362/.457/.638 line in 18 games.

This is also where a strong disconnect began to develop with fans. Many fans would often see the minor league numbers and clamor for a Major League promotion while others saw obvious flaws in LaPorta’s game (ex. plate discipline) that would prevent him from sticking as a starting first baseman.

LaPorta did eventually join the Major League club in 2010 and proceeded to post a .221/.306/.362 line with 12 home runs in 110 games. The next season, LaPorta finally opened up the year as the team’s opening day first baseman, but the numbers did not improve much.

In 107 games, LaPorta posted a .247/.299/.412 line with 11 home runs. Then, in late August, LaPorta was optioned back to Columbus.

Now:

LaPorta’s demotion in August 2012 seemed to be a permanent one as he started the 2012 season back with the Clippers. Casey Kotchman was signed to be his replacement at first base, and LaPorta really never seemed to even be in the discussion for a roster spot.

To his credit, LaPorta did not let the demotion bother him as he got off to a torrid start. In fact, in the month of April alone, LaPorta hit .380/.451/.759 with eight home runs.

LaPorta did earn two brief stints with the Indians in 2012, but they were just that — brief. His overall Major League line was .241/.267/.328 with one home run in 22 games and 60 plate appearances.

The right-handed hitter is now currently in spring training with the Indians as a non-roster invitee. At 28 years old, it’s unknown as to how much of a chance LaPorta will have to make the Major League roster.

Future:

It’s hard to say exactly what is in store for LaPorta. As stated earlier, he’s in camp with the Indians, but it still seems highly unlikely that he’ll have a legitimate shot at making the Major League roster.

So he likely will go back to Columbus and continue to rake, but will it do him any good? In the past, we’ve seen it ultimately mean very little.

One of LaPorta’s problems throughout his career has been plate discipline. In 345 minor league games, he’s drawn 155 walks while striking out 253 times. The numbers drastically increase in 291 Major League games: 82 walks and 223 strikeouts.

Perhaps the best course of action may be for LaPorta to choose to go overseas in Korea or Japan. It may help reestablish his value and ultimately lead to him catching on with another big league club.

LaPorta’s story is particularly troubling when you consider the kind of person that he is. By all accounts, he is as kind as they come and a truly good guy in a sport that’s filled with some sharks. Yet, unfortunately good morals and high character do not necessarily translate into All-Star Game appearances, and LaPorta is evidence of that.

Only time will tell what’s ahead for LaPorta, but if the Major Leagues are indeed in his future, that future likely won’t include the Indians.

Previous Then & Now profiles:

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