Matt LaPorta: Failing To Meet Expectations

By Craig Gifford

With Matt LaPorta‘s demotion to AAA Columbus on Tuesday, coupled with Michael Brantley‘s season-ending wrist injuries, the Cleveland Indians currently have nothing to show on the field for their trade of ace pitcher C.C. Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers three years ago.

When Sabathia was traded, Brantley was the fill-in piece. LaPorta was supposed to be the player who blossomed into a star, power-hitting first baseman. To this point, Brantley has become a solid, everyday outfielder. LaPorta has been a disappointment and his demotion is further proof of just how far he is fallen since being a prized prospect just three years ago.

Tribe manager Manny Acta explained the LaPorta move, saying first base was the one position on the team that has an overabundance of players when room needed to be made to call up Jeanmar Gomez for Tuesday’s spot start against Oakland. In other words, the Indians would rather see a platoon of Carlos Santana, Shelly Duncan and Jack Hanahan – none of whom count first base as their natural position – over a guy who has played first base his whole career.

The problem with LaPorta begins and ends with looking at his batting statistics. He currently has a .238 batting average, with 11 home runs and 44 RBI in 319 at bats. It’s not like he’s not getting an opportunity to figure things out. Last year, he had 12 home runs in 376 at bats. That’s 23 home runs in nearly two full seasons. That would be fine work for a guy coming off the bench in a platoon role. That, however, is not what LaPorta was supposed to be when the Indians gave up one of the franchise’s all-time greatest pitchers to acquire him.

At the time of that trade, in July 2008, LaPorta had 20 home runs in AA. It was the highest total among all minor leaguers. He was brought in to mash the ball from the right side of the plate. So far, he has been mashed by major league pitching.

Acta explained last year’s struggles on LaPorta coming back from a 2009 injury. That was fine and seemed plausible. LaPorta was in his first full season and working back from ailment. There is no excuse this year. This season’s total simply have to make one wonder if LaPorta will ever succeed at baseball’s highest level. Perhaps the 26-year-old will be a late bloomer, ala the Rangers Josh Hamilton. However, Hamilton’s late success was more due to personal demons than talent.

That is the sad thing with LaPorta – he is not a bad guy. All indications are that he is not a slacker, he works hard and does not get into trouble off the field. He appears to be a good teammate. The problem is, in two-plus seasons, he has not figured out major league pitching. Not once has he even shown signs of figuring things out and going on a hot streak. As one colleague pointed out, he’s Ryan Garko. He’s a guy who will show occasional power and that is about all. The Indians simply could have kept Garko around and gotten something else for Sabathia if they knew this would be the case.

Now the Indians need to figure out where to go from here with LaPorta and first base. As of now, Santana will see the bulk of the first base duties, with Lou Marson catching on much more regular basis. No Indians fan should hope to see this scenario going into next year. Santana should remain the regular catcher. His defense is not as good as Marson’s, but he has handled the pitching staff well this year. Marson is not a bat you want in the lineup more than a couple times a week.

As for LaPorta, he probably is not finished with the Tribe. It would not be surprising to see him back some time in September when rosters expand. What would be surprising is to see him contribute any more than he has to this point. He can not be the first baseman going forward. Cleveland needs to bring in a quality hitting, preferably from the right sight, first baseman for the next season. LaPorta, who can also play left field, would be a nice piece coming off the bench. Any team would like to have a guy like LaPorta to pinch hit or play every few days in certain situations. Unfortunately, you don’t trade a pitcher like Sabathia for a player like that.


Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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