The Disappointments of Youth: Matt LaPorta

Trading highly-touted top prospects is a dangerous game for GMs, even if the return is proven player, because the trade seldom ends up being a fair one. Either the prospect pans out and the receiving team now has a star under team control for the better part of the next decade, or the prospect doesn’t pan out and the sending team has managed to sell a player at the pinnacle of his theoretical value, a point he will never reach in reality, and gotten a major league star for as their prize.

When the 2008 Brewers sent their top prospect at the time, Matt LaPorta, to the Indians as the key piece in the C.C. Sabathia trade, they were betting that LaPorta would fall into the second category and that Sabathia would help them make the playoffs. Credit to Doug Melvin and his staff, they were right on both accounts: The Brewers did make the playoffs in 2008 and LaPorta has struggled to get consistent playing time in the majors with Cleveland, even despite a youth movement within the Indians organization.

LaPorta hasn’t been a complete bust for the Indians, but his bat hasn’t at all played the way they had hoped it would and his defense isn’t good enough to cover the gap between expectation and reality. Add in the relatively high replacement level bar at first base and you have LaPorta’s career -1.4 WAR mark. His 2011 wasn’t awful, but .247/.299/.412 with 11 home runs just isn’t good enough from a starting first baseman and LaPorta isn’t going to fit anywhere else. His strikeout rate jumped from an already high 19.3 percent up to 22.6 percent, while his walk rate fell from just shy of 11 percent back down to just 6 percent. If he were walking more, perhaps he might have some value as a Carlos Pena-type player in OBP leagues, but he doesn’t even have as part of his arsenal.

There’s not much in LaPorta’s profile that excites me. He got off to a pretty good start in 2011, hitting .247/.337/.481 with four of his 11 home runs, but he was unable to sustain that success and regressed in every way as the season progressed. His minor league numbers are good, but he hasn’t gotten consistent playing time there since 2009, so it isn’t as though he’s splitting his time between being good in the minors and being ineffective in the majors. He has low BABIP, which could be a reason to hope that at least his batting average will come back and be a useful fantasy tool, but he hits flyballs at such a high rate — and relatively few line drives — that it’s hard to bank on his BABIP regressing back to near .300.

On nothing more than merit, LaPorta would be a last round flier for me, and even that depends on who else is left. But with the playing time issues he is facing, I just can’t even recommend him as a flier. The Indians brought in Casey Kotchman to man first base for the majority of their games, and they also have Carlos Santana as an occasional first baseman, which leaves LaPorta no higher than their third option. He could battle Travis Hafner for DH time, which is probably his easiest route to consistent playing time, though he’ll have to battle Russ Canzler for the spot. Canzler is younger and can play more positions, which almost certainly gives him a leg up for what amounts to a bench bat spot on the Indians’ roster.

Deep AL-only players may look at LaPorta out of duty, but reports coming out of Cleveland are that the Indians may send LaPorta back to Triple-A in order to keep him from stagnating on the big league bench, which would render him a wasted draft pick. There’s too much risk here for far too little reward irrespective of format. Let another league member dream on a former top prospect’s potential this season rather than having to hope and pray for LaPorta to suddenly find his power stroke in time to convince the Manny Acta and the rest of the Indians coaches that they should clear playing time for him once again.

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Dan enjoys black tea, imperial IPAs, and any competition that can be loosely judged a sport. Follow him on Twitter.

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Damn, these articles can be so depressing to read sometimes. Excellent analysis, but some reptilian part of my brain sees “disappointment” in the title, anticipates a sad article and wants to go away.