That Matt LaPorta‘s job is in jeopardy is clear. MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian wrote last month that the Indians haven’t guaranteed their 2011 starting first baseman a roster spot for 2012, and the Plain Dealer‘s Terry Pluto doesn’t think LaPorta is cut out even for platoon work. Even non-Cleveland fans can see the writing on the wall: MLB Trade Rumors’ Mark Polishuk wrote that he wouldn’t be a “major obstacle” to the Tribe possibly trading for Yonder Alonso.
And with just cause. LaPorta hit just .247 with 11 homers, 53 RBI, and a .711 OPS (93 wRC+) in 2011 while playing questionable defense at the easiest position on the field. Baseball-Reference has him at just 0.2 wins above replacement, while FanGraphs‘ (-0.8) and Baseball Prospectus‘ (-0.5) models saw him as below replacement level.
But while he shouldn’t be guaranteed anything out of the gate in 2012, there’s an important distinction to be made about why: LaPorta’s changed status isn’t because of him as much as it is about the other 24 players on the roster.
Go back a year, to the 2010-11 offseason. LaPorta was coming off an extremely disappointing campaign: at age 25, in what was supposed to be his big breakout year, he hit just .221/.306/.362 (84 wRC+) in 110 games. Every major metric had him as below replacement level; Baseball Prospectus’ WARP had him at an insane 2.1 wins below replacement level. By this time, it was clear that the former top prospect was going to be a bust.
If I’d asked you then to predict LaPorta’s 2011 numbers, what would you have said? Sure, we still had hope that he would discover some semblance of his potential. Some of us even thought he’d really be able to find it. But whatever you’d consider to be a benchmark of a good season for a powerful first baseman—30 homers, 100 RBI, 4.0 WAR—did you think LaPorta would really achieve it? A more realistic projection (combined, perhaps, with just a touch of Cleveland skepticism) would have put you right around the neighborhood of what he actually ended up doing.
Sure, there were discouraging signs beyond his general career theme of not living up to his top prospect billing: his walk rate fell from 11 percent in 2010 to just 6 percent in 2011 (causing his OBP to fall below .300). His O-Swing rate shot up to 37 percent, and as a result his strikeout rate soared to 23 percent. And while his hit rate climbed to a career-high .293, that 8 percent (1 in 13) of balls he put in play were infield flies suggests that he’s still making weak contact far too often.
But 2011 was still arguably the best season of his career. Adjusted for the diminished offensive environment, LaPorta essentially hit as well as he did in 2009 (slightly below average, according to OPS+ and wRC+) in the increased playing time he first saw in 2010. Despite the aforementioned troubling trends, it looks like he’s making some progress as he enters his prime. Again, this isn’t to say that he’s a viable everyday first baseman, but while his performance this season was far worse than what we expected three years ago, it wasn’t too disappointing in the context of his career.
Maybe the Indians thought LaPorta would really turn a corner this year and have now given up. But LaPorta’s arrested development isn’t the reason why he’s no longer a tenable solution at first—it’s that the Indians have moved to the next level of the contention cycle.
This season was supposed to be the stepping stone, the bridge between years of mediocrity and the emergence of a legitimate contender. The Indians didn’t open the season expecting to play into October, and only way they had a chance at the postseason was for everything to go right at the same time (which it did for the first couple months). With nothing to lose, giving LaPorta every opportunity to adjust to MLB pitching was a low-risk, high-reward proposition. Signing Carlos Pena or plugging in Shelley Duncan from the get-go wouldn’t have made sense.
But now? The Indians have their eyes on the prize. They might not be able to overtake the Tigers—erasing a 15-game deficit in one offseason is a tall order—but anything less than a significantly over-.500 record and a yearlong presence in the pennant race would be a huge disappointment.
Every team has weaknesses, but this isn’t a hole that the Tribe can ignore. First base is a premium offensive position, and while having someone like Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder manning the fort there isn’t a prerequisite for contention, the absence of a quality first-sacker puts the Indians at an inherent disadvantage.
If Cleveland could replace LaPorta with just a league-average player it would add two or three victories to the Tribe’s 2012 total. For a rebuilding team, that doesn’t matter—better to let a cost-controlled youngster get his hacks in than rob him of learning opportunities by throwing in a marginally superior veteran instead. But when you’re in a tight pennant race, you don’t have that luxury.
Yes, LaPorta has some work to do this spring if he wants to keep his job, and it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which the Indians are better off with him on bench (if not in the minors). But be fair to him, his fall from presumptive starter this time last year to possible roster cut has more to do with the Tribe’s progress than his stalled career.