The Cleveland Indians suddenly find themselves with a big hole in their lineup with the news that designated hitter Travis Hafner will be out for four-to-six weeks following arthroscopic surgery on his knee. Hafner had already missed more than a week with knee soreness, but until Wednesday the injury had been described as short-term and relatively minor; now we know that it’s not.
The question at hand now is who should replace Hafner in the lineup until he returns. The obvious choice for designated hitter is Johnny Damon, who was presumably signed in part to provide insurance for the Indians in case a scenario like this were to arise. The problem is, Damon has been terrible at the plate this year—he’s hitting .171/.261/.256 in 23 games with the Tribe. His .186 BABIP suggests that his struggles are largely due to his batted balls simply not finding holes, but it’s clear from watching him play that he’s just not hitting the ball very well. He’s better than his numbers suggest, but at this point he’s not cut out to be an everyday DH.
Next in line is Shelley Duncan, but he’s an even less likely choice. Simply put, this organization doesn’t seem to have a shred of confidence in him for some reason. His numbers this year are also ill-befitting a DH—he’s got a .204/.311/.359 triple-slash—though he’s shown incredible patience at the plate and flashed signs of his solid power, and he too has been cursed by the BABIP Luck Dragons. I’d be happy to see the Indians finally give Duncan the chance he deserves, but given how desperate they were to find someone else to play left field during spring training and in April that seems highly unlikely.
Jose Lopez is another possibility. He captured Tribe fans’ hearts and minds when he got hot just in time to replace the injured Jack Hannahan earlier this month, but he really hasn’t hit that well overall. A 1-for-5 game Wednesday dropped his triple-slash down to .256/.291/.402 and his wRC+ to 89. A sub-.300 on-base percentage is a fatal flaw for a DH candidate, and it’s not as though he has much upside—even if he keeps up his current pace, it would be his best season since 2009.
There aren’t any other clear replacements for Hafner on the Indians’ roster—Lonnie Chisenhall or Aaron Cunningham could suffice for a game or two, but neither has the offensive chops to carry his weight with nothing but his bat. And so, it’s time for the Tribe to bring back a familiar face who has heretofore been exiled to Triple-A Columbus: Matt LaPorta.
LaPorta has been absolutely tearing the cover off the ball this year. In 45 games with the Clippers he’s mashing opposing pitchers to the tune of a .302/.397/.611 triple-slash with 14 home runs and 31 RBI. Entering Wednesday he was walking at a 12.2 percent clip and his Power Factor was over 1.000, and while his .321 BABIP may be a tad higher than his norm it’s not as though his breakout is just the result of a large number of batted balls evading fielders’ gloves. Jeff Sackmann’s Minor League Equivalency Calculator translates LaPorta’s Triple-A performance to a formidable .269/.349/.518 slashline at Progressive Field and puts him on pace to mash 43 homers over 162 games in The Show.
But, as Bradley Woodrum noted before the season, LaPorta fits the mold of a “Quad-A” player both superficially (he hits well in the minors but struggles in the majors) and logically (he has trouble with off-speed pitches, and the difference between a breaking ball in the minors and the majors is bigger than it is for a fastball). So in this case, looking at LaPorta’s equivalency numbers is not sufficient for projecting him in a possible promotion—as we discussed a few weeks ago:
After three years of looking like the archetypal Quad-A player it isn’t enough to look at his minor league equivalencies when assessing his MLB readiness. That he is absolutely feasting on pitchers with inferior off-speed stuff now could be the ultimate proof that he isn’t cut out for a regular job in the majors.
This isn’t to say LaPorta’s hot start should be seen in a bad light. We won’t know for sure whether or not the strides he’s made in Columbus will beget better results in the majors until the Indians call him up again, and even then it’s not certain he’d get enough playing time for us to make a definitive judgment. But his insane numbers don’t necessarily mean that he’s turned the corner—they could just as easily suggest that his career is stuck in neutral.
It’s possible that LaPorta really has developed the ability to regularly post an OPS in the high .800′s. But it’s also likely that his ability to destroy minor-league pitching says virtually nothing about how he would do in the majors. At the very least, we should see Sackmann’s translated numbers as closer to LaPorta’s ceiling than the most likely scenario.
Why, then, should we give LaPorta a shot when there are so many other DH options available? Because with apologies to Duncan he’s the only in-house option Cleveland has who could possibly fill Hafner’s shoes. The fact is, LaPorta is hitting really well right now. Maybe that’s irrelevant, maybe it’s not. But with Hafner gone we have nothing to lose and loads to gain by giving LaPorta a shot.
Best-case scenario: He steps in and proves to be the solid right-handed bat the Indians have been looking for for months and finally gives the Tribe the stability they’ve lacked at first base. The worst that happens is he proves to be an ineffective hitter and he’s sent back to Columbus—in which case there will be the silver lining of eliminating the ambiguity of whether or not LaPorta fits into the team’s long-term plans.
Matt LaPorta’s days as a top prospect are long gone. There’s no disputing that. But seeing how he’s fared in Columbus, maybe—just maybe—he still has a place in the middle of the Tribe’s order. Now is the time to find out.