When Cleveland Indians decided to call Matt LaPorta up from Triple-A Columbus earlier this month, it was presumably for a reason. The 27-year-old former top prospect had been absolutely tearing the cover off the ball in the minors, and a Tribe lineup that was already starved for some right-handed pop suddenly had a perfect spot open for him when Travis Hafner went on the disabled list.
We’ve seen him hit the bejesus out of Triple-A pitching before only to struggle when he reached the majors, leading some to suggest that LaPorta is a Quad-A player—as an unathletic power hitter who struggles with breaking balls, the shoe seems to fit—who will never succeed in The Show. But his bat is hot and the Indians are in a position of need. So if they weren’t going to give him a chance to prove himself now, why keep him around at all? General reaction to LaPorta’s call-up seemed to be at best unenthusiastic, but for that reason I was all for it.
What’s happened since his promotion is not what I had in mind when I suggested the Indians give him a second (or third, or however many-th) chance. Today marks the 10th day on which Matt LaPorta has been present on the Tribe’s active 25-man roster, yet he has played only three times in that stretch. He appeared in three straight games after being called up, two at first base and once as the designated hitter, but it’s been almost a full week since the last time Manny Acta wrote his name in the lineup.
But Matt LaPorta was not (or at least should not have been) called up to ride the bench. He was (or at least should have been) promoted to get his bat in the lineup as much as possible unless and until the Indians have seen enough, and he will not be the hitter the Tribe needs him to be if he does not get regular playing time.
The first reason LaPorta needs to get on the field is that he would almost certainly be an upgrade over incumbent first baseman Casey Kotchman. Jeff Sackmann’s Minor League Equivalency Calculator gives LaPorta a projected MLB OPS of .877 based on his production in Triple-A; such a display would immediately make him Cleveland’s best hitter. Even if you knock that down 100 points to account for the alleged Quad-A effect he would still blow Kotchman (.615 OPS) out of the water. Kotchman’s defense is much better than LaPorta’s, but the offensive difference is far greater.
Even if you’re not fully convinced that LaPorta is likely to be a clear improvement over Kotchman, one must at least concede that LaPorta has a realistic chance to be a substantial upgrade at first base. Which brings us to the second point: If LaPorta is not a legitimate everyday player, we need to know that as soon as possible. (Yes, I know there are frustrated Tribe fans who would say they are already sure of that. But I am not, and the fact that the Indians have kept LaPorta around and have called him up now shows that have some faith in him.)
To say first base is a position of need (pun intended) for Cleveland is an understatement. Tribe first-sackers have combined for a .210/.277/.311 triple-slash, good for an OPS+ of just 57. It would be tremendously difficult for any team to contend while getting so little production from a premium offensive position, and unless the Indians fall out of the race in the next few weeks you can bet that they’ll be on the lookout for some help.
There is no obvious in-house alternative who can give this team a real boost at first base…except possibly LaPorta. Further, there is no clear candidate in the organization to man the position for the next several years…except possibly LaPorta. The question of whether or not LaPorta has a place on this team has tremendous consequences, both for the 2012 pennant run and for what we’re all hoping will be several more years of contention to come.
With the non-waiver trade deadline looming over the horizon, the Indians need to know whether or not they already have an adequate first baseman amongst their ranks. The fan base is already weary of blockbuster deals after last year’s Ubaldo Jimenez trade—does Cleveland really want to risk making another big move without making sure that it’s really necessary?
In the interest of fairness, LaPorta hasn’t looked very impressive so far. He’s 2-for-11 on the year with two strikeouts and no extra-base hits or walks, and based on what little we’ve seen he hasn’t shaken some of his old bad habits. But the key words there are “what little we’ve seen.” You can’t judge a player after three games. Is he going to learn to hit breaking balls by playing too irregularly to get into a groove or by riding the pine?
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that LaPorta’s getting playing time should take precedent over Carlos Santana‘s need to rest. If a day at first or DH to rest his knees will help him heat up after a slow start or the Indians want to keep up out from behind the plate as he recovers from his concussion I’m certainly not going to question that, and interleague play in National League parks obviously limits Acta’s options. But on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday LaPorta was left on the bench while Kotchman took the field at first base.
If we’re going to give LaPorta another chance, let’s at least actually give him a chance. It’s time to let him prove what he can do. And beyond that, it’s time for the Indians to add a potentially potent bat to their lineup and to assess their needs ahead of the trade deadline. Leaving LaPorta to get rusty on the bench isn’t helping the team at all.