Earlier this week, I noted that the recently promoted Matt LaPorta had played only three games since his promotion to The Show nearly two weeks ago. The way he was tearing the cover off the ball in Triple-A suggested that he could be at least an effective hitter in the majors, I argued, and before the Indians make what seems like an inevitable trade for a first baseman given how little offensive production they’ve gotten there in 2012 it be irresponsible not to first ensure that LaPorta was not up for the task.
After literally going a week without appearing in a game, it now appears that LaPorta will be getting the everyday playing time he deserves—but it won’t be in Cleveland. The team announced Wednesday that LaPorta had been sent back to Triple-A Columbus to make room on the roster for the just-acquired Esmil Rogers. Even amongst the questionable moves of trading for a pitcher with a 6.77 career ERA and carrying just 12 position players for an interleague series in a National League park, sending LaPorta down seems like a huge mistake.
The immediate consequence of this move is that the probable best first baseman in the organization is no longer on the team’s active roster. Casey Kotchman simply isn’t cutting it. All the major value metrics agree that he is on pace to be at least about 1.5 wins below replacement—for some perspective, 2.0 WAR represents league-average production and zero would be about an average Triple-A player. To be fair, LaPorta hit .182 (2-for-11) in the only three games he appeared in, but the key words there are “only three games.”
Based on his numbers in Columbus, LaPorta projects for an .877 OPS in the Major Leagues, which would be the best on the team. Even if you expect Kotchman’s numbers to improve as his BABIP rebounds (not necessarily a given seeing as he’s maintained very low hit rates in the past and generally has not been making good contact) and assume that the defensive metrics do not properly reward him for his throw-picking ability at first, there’s no way he matches that kind of production. Knock LaPorta’s OPS down as much as 100 points if you wish to account for his alleged Quad-A status and still the offensive improvement would easily make up for the defensive downgrade. At the very least there wouldn’t be much to lose by giving him a shot.
We don’t know that LaPorta is the answer at first base. But despite what some frustrated Tribe fans would tell you, we don’t know that he isn’t, either. That he could step in and provide similar production to someone the Indians might acquire in a trade for a fraction of the salary and without losing any personnel is a legitimate possibility. Going after someone like Carlos Lee or Kevin Youkilis while refusing to let LaPorta get more than a three-game trial is like calling AAA for a new tire when you get a flat instead of using the spare in the trunk.
As an aside, it’s worth wondering whether LaPorta’s lack of opportunity was the front office’s design or Manny Acta‘s. If Chris Antonetti & Co. had intended to call up a part-time player then someone like the more versatile Jason Donald would have been a better fit, and even if that were the case holding a fully healthy position player out of action for an entire week would still be odd. Admittedly reading too much into this, it may suggest that Acta simply did not want to play LaPorta for some reason, meaning his demotion is just a symptom of a power struggle among the team’s upper management. Sending him down would thus be the pragmatic move, though in such a scenario the Indians would have much bigger problems than properly handling LaPorta.
Matt LaPorta could be an extremely valuable asset for the Tribe, both for what he is (a short-term upgrade at the weakest spot in the lineup) and what he might be (a legitimate everyday first baseman). Denying LaPorta the chance to prove himself—whether by letting him wallow in the minors or banishing him to the bench in the majors—means the Indians are not putting their best possible team on the field and prevents them from properly assessing their roster as they approach the non-waiver trade deadline.