GLENDALE, Ariz. — It’s been a while since Matt LaPorta was touted as the Next Big Thing in the Indians’ lineup.
He definitely was overhyped and probably overvalued when he was traded to Cleveland along with Michael Brantley for C.C. Sabathia in July of 2008. On the other hand, wasn’t he almost universally considered as the Milwaukee Brewers’ No. 1 prospect?
Right or wrong, that judgment came from somewhere within the professional baseball community, and LaPorta’s minor league numbers backed it up. Before the deal, he batted .288 with 20 home runs and 66 RBIs in 84 games at Double-A Huntsville.
Yet here he is in the Tribe’s spring training camp five years later with little chance of making the 25-man roster. LaPorta signed a minor league contract over the winter with an invitation to big league camp. Out of options when the 2012 season ended, he cleared waivers, and the Indians asked him to come back.
Now at 28, with flecks of gray salting his hair, still rehabbing from winter hip surgery, LaPorta seems determined to keep on truckin’.
He has spent at least some portion of every season at Triple-A since his major league debut in 2009. Last year, he played in only 22 big league games, receiving 58 at-bats that produced a .241 batting average, two doubles and one homer.
It is somewhat of a surprise that LaPorta remains with the Tribe, though his choices were limited.
“I really didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said. “All I can control is to be healthy and play baseball. It doesn’t bother me a bit (not to be free to make his own deal). The clock is ticking on everybody’s career. My goal is to go out and get healthy, have some fun and play baseball.”
LaPorta hasn’t begged to be traded or released, so he can get a fresh start somewhere else.
Asked where he would like to be if he had a choice, he said, “I’d probably do what I’m doing. This is where God has me in life right now. I am where I am.
“I don’t want to be anywhere else or run away from situations. Like if something doesn’t work here, I just go somewhere else. That’s having a weak mentality. Having that kind of mentality is not trusting in God.”
LaPorta can’t play baseball for at least two or three weeks, after undergoing surgery to clear his hip of bone chips and other debris.
“I can’t play yet,” he said. “I’m not sure when I can, sometime in the next few weeks. Right now, I can hit and throw and do light running.”
LaPorta has yet to take live batting practice, but that will happen soon.
Manager Terry Francona has watched LaPorta only from a distance, when he was managing the Boston Red Sox.
“I’ve seen him be inconsistent with his time (swinging early or late),” Francona said. “His minor league OPS was off the charts, but it hasn’t translated to the major leagues. We want him to get healthy and see what he can do. There’s a bat there that could help us.”
The injury to LaPorta’s hip created one more reason to be discouraged about the course of his career, but LaPorta doesn’t think that way.
“The injury is obviously frustrating,” he said. “Nobody wants to be injured, but you have to live with it.”
LaPorta has ridden the Columbus-Cleveland shuttle for four years, but he spent most of 2010 and 2011 in the majors, even though he was often in and out of lineup.
After the 2011 season, when LaPorta hit 11 home runs with 53 RBIs in 352 at-bats, the Tribe went looking for an everyday first baseman, acquiring Casey Kotchman, who neither hit as many home runs (10) nor accumulated as many RBIs (48) as LaPorta in 2011.
Bottom line is that LaPorta has not taken advantage of the opportunities he’s had, but has he received a fair chance?
“Whether or not I’ve had chances or have not had chances doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “That’s in the past. There’s nothing I can do about it, right, wrong or indifferent. However I feel about it, nothing is going to happen to change it. All I can do is get better and look at the future.”
Whether it’s in Cleveland or elsewhere.