- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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NEW YORK -- Only a week ago, Matt LaPorta was looking forward to coming to the Futures Game, enjoying the big city and blending in with the crowd as just another uberprospect.
Little did he know.
LaPorta had barely made the transition from Milwaukee Brewer to Cleveland Indian on Monday when he realized his profile was about to take an upward spike. It's one thing when you're among several highly regarded young players on a loaded Huntsville Stars roster. It's something else when you're the centerpiece of a trade package for reigning Cy Young Award winner CC Sabathia.
LaPorta, 23, experienced a thrill during batting practice Sunday morning when Hall of Famer Ernie Banks shook his hand at the Yankee Stadium cage. The rest of the time, LaPorta couldn't adjust his cap, drop by his locker or retire to the dugout for a swig of Gatorade without being pinned back by the media.
LaPorta's fellow Team USA member, Wes Hodges, joked with him about his suddenly thriving popularity. At this rate, LaPorta will have his own blog and a Vitaminwater endorsement deal in no time.
"My buddy Wes told me, 'You're still the same dude you were a week ago, but now everybody knows who you are because of the trade,"' LaPorta said, laughing. "It's really crazy how everything has sort of evolved and expanded."
LaPorta, who singled and walked in four plate appearances in Team USA's 3-0 loss to the World squad Sunday, has been on the baseball radar for a while because of his hitting acumen. He led the nation with a 1.399 on-base-plus-slugging percentage as a senior at the University of Florida and received a $2 million signing bonus as the seventh pick in the 2007 draft. Baseball America ranked him as the Brewers' top overall prospect last winter.
But it was tough for him to envision much playing time on the short-term horizon in Milwaukee with Prince Fielder at first base and All-Stars Ryan Braun and Corey Hart entrenched at the corner outfield spots. Enter the Indians, whose disappointing performance prompted general manager Mark Shapiro to trade Sabathia and begin gauging the interest level in Casey Blake, Paul Byrd and Rafael Betancourt.
If Cleveland's offensive numbers this season are any indication, LaPorta will have no problem getting an opportunity. Cleveland's left fielders rank 20th in the majors in OPS, the designated hitters are 22nd, the first basemen are 28th and the right fielders are 29th, so anybody who can swing a bat with proficiency is welcome.
At the moment, LaPorta is playing left field and taking ground balls at first base for Cleveland's Double-A farm club in Akron. His defense is a work in progress, but the Indians sure love his intangibles and presence in the batter's box.
"He's a very good teammate and a good worker who's dedicated and committed to baseball," said Chris Antonetti, Cleveland's assistant GM. "And he has very good raw power. He mishits balls out of the ballpark."
Scouts are divided on where LaPorta fits best in the field; some consider him a DH and others believe he's athletic enough to be adequate at first base or a corner outfield spot. But the overwhelming majority of talent evaluators are sold on his run-producing ability.
"People say it's tough to find pitching," a National League scout at the Futures Game said. "Well, I can find pitching before I can find power in the minor leagues -- especially in the post-steroid era. And he's got legitimate power."
He has very good raw power. He mishits balls out of the
-- Indians assistant GM Chris Antonetti on Matt LaPorta
In 318 at-bats with Huntsville and Akron this season, LaPorta is hitting .292 with 21 homers and 70 RBIs. The aforementioned NL scout thinks he's capable of being a consistent 30-homer, 100-RBI guy in the big leagues.
"Maybe he'll have to sacrifice a little batting average to generate power and be a run producer," the scout said. "But shoot, if he hits .270 with 30 homers and 100 RBIs every year, he'll be a gazillionaire."
In the meantime, impressing the Cleveland brass isn't the only item on LaPorta's agenda. Manager Davey Johnson and his selection team are in the process of picking the Team USA squad that will travel to Beijing for the Olympics in August. Johnson likes offense, so LaPorta is right up his alley. And because the Indians are 14 games out of first place in the AL Central, the chances of them calling him up and standing in the way of an Olympic opportunity are remote.
LaPorta talks about what an honor and a privilege it would be to represent the U.S. in the Olympics. But "aw, shucks" enthusiasm seems to come naturally for him. LaPorta's father is from Chicago, and young Matt grew up a Cubs fan, so he was a bit flustered when Banks, Mr. Cub, shook his hand and began chatting him up during BP.
"It's pretty amazing out here," Banks said, taking in the scenery at Yankee Stadium.
"Yes, sir, it is," replied LaPorta.
Come next spring, Yankee Stadium might be a regular stop on LaPorta's travel agenda. As long as he brings his bat along for the trip, he'll be fine.
Being the centerpiece of the package the Indians acquired in the CC Sabathia trade suddenly has made Matt LaPorta a hot player to watch.