Brewers get slugger in first round
First baseman LaPorta selected from University of Florida
MILWAUKEE -- The Brewers injected some early drama to the first televised draft in Major League history, taking University of Florida first baseman Matt LaPorta seventh overall in a move described variously by the talking heads as "shocking" and "a bombshell."
LaPorta, who worked out for a Brewers contingent last week and knew the club was seriously interested, just chuckled.
"We were watching it out here," the 22-year-old said. "I think it was kind of funny that they were kind of caught off-guard.
"I don't have words to explain it -- it's just an awesome feeling to hear your name getting called."
There was more to the Brewers' surprising pick. The team immediately announced it intended to sign LaPorta quickly and move him to left field. LaPorta, who bats and throws right-handed, went to Florida as a catcher and played some left field as a freshman but primarily played first base on the way to winning Southeastern Conference (SEC) Player of the Year honors in 2005 and again in 2007.
The Brewers are set at first base with 2002 top Draft pick Prince Fielder. In fact, the team's scouting boss compared the selection of LaPorta on Thursday to that of Fielder, whom many draft experts projected to go later in the first round.
"About five years ago we took a pick at No. 7 that a lot of people questioned," Zduriencik said. "I think we're all happy with the guy who is playing first base for us right now.
"We've done our homework," Zduriencik said. "[LaPorta] has a history. He went through the SEC, which in our estimation is the best college league in the country, and had 15 strikeouts through the whole course of the year. This guy has a pretty good bat.
"We prepared the guys in the room. We talked about it all week, that when we make this selection, some people are going to view it as a bombshell because he is going to a position that he hasn't recently played. When the day is said and done, we think this guy can play left field. He's going to be an average left fielder for us someday, and he's going to bring us offense and power."
Zduriencik became the Brewers' scouting director in 2000, and while that year's top pick, outfielder Dave Krynzel, has not become an impact player, the team has had tremendous success with early-round positional picks. Zduriencik took shortstop J.J. Hardy in the second round in 2001, Fielder in the first round in 2002, second baseman Rickie Weeks and outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr. in the first two rounds in 2003 and third baseman Ryan Braun in the first round in 2005. All are currently on Milwaukee's big-league roster.
"I have a lot of confidence in Jack Zduriencik," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said.
Like most teams, the Brewers have had more mixed luck with early-round pitchers, though Yovani Gallardo (second round, 2004) and Will Inman (third round, 2005) currently rank first and second in the Minor Leagues in strikeouts. Mike Jones, the team's top Draft pick in 2001, and Wily Peralta, a high-profile free agent pickup out of the Dominican Republic, were slated this week for "Tommy John" elbow surgery, Melvin said.
|7||LaPorta, Matthew||U Florida||LF|
|101||Lucroy, Jonathan||U Louisiana Lafayette||C|
|131||Farris, Eric||Loyola Marymount U||2B|
|161||Gindl, Caleb||Pace HS||CF|
The team signed last year's top Draft pick, high school right-hander Jeremy Jeffress, on Day 2 of the draft. The Brewers expect a similarly speedy negotiation with LaPorta, even though he is represented by agent Scott Boras.
Boras' agency granted the Brewers permission to work out LaPorta in left field at Class A Brevard County last week. It was orchestrated by Manatees hitting coach Ken Berry, who won two Gold Gloves as an outfielder during his 14-year Major League career, and Brewers scout Charles Aliano, who is responsible for central Florida.
"We've had assurances from our Minor League staff that saw him work out that this would be something that he could do," Zduriencik said. "He's a real bright kid, he has quick feet and an average throwing arm, and they felt that in a short period of time this kid could make the adjustment."
LaPorta sounded ready to give it a try.
"I love playing in the outfield," he said. "I played a little in my freshman year of college, and it's fun out there."
LaPorta was recovering from a ribcage injury when he was drafted by the Red Sox in the 14th round last season, and he opted to return to Florida for his senior season. He finished 2007 with a quadriceps injury but batted .402 with 20 home runs, 52 RBIs and 55 walks. The 6-foot-1, 214 pounder was rated just the 20th-best Draft prospect by Baseball America, and MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo had him going in the sandwich picks after the first round. But LaPorta is considered an advanced hitter who could move quickly through the Minor Leagues.
"We'd like to think that," Zduriencik said. "You don't like to put labels on any guy. He is a college player. ... When you look at a kid who is a little bit older, you would expect him move a little quicker, and we're going to give him that opportunity."
The plan calls for LaPorta to join the next wave of big-time Brewers prospects, a group that includes Inman, shortstop Alcides Escobar and outfielders Lorenzo Cain and Darren Ford (who is due a promotion to Brevard County, Melvin said). LaPorta could spend the rest of 2007 with low Class A West Virginia, and could then split 2008 between Brevard County and Double-A Huntsville. As usual, Zduriencik and Melvin cautioned against setting a timetable for a prospect.
Under the new rules, teams have until Aug. 15 to sign their 2007 Draft picks.
"The one thing that our organization has done is we get players signed," Melvin said. "We can convince them that this is the right thing to do. If you look at Prince, you look at Rickie [Weeks], you look at Ryan Braun, they all signed within three or four weeks. We want players who want to play and want to be with the Milwaukee Brewers. We're not going to sit and wait for players to sign until Aug. 14."
In a way, the Brewers were pleased with their Draft even before Thursday's first pick, coming to terms last week with a pair of players who took part in the "draft and follow" process, which was phased out under this year's new rules. Outfielder Lee Haydel, the team's 19th-round pick last June, received a $624,000 signing bonus and right-hander Chad Robinson, a 12-round pick, received $500,000, according to a Baseball America report.
"We got not only one of the fastest players in the county [in Haydel], but in LaPorta we got one of the best hitters, and of course one of the best power hitters, in the country," Zduriencik said.
The seventh overall pick has received a $2.3 million signing bonus after each of the last three Drafts. Last year's seventh pick belonged to the Dodgers, who took Highland Park (Tex.) High School left-hander Clayton Kershaw.
Other notable seventh overall picks include outfielders Austin Kearns (Reds, 1998) and Trot Nixon (Red Sox, 1993), and first baseman Frank Thomas (White Sox, 1989). The only other time the Brewers had the seventh pick was 2002, and they spent it on Fielder.
The Brewers forfeited their second-round pick when they signed free agent pitcher Jeff Suppan, so the team did not pick again until the third round, No. 101 overall.
The Devil Rays owned the first pick in the draft and selected consensus No. 1 David Price, a left-handed pitcher from Vanderbilt University. Mike Moutstakas, a slugging infielder from Chatsworth (Calif.) High School who reportedly was of interest to the Brewers, went second overall to the Royals.
Will LaPorta begin his professional career looking to prove the draft-day doubters wrong?
"I'm just going to go out there, work hard, and try to get better," said LaPorta. "I'm going to let the way I play take care of itself."
A look at Milwaukee's other picks from Day 1:
Jonathan Lucroy, C, University of Louisiana-Lafayette, No. 101 (third round)
It was not surprising to see the Brewers draft a catcher, a position of some need throughout the organization. Lou Palmisano, a third-rounder from 2003, seems to be rebounding this season but will turn 25 later this season, and Angel Salome, a fifth-round pick in 2005, is coming back from a major ankle injury. Lucroy's scouting report calls him a solid all-around prospect with some power potential and a plus makeup, something the Brewers value highly.
Eric Farris, 2B, Loyola Marymont University, No. 131 (fourth round)
Another collegiate pick, interesting from an organization that has drafted heavily from the high school ranks. Farris can also play shortstop, though scouting reports say he fits better at second.
Caleb Gindl, RF, Pace (Fla.) High School, No. 161 (fifth round)
No pitchers were selected by the Brewers on Day 1. Gindl bats and throws left-handed and also pitched, reportedly topping out at 93 mph on his fastball but sitting more consistently at 89-90. At 5-foot-9, he is reminiscent of former Brewers lefty Shane Nance, who pitched for the team in 2002 and 2003.
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.