SURPRISE, Ariz.–Mesa Solar Sox hitting coach Sandy Guerrero stood around the cage and waited for Matt LaPorta to begin his batting practice in the final group of hitters before Saturday’s game against the Surprise Rafters.
Except that wasn’t a fungo Guerrero was holding–he was waiting to get his licks in Group Four against Chad Epperson as well.
This was all part of Guerrero’s plan–challenge LaPorta to a BP home run duel. The only catch? The righthanded-hitting LaPorta, the Brewers’ 2007 first-round pick out of Florida, had to drive the ball out to right field while the lefthanded-hitting Guerrero, who last played at the Triple-A level in 1992, could poke balls over the right field wall.
That’s the game within the game for LaPorta these days in the Arizona Fall League–hit the ball to the right side of the field with power.
“He’s such a strong kid and he has such a good swing, but he still doesn’t know how strong he can be,” Guerrero said.
“What I’m trying to do with that is ‘OK, we have to hit it to right field.’ My chances are limited considering I’m not a very strong guy and I have a totally different kind of swing. But I have the approach where if I really concentrate I can still do it too.”
After LaPorta drove one ball to right-center in his first round, Guerrero lifted one over the right field wall–but LaPorta wasn’t watching and needed verification from Cubs outfielder Sam Fuld.
“You have to make sure,” LaPorta said. “He’s always trying to find new ways to push my buttons.”
Which is exactly what Guerrero, who has served as the hitting coach at Double-A Huntsville the last five seasons, is trying to do–keep Milwaukee’s $2 million-dollar investment interested while making him a much more complete hitter in the process.
“We want to get him to compete at the Double-A level (in 2008) and I know pitchers in the Southern League command the outside part of the plate well,” Guerrero said. “He’s quick enough to hit anything inside. My job is to get him to look for that outside pitch and show the ability to hit it over there. In preparing him for that, I don’t want him to get bored. So we have the dinner challenge. And it’s 200 or 300 percent more difficult for him to hit one here than me, but that’s the point. I want to get the most out of him.
“Good hitters in the big leagues can hit balls all over the zone out to all fields and he has that ability. He doesn’t know he has it yet. He’s still learning about himself. He didn’t get full extension on his swing before his time in this league. He would hit the ball out in front and live off that pull power. Now, he’s allowing balls to get deeper in the zone and hitting for power to all fields.”
After five rounds, the student and mentor wound up tied 1-1, which was good enough for a free dinner for Guerrero.
LaPorta, who was hampered by injuries over his last two seasons with the Gators, has always been an outstanding power hitter. He led the nation in home runs as a sophomore in 2005, slugging 26 to set a school record. After the Red Sox failed to meet his bonus demands as a 14th-rounder in 2006, he returned to Gainesville again, and again led NCAA Division-I hitters with a .579 slugging percentage and a 1.432 OPS.
LaPorta then came into pro ball on fire, hitting 304/.369/.696 with 12 home runs in his 115 at-bat debut, finishing the season at low Class A West Virginia.
“This is an opportunity to play with the best players in professional baseball and I’m not about to take that for granted,” LaPorta said. “When I leave the field, I want people to say I played every game like it was my last. I think running out every ground ball and playing the game the right way really shows your character and what type of person you are off the field as well.
“We’re trying to let the ball get deeper at times. Now you’re hitting with wood and you’ve got to really learn how to drive it with wood. With aluminum you can flick your wrists and the ball will go out of the yard. I don’t want to be that type of hitter anymore. I want to be a professional hitter.”
On top of continuing to discover who he is as a professional hitter, LaPorta is also learning a new position–left field.
“He’s still learning how to get good jumps, run good routes and what it takes to play the outfield every day," Guerrero said. "It’s sometimes easy for a first-rounder to coast in this league. I can guarantee he will not coast in any phase of his game out here. He knows I won’t allow that to happen. We have too much work to do.”
Shortstop . . . And Beyond
In 2006, Jed Lowrie started the season off at high Class A Wilmington and earned rave reviews for his defense at shortstop.
But then a severe high ankle sprain cost the 2005 supplemental first-rounder a large chunk of the year, and even when he returned swinging a hot bat for the Blue Rocks, his range was extremely limited at the premium position.
That led to more questions about Lowrie’s long term future at short, even though he played primarily second base during his college career at Stanford. Lowrie was drafted as a second baseman, and wasn’t moved to shortstop until two weeks into his pro debut at short-season Lowell.
Now, the Sox are asking Lowrie to improve his portfolio in the AFL, where he will play on both sides of the second base bag and will also see time at third base.
“It’s been a while since I played second, but it’s kind of like getting on that bike again,” Lowrie said. “It’s getting the feeds down, turning the double play. Now, third is a little bit different. I haven’t taken very many reps at third in my life, so (Epperson) is working with me a lot early every day on third base. That’s the biggest thing–being able to have the ability to play all three positions gives me a lot more value.”
Lowrie is coming off an outstanding offensive year in which he finished at Triple-A Pawtucket and batted .298/.393/.503 with 13 homers and 47 doubles between Double-A Portland and his final 160 at-bats for the Paw Sox.
“I think Jed is going to benefit in his career at being able to play multiple positions, and that’s what he’s proving out here,” Epperson said. “He’s a switch-hitter that gives you a quality plate appearance from either side every time and he’s very serviceable at any one of those positions.”
And even though Lowrie bounced back huge from a down year in high Class A due to injury, he’s not looking to prove anything to anybody.
“I play the game just because I love to play,” Lowrie said. “It’s a challenge for me every day. I had a great year this past year, and now I know what it takes to have that kind of a season. The next challenge is to go out there and do it again.
“I strive to get better at this game every day. It’s not to prove myself to anybody else. It’s to prove myself to myself.”
Switching gears on Stanford alums, 2004 10th-rounder Sam Fuld finished up the year in the big leagues with the Cubs.
And the lefthanded-hitting outfielder has taken it to Fall League pitching over the first two weeks of the season.
In 40 at-bats, Fuld is hitting .325/.438/.575 with a pair of home runs, as many walks as strikeouts and is showing he can play either center or right field.
“I was just looking to get out here and get a lot more playing time under my belt with the elite prospects in the game,” Fuld said. “This is a great atmosphere to play. I don’t think it’s any one thing I’m working on. It’s more improving upon the things I’ve done well in the past. This is a good league to do that–good league to take chances where you otherwise wouldn’t during the regular season.”
Fuld, who got just six at-bats in the majors, hit .287/.376/.395 in 387 at-bats between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa during the regular season. Not nearly as high profile as a lot of his teammates in Mesa, Fuld has found ways to impress the Solar Sox’ coaching staff by doing all the little things right.
“I love this kid,” Epperson said. “He’s one of these guys that does something every night to help you win. He’s not as well-known as a lot of guys out here, but this is a guy who has work ethic, who has desire, who has non-stop energy and some nice tools that he makes play bigger because of how he gets after it. He just has a knack of impacting the game in some kind of way.”