Lipka's Speed, Athleticism Attracts Atlanta

ATLANTA—There were questions about the direction the Braves would take in the draft under first-year scouting director Tony DeMacio. Suffice it to say he's a disciple of Paul Snyder, who hired DeMacio as an area scout in 1983.

With the Braves lacking athletic position players throughout much of the farm system, DeMacio used the team's first pick (35th overall) on Matt Lipka, a two-sport standout at McKinney High in Texas. A solid middle infielder who also projects as a potential center fielder, Lipka may be the fastest righthanded hitter from the high school ranks in this year's draft.

"We felt he was one of the best all-around athletes in the draft," DeMacio said. "He has plus speed with the ability to bat leadoff. He's also a hard-nosed player who loves to play baseball."

Lipka becomes the fourth high school position player selected by Atlanta in the last nine drafts. Jeff Francoeur (2003) and Jason Heyward (2007) worked out well for the Braves, while a third outfielder, Cody Johnson, has prodigious power but is struggling to hit for average at Double-A Mississippi. Lipka maintains another recent team trend in that he hails from Georgia; he left the Peach State by moving to Texas with his family when he was 10.

Other associations also bode well for Lipka. His sister was on football scholarship as a kicker at West Alabama, while an older brother played linebacker at Georgia Southern. Lipka earned first-team all-state honors on the gridiron as a sophomore and senior while teaming with quarterback Zach Lee, who was the first-round pick (28th overall) of the Dodgers as a righthanded pitcher. Playing wide receiver, Lipka caught 54 passes, including 22 for touchdowns, from Lee. He also returned two kickoffs for touchdowns while accumulating nearly 1,400 yards of offense.

Yet as productive as Lipka was in football, his first love has always been baseball. In April he told the Dallas Morning News, "My dream is to play major league baseball. Obviously the best route for that would be to go pro."

Lipka signed a letter of intent to play baseball at Alabama but made his desire to sign known to the 40-plus scouts who regularly attended McKinney's games this spring. Ranked by Baseball America as the seventh-best shortstop and 76th player overall in this year's draft, Lipka has a great first step who has been clocked at 3.9 seconds to first base from the right side of the plate and 6.3 seconds in the 60. He has strong hips and thighs and puts continuous pressure on the defense with his all-out approach.

At the plate, Lipka sprays the ball from gap to gap and is adept at using the opposite field late in the count. He also has strong hands and above-average bat speed that allows him to drive the ball. In addition to being able to hit breaking pitches with consistency, the 6-foot-1, 190-pounder has displayed solid power potential and hit nine home runs as a junior,.

Defense remains the biggest uncertainty at this point. His athleticism and arm strength will allow him to begin his pro career at shortstop, but some scouts wonder if his hands are soft enough to remain there. Plus, based on his speed, some observers believe center field could be in the offing.

Atlanta did not have a first-round draft pick due to the free agent signing of Type A free agent Billy Wagner. The Braves received a supplemental first-round selection after losing Type A free agent Mike Gonzalez to the Orioles.