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Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Gordon, LaPorta off to good starts

By Christina Kahrl

Alex Gordon and Matt LaPorta
Will former top prospects Alex Gordon and Matt LaPorta finally live up to their billing?
A couple of years ago, the ESPN Insider team jokingly came up with "Cinco do Samplo" as a way of noting that there’s a point at which we can start saying that there’s something real to attach to the numbers we’re seeing -- and that time isn’t April. As Keith Law noted this morning, it’s a dubious exercise to attach too much significance to this week’s Indians/Royals series, because it’s fairly unlikely that either team is going to wind up above .500. Of course, the way the White Sox, Twins and Tigers are playing, being near .500 might encourage anybody to make a move in July that changes the equation.

But even checking the initial exuberance of April, one thing about the Indians’ and Royals’ season-starting runs that is nice to see is that both Alex Gordon and Matt LaPorta are hitting. Both are former top prospects, LaPorta peaking at 23rd on Baseball America’s pre-2008 prospect list, while Gordon was first overall on Kevin Goldstein’s list of top 100 prospects before 2007 (and second on BA’s list). And from the lofty expectations attached to those rankings, both have taken tumbles. Gordon’s career batting line coming into this season was .244/.318/.405 in 1,641 plate appearances. LaPorta’s .232/.307/.388 career line had dashed expectations that he’d make that CC Sabathia-to-Milwaukee stretch deal pay off for the Indians.

Failure through 2010 isn’t the only similarity between these two. Both had hip surgeries that interrupted their development, Gordon losing almost three months of action in 2009, while LaPorta recovered from his surgery over the winter of 2009/2010, leaving him with a late start last spring, and still enduring soreness in the joint at the end of the season. Both have had to move down the defensive spectrum, with Gordon moving to an outfield corner from third while LaPorta has shifted from left to first base -- in both cases, toward positions where higher standards at the plate will define their job security. Both are smack-dab in the middle of what most sabermetricians define as career peaks for projected performance, with LaPorta in his age-26 season, and Gordon in his age-27 campaign.

Both are hitting in the early going. LaPorta is at .260/.367/.460, while Gordon has delivered a .353/.380/.515 line. "It’s just April" is an easy enough refrain to sap anybody’s enthusiasm -- Gordon isn’t going to finish the year hitting .353, after all, and when that drops it’ll drag his OBP and SLG with it unless he starts bopping and walking. The hope for both is that this isn’t fluky -- say, something akin to Jeff Francoeur’s eight walks in his first 12 games last year; Frenchy’s hacktastic approach is a career-defining handicap, so nobody was surprised when he managed just 22 more the remainder of the season. For every Jose Bautista, it might seem as if there are dozens of Francoeurs.

The difference between that small-sample caution and this pair of former top prospects is that, not so very long ago, Gordon and LaPorta were both projected to do better than they have. Not by some, but by all: by projection tools, scouts and statheads. Both have had their problems getting on track in ways that weren’t entirely under their control; beyond injuries, Gordon’s punitive assignment to Omaha last year was earned, but might have been allowed to run overlong. When you underwhelm expectations, that sort of thing is an understandable professional hazard.

So both Gordon and LaPorta are on the spot to deliver. Via PECOTA’s spread of projections, both have about 30 percent shots at finishing with seasons around an .800 OPS, which sounds conservative, but that’s what past failure does for you: It puts a big dent in your projected future. If the Indians and the Royals get these projected numberss from their former prospects, though, they’ll be able to take some satisfaction from their seasons, even if they don’t wind up atop the standings.

Christina Kahrl helped found Baseball Prospectus in 1996, is a member of the BBWAA, and covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter here.