La Roche trying to prove his worth
Dodgers' top prospect likely to start '07 at Triple-A Las Vegas
VERO BEACH, Fla. -- There are still two weeks left in Spring Training, still plenty of time to turn heads and win a job.
But it's been another rough camp for Andy La Roche so far. He's the son of a former Major Leaguer and the brother of a current one, and he came to Dodgertown this year with what some considered a shot to at least force his way into a platoon with Wilson Betemit at third base.
So far, even with Betemit's early struggles, it isn't happening for La Roche. He's hitting .241 with a whopping six errors in 13 games, and nobody's really talking about him in the Opening Day plans anymore.
"I've just got to keep working on defense and cut down on the errors," said La Roche.
Not that the organization is giving up on the player Baseball America named the No. 1 prospect in the Dodgers' system, who was maybe just a little too comfortable last year in his first Spring Training with the big boys.
The initial impression he made on a new management team was underwhelming, and the 2006 camp ended with a heart-to-heart talk from manager Grady Little, who explained what La Roche needed to do mentally and physically to follow in the footsteps of his father, 14-year veteran pitcher Dave, and his brother, Pirates first baseman Adam.
Coming into camp, La Roche said he was ready, and Little said he'd noticed a more mature approach, but the results haven't translated into the kind of bid for a job that, say, James Loney or Larry Bigbie or Wilson Valdez have unleashed. Meaning, he's likely to start the season back at Triple-A Las Vegas.
"I try not to worry about anything off the field or decisions they make," he said. "They'll see what they want to see out of me and let them make the decisions. I'll play the same way I've been playing my whole life, getting dirty."
Two years ago, La Roche split time between Class A and Double-A and was equally dominant, being named the organization's Minor League Player of the Year and then tearing up the Arizona Fall League. Nonetheless, management sent him out of the Major League Dodgertown clubhouse last March and back to Double-A.
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
And even though he earned a midseason promotion to Triple-A in 2006 and went on to a combined 19 home runs and 81 RBIs, when the Major League club was handing out September callups, La Roche didn't get one.
If that was the club sending a message, he got it. He underwent arthroscopic surgery to finally repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder that he played through for two months and spent the winter rehabilitating in Arizona.
Now 23, La Roche said for the first time in three years he can swing a bat with no shoulder pain. So here he is, with the expectations that come with a baseball family tree and a seven-figure bonus. But it isn't just bloodlines and bonuses that led Baseball America to rank La Roche the best prospect in a Dodgers' farm system loaded with candidates, and don't be fooled by the fact he was a 39th-round pick in 2003.
He was taken in the 21st round by the San Diego Padres the year before and turned down their offer of $300,000, a huge amount for a 21st rounder. After attending Grayson County Community College in Texas, La Roche was anointed by ESPN analyst Peter Gammons the best hitter in the Cape Cod Summer League and, with a full ride to Rice University in hand, scared off most Major League scouting directors by demanding "first-round money."
Logan White, the Dodgers' scouting director, rolled the dice. La Roche said he expected to go undrafted and learned he was taken three days later with a phone call from his older brother. Two months went by before White decided to take up formal negotiations, winding up across the table from LaRoche -- no agent, no family member.
"I told him it had to be more than a million," said La Roche, who had broken his leg in the Cape Cod League. "Logan said the Dodgers would pay me a million, and he reached into his pocket and pulled out a penny and gave it to me and said, 'That's more than a million, we've got a deal.'"
Said White: "First time I ever had to pay part of a player's bonus myself."
La Roche has a rifle throwing arm -- he started out as a shortstop -- and was briefly tested behind the plate in 2004, spent some time at second base and landed at third. He's already made his exhibition debut in the outfield, designed to add versatility and create more plate appearances.
He signed so late in 2003 that he played only six games at Rookie-level Ogden. Each of the next three seasons he's played so well that he's earned midseason promotions. What's really intriguing to management is that he hits with power -- 23 homers his first full season, then 30 and last year 19 despite the injury.
So far this spring, though, he has only one extra-base hit and one RBI.
"It was tough watching the other guys get called up last year," La Roche said. "I think I'm ready, but I haven't proven myself and a lot of them have."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.