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02/24/07 8:14 PM ET

A year wiser, La Roche turning heads

Third baseman shows up prepared, ready to prove himself

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- He's the son of a former Major Leaguer and the brother of a current one, and maybe he was just a little too comfortable last year in his first Spring Training with the big boys.

The initial impression Andy La Roche made on a new Dodgers management team was underwhelming and 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.

"Last spring I don't think I did well and I wasn't prepared like I should have been," said La Roche. "Especially my defense, I didn't take ground balls before I got to camp and I was really rusty. I took it for granted and wasn't on top of my game like I should have been and it showed."

This year's new attitude shows, too.

"There is a difference," said Little. "The kid's got a world of talent. Today he was one of the first in the clubhouse. This spring, the impression he's made has all been good. You can see what one year of maturity has done from last year to right now."

In 2005, 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 and back to Double-A.

And even though he earned a midseason promotion to Triple-A last year 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 is in camp with a chance to force his way onto the roster as a third baseman platooning with Wilson Betemit. Anyone who has seen him play regularly insists he can't miss. He said for the first time in three years, he can swing a bat with no shoulder pain. He said he made sure over the winter that his defense won't be disappointing in the spring.

So here he is, with the expectations that come with a baseball family tree and a seven-figure contract. 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 draft 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 summer Cape Cod 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 La Roche -- 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 and he started out as many top athletes, at shortstop, was briefly tested behind the plate in 2004, spent some time at second base and landed at third. He was told to bring an outfielder glove to Spring Training a year ago and Little said that's still a possibility this spring.

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.

With Betemit, the Dodgers already have a young player who slugged 18 homers last season and could be primed for a lot more. But he's a switch-hitter who struggled batting right-handed last year, leaving enough doubt in the minds of management that it will take a longer look at La Roche to see if he can make a better second impression.

"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.