LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - He was Class AAA Richmond's Player of the Month in his second full month there, hitting .337, and was selected to play in the Futures Game prior to last summer's All-Star Game.
By all accounts, Adam LaRoche can hit. He opened the season at Class AA Greenville last year with a 12-game hitting streak and was fourth in the Southern League in home runs when he was promoted to Richmond.
The question is: can he hit in the major leagues with just 72 games at Richmond under his belt?
"He may have one of the sweetest swings I've ever seen," Braves second baseman Marcus Giles said. "He reminds me a lot of Will Clark. It's amazing how easy they can swing and still have so much power. It's mind-boggling to me. It's a nice gift to have."
LaRoche, 24, is hardly a prototypical first baseman. He doesn't have Jason Giambi's bulk or Carlos Delgado's power. He's 6-foot-3 and 180 pounds, a left-handed gap hitter with a swing that draws "oohs" and "aahs" around the batting cage.
"Every lefty wants a swing like that," Chipper Jones said. "If I had his swing, I'd hit .350 every year."
LaRoche's swing should be awarded style points. He calmly stands at the plate, and his swing is a short, graceful stroke that sprays line drives to all fields.
Said hitting coach Terry Pendleton: "I worked really hard and I never had a swing like that. It looks effortless."
LaRoche finished with a .295 average at Richmond last year and, if the experts are correct, he'll produce a similar average in his first season in the big leagues. He was named the Braves' sixth-best prospect by Baseball America last year, as well as the International League's best defensive first baseman.
LaRoche's swing matches his low-key personality. There's no wasted motion at the plate and no extra words in the clubhouse.
"I don't show a whole lot of excitement," he said. "Even when I was meeting superstars as a kid, it was awesome to meet them, but I was never in awe."
As good a hitter as LaRoche is, he might be better defensively. The Braves haven't had as slick a fielder at first since Andres Galarraga, or perhaps Sid Bream in the early 1990s.
"I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised by how good a defensive player he is," third baseman Mark DeRosa said.
LaRoche is the son of former major league pitcher Dave LaRoche, who pitched for five teams during a 14-year career. Adam grew up in big league clubhouses while his dad served as a coach with the Mets and White Sox. He was a bat boy for several years and still counts Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk and former Braves backstop Charlie O'Brien among his friends.
"I've been around this forever," LaRoche said. "It helps me relax. I always knew this was what I was going to do and I wasn't going to let anything get in the way."
That included school, where LaRoche was not exactly an honor roll student. His mother was a teacher at his high school in Ft. Scott, Kan., and whenever he got into trouble - which was frequently - she heard about it first.
"I was grounded for probably three of my four years in high school," he remembered. "If I didn't have baseball I'd probably be homeless. I was terrible in school."
Most major league teams that scouted LaRoche wanted him to pitch. A team talked to him about splitting his duties between pitching and first base, but the Braves were the only club that wanted him strictly as a first baseman. They selected him in the 29th round of the 2000 draft, gave him a $40,000 bonus, and sent him off to Danville, Va.
He hit .308 in the Rookie Advanced League and he's been hitting ever since.
"I have total confidence up here," LaRoche said. "I've known this is what I want to do my whole life and I know I can do it."
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.
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