Adam LaRoche knows his time has come.
"I'm really, really excited right now," says the 24-year-old first baseman.
There's a lot for LaRoche to be excited about. His time is now spent in the Puerto Rican Winter League, a final tune-up before he heads to Orlando as the Atlanta Braves new starting first baseman.
"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about everything that could happen next season," LaRoche says. "It's a great feeling."
LaRoche's impressive 2003 season has him in position to become Atlanta's new starter at first base. He started the season at AA Greenville, hitting .283 with 12 home runs and 37 runs batted in. A promotion to AAA Richmond did not slow him down, as he hit .295 with 8 home runs and 35 RBI. Overall, a .290 average with 20 home runs and 72 runs batted in.
The season was a breakout for LaRoche regarding his power. He had never hit more than 13 home runs in his three previous seasons in the Braves farm system. He was gaining a reputation as an above-average hitter who would only hit 10-15 home runs per season. But the 20 home runs proved he could provide more than adequate power.
"I just hit the ball more solid this season, and that's how I got to 20," LaRoche explains. "The difference was not giving away at bats. It makes a difference when you try to not be in a slump for 7 or 8 games. Then you're just going to have a ton of better at bats. I think I can do more than 20 with more at bats and more experience."
LaRoche has long been compared to former Cubs and Diamondbacks player Mark Grace, who just retired after 16 major league seasons. Both are smooth fielding first baseman that hit left-handed. But Grace averaged 11.3 home runs a season in his 13 years as the Cubs starting first baseman. LaRoche believes he can be more like John Olerud, himself a smooth defensive first baseman who provides a bit more power from the left side (average of 17 home runs a season over his last 14 years).
"I think I can hit a few more home runs (than Grace), but I believe I can do what he did with average (Grace had a career .303 average) and with the glove (Grace won 4 Gold Glove Awards)," LaRoche says, who admits Grace is his favorite player. "I don't know if we're as alike as I use to think. Olerud may be closer (in comparison)."
Another left-handed hitting first baseman's exit has opened the door for LaRoche in Atlanta. With the release of Robert Fick in early November, the Braves paved the way for LaRoche to assume the role as starter. But LaRoche hates his elevation comes at someone else's expense.
"From the greedy side, it's good," LaRoche explains. "But I really did like him in spring training. To me, I never got the feeling he was worried about me. I would have loved to have played with him."
LaRoche had a feeling in September the Braves were making way for him. Despite being disappointed in not being called up when the rosters expanded, he was thrilled the team still had great confidence in his ability.
"They told me when I wasn't called up," LaRoche says. "They said ‘you're ready. If you can go play winter ball, and get a little more experience, it's your job to lose next year.' I'm going to spring training with that attitude."
"I was disappointed in not getting called up, but to hear that they weren't going to look for anybody else over the off season made me feel good."
LaRoche has played well so far for the Mayaguez Indians in the Puerto Rican League. "Competition-wise I think it's pretty much like AAA ball from what I've seen. It's a good test and it's good to be with those guys because they've picked up a lot of things along the way that help me as well. They put a lot bigger emphasis on winning over there. It's all about winning, so it's good for me to be in that environment."
Adam says he has heard Braves fans are anxious to see him play.
"That's great to hear," he says. "I'm looking forward to showing them something."
He's also looking forward to a new era of Braves baseball. With the expected payroll cut, the Braves are getting ready to become a younger team. LaRoche has no doubt he and his minor league teammates will carry the torch.
"I don't see it being a problem at all," LaRoche says. "As far as the young guys, I know what I can do up there. I know what Langerhans and Hessman can do up there. It's all about confidence. If you go into it with a lot of confidence, you're going to be fine. The mental part of it is so important."
"It will be exciting to have a young team, have a little new blood in there" he continues. "I think we're definitely going in the right direction with the minor leaguers. If we mix in a few guys every year, we're going to be fine. I think you've got to get them up, let them see what it's like when they're young, and then let them get in their prime."
Adam's confidence and enthusiasm is exciting to hear. He's a player on the verge of becoming an everyday major leaguer, and he's not going to waste the opportunity.
"I'm trying to soak in this Puerto Rico experience," he says, "and then I'll be ready for spring training. It's a great feeling knowing what is ahead. I'm going to eat it up in spring training. I'm going to give it hell."
Bill Shanks hosts "The Braves Show," a weekly television show on the Braves and its minor league system. He can be reached at email@example.com
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