When the Braves drafted speedster Matt Lipka with their top overall pick last year, he came in eager to prove he could play shortstop and not have to make the move to center field that so many experts, including some among the Braves, had projected.
He took 100 ground balls every day last winter with his father in Frisco, Texas, to help make a seamless jump from McKinney High to the professional ranks. He did, committing only 15 errors in 127 games at Single-A Rome in his first full season.
But now he is spending a month in the instructional league in Orlando learning center field. What gave?
“It wasn’t so much that we didn’t think Matt could play the infield,” said Braves assistant general manager Bruce Manno, who oversees player development. “He could play second [base] as well. We felt that in the future, one of the needs we may have may be in center field and for a leadoff type hitter, and he fit that profile.”
The Braves have three shortstop prospects older than 19-year-old Lipka: Tyler Pastornicky who finished at Triple-A Gwinnett; Andrelton Simmons at Single-A Lynchburg; and recently drafted Nick Ahmed from the University of Connecticut at rookie-league Danville, Va.
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At center field, the path is clearer, especially after the Braves traded Jordan Schafer to the Astros for center fielder Michael Bourn. And for now, Bourn is under the Braves’ control only through 2012.
That’s what Tim Lipka had in mind when he sat down with his son before instructional league started last week and asked him what he would do if the Braves wanted to move him to center.
So when Manno called Matt Lipka to tell him of the change, Lipka was prepared.
“It wasn’t disappointing,” Lipka said. “It was a little discouraging.”
But what Manno heard on the other end was excitement because Lipka had already starting to make the transition in his mind.
Tim Lipka, a former catcher at Elon and Randolph-Macon who went undrafted, had reminded his son how important opportunity is. As a vice president in the restaurant industry, he explained that promotions come with good timing.
And he reminded his son, a supplemental first-round pick in 2010 by the team he grew up cheering for, that his goal was to get to the majors as fast as possible.
“To play for an organization like the Braves, you’ll play anywhere to get up there,” said Lipka, who lived in Atlanta most of his childhood before his father was transferred to Dallas, and wore Chipper Jones’ No. 10 in youth baseball.
If there’s one thing the two-time all-state receiver in high school football understands, it’s routes. And this one is his clearest to the big leagues.
“It’s still a premier position to play up the middle, and it takes me back to my football days,” Lipka said. “It’s fun, and I knew it was going to possibly happen. I’ve never been closed off about it.”
Lipka, who has run the 60-yard dash in 6.4 seconds, had 1,400 yards receiving and 21 touchdowns as a senior. He was usually the deep man; fly routes and post patterns were his favorite.
“Getting to balls is pretty similar to football, which I’m finding out,” Lipka said. “I was telling the coaches, I actually feel kind of natural out there.”
He said he adjusted from three-quarters to an over-the-top arm angle in one session of catch. He’s learning tricks to gauge line drives straight at him, using his cap bill to judge the flight of the ball.
Playing a less demanding position than shortstop also will give him more time to focus on his offense and work on bunting, something the Braves think will be key in building on his .247, 28-steal season in Rome.
Lipka thinks he might work out with his high school track team this offseason, doing the 200 and 400 meters. And of course, he’ll head back out every day with his dad. This time, they’ll pack a Jugs throwing machine along with the fungo.
“I used to love hitting fly balls,” Tim Lipka said. “The older I got, the stamina goes away. After about 10 fly balls you’re huffing and puffing.”