LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- When the Braves took Matt Lipka with their first selection in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, they viewed him as the best available athlete that year. At the same time, they realized that the two-time All-State wide receiver out of Texas was still somewhat of a raw baseball talent.
Nearly four years later, Lipka has yet to play a game above the Class A Advanced level. But now that he has dealt with the challenge of transitioning to the professional level and overcome a devastating hamstring injury that jeopardized his career, the Braves remain hopeful that his tremendous athleticism will enable him to begin living up to the great expectations they had when they drafted him.
"He's where he needs to be," Braves assistant general manager Bruce Manno said. "He'll be at the level where he needs to be and we feel he'll continue to get better."
Before likely beginning this upcoming season with Double-A Mississippi, Lipka is going to enjoy his current opportunity to make the most of his first Major League Spring Training. The 21-year-old non-roster invitee laced a sharp single to left field while serving as the leadoff hitter for the split-squad team that played the Tigers to a 10-inning scoreless tie on Sunday afternoon at Champion Stadium.
While going 3-for-6 during Saturday's 16-15 loss to the Nationals, Lipka had a chance to display his tremendous speed, which has always served as his greatest attribute. After his bloop single down the right-field line was bobbled, he raced to second base, and then alertly kept going all the way through home plate when an errant throw sailed into foul territory down the left-field line.
This Little League home run was documented in the scorebook as a single that was followed by two errors. The Braves viewed the mad dash around the bases as simply a reminder of what Lipka is capable of doing with his legs.
"He's got game-changing speed," Manno said. "He continues to improve with the bat. We're excited about him."
Lipka lived up to expectations as he hit .302 in the 48 games he played for the Gulf Coast League Braves after he was drafted in 2010. The Braves sent him to Class A Rome the following year and watched him deal with adversity as he hit .247 with a .608 OPS in his first full professional season.
When asked to make the transition from middle infielder to center fielder in 2012, Lipka was dealing with some hamstring discomfort that began when he was as a pinch-runner while serving as an extra Minor League player during a Grapefruit League game that year.
Lipka made some strides as he hit .271 with a .672 OPS in the 51 games he played for Class A Advanced Lynchburg before a complete tear of his right hamstring sidelined him on June 23, 2012. Two weeks later, he underwent season-ending surgery to repair the tear.
"I could have very easily been out of baseball with that injury," Lipka said. "I fought back. There's really no reason to press. I'm still very young and I'm out here working hard. I'm just going to let the chips fall where they may. I'm going to keep working hard and see how it works out."
When Lipka returned to Spring Training last year, he possessed a leaner frame, more suitable for baseball. In addition, he displayed the fruits of the dedication he showed during the long rehab process that followed the surgery.
Lipka's offensive approach was still a work in progress as he hit .251 with a .667 OPS in 131 games with Lynchburg last year. But he provided encouragement as he proved his legs were once again healthy courtesy of the 37 stolen bases he recorded in 51 attempts.
If Lipka remains healthy throughout this upcoming season with Mississippi and continues to make the offensive strides that allow him to get on base consistently, some scouts and talent evaluators have suggested he has the potential to record at least 50 stolen bases.
"We think he has the potential to be a well above-average basestealer," Manno said. "So, I think this year you will see that more, provided he stays healthy, which we think he can. Last year, he came through everything well. You have to have patience with young players. They figure it out, and the key is they keep working at it."
When Lipka was drafted, he did not necessarily expect that he would have to wait four years to finally make the jump to the Double-A level. But as he progresses through this season still at the ripe age of 22, he will attempt to keep the same optimistic outlook that has allowed him to overcome the struggles and physical ailments that have tainted the early portion of his professional career.
"I think the hamstring injury was something for me to build off of," Lipka said. "I think it was a testament to my hard work and dedication, as far as how I came back from it. It took a lot to come back from that injury. I had a great offseason and I've built myself a routine that is great for everyday baseball. I'm starting to really grasp the little things, and that is what will eventually get you there."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com.