Top pick Bryant has drive to improve and excel
Cubs prospect raking in AFL after putting up big numbers in first pro season
MESA, Ariz. -- Kris Bryant was surprised when the Mesa Solar Sox gave him No. 17 to wear. He's worn No. 23, but No. 17 is the same number his father, Mike, had for two seasons in the Minor Leagues in the Red Sox organization in the early 1980s.
"That was something special," Bryant said of the number before a recent Arizona Fall League game. "I'm sure he'll like it."
Bryant's father loves baseball but never pushed his son to play the game. Mike Bryant did, however, install a batting cage at their home in Las Vegas.
"I wouldn't say he worked me hard; I would say it's me wanting to do good," Bryant said of his father. "He was never the dad who made me go out to the field and practice. It was me going out there asking him, 'Could you throw to me after work?'"
"I think you need parents like that," Bryant said. "You don't want someone to push you to the point where you don't want to play any more. My dad never did that."
Whatever Mike Bryant did paid off. Kris was the Cubs' first-round pick and the second player taken overall in the 2013 First-Year Player Draft, and in July, he signed a $6.7 million contract.
Bryant began his pro career at short-season Boise, and played 18 games there before he was promoted to Class A Advanced Daytona, where he played another 16 games and helped the D-Cubs win the Florida State League championship. In his first abbreviated season as a pro player, Bryant batted .336 with nine home runs, 14 doubles and 32 RBIs.
Bryant's season has been extended in the AFL, where he is playing for the Solar Sox and leading the league in batting (.438), home runs (four), runs (10), RBIs (13) and slugging (.906). It's a big jump, but Bryant, 21, feels he's ready. He's paced himself well. The Blue Jays drafted him in the 18th round in 2010, but Bryant opted to go to the University of San Diego instead of turning pro.
"Going from high school straight into professional baseball, I think only a certain few can do that," Bryant said. "I didn't know if I was the one. Looking back on that decision to go to San Diego and have the coaches there get you better, I think it was definitely the right decision. I think it will only help me in this league and in the future, too."
Bryant might have had second thoughts after his first game with Boise, when he went 0-for-5 and struck out all five at-bats. He rebounded, and was hitless in just one other game for the Hawks. In his last two games, a doubleheader on Aug. 11 against Vancouver, he was 5-for-7. He had a long travel day prior to that first game with Boise, but Bryant wouldn't use that as an excuse.
"I've struck out plenty of times before," he said. "I'm going to have a five-strikeout game again in my future. It's just baseball.
"You try to avoid the really bad games like that. It all comes back to confidence and me having confidence in myself. When you have a game like [the five-strikeout game], you put it behind you and realize that day, the pitcher was better than you. I'll get him sometimes, and he'll get me sometimes."
Bryant doesn't waste at-bats, even in practice. In three consecutive swings in batting practice before an AFL game, he hit a home run to left, another to right and another to center, and did so on purpose.
"I try to do that every once in a while," Bryant said, smiling. "Sometimes it works out, sometimes I hit the cage."
C'mon, baseball isn't that easy.
"I forgot who said it, but someone said if you want to hit home runs, you have to practice hitting home runs," Bryant said. "I took that to heart in high school and college. In batting practice, here and there, there will be a certain pitch when I'll tell myself, 'I'm going to try to hit this one over the fence.' I think that thought has helped me hit home runs in the game. It's worked for me."
It certainly did. Bryant led the nation in home runs (31), runs scored (80), walks and slugging percentage (.820) at San Diego, batting .329 in 62 games. He was honored with the Dick Howser Trophy as the 2013 College Player of the Year.
You can't miss Bryant at the plate. He has a wide stance that seems to stretch beyond the batter's box. He used to stand more upright, but 10 games into his sophomore season in college, a hitting coach suggested he make a change.
"If I widened out and squatted down, the low pitch was easier to hit and my head stays still," Bryant said. "It's really been working for me. I know there are some people who think I could do things differently, and I'm open to whatever anybody has to say to me. I've been doing it this way for a while, and I feel comfortable."
One of Bryant's best characteristics is his willingness to learn. Many of the Cubs' Minor League coaching staff described him as a "sponge," eager to listen and learn.
"Getting to know Kris in the short period of time [he's been with the Cubs], he's going to make adjustments when he feels things aren't right or he feels he needs to make some type of physical adjustment," said Anthony Iapoce, the Cubs' Minor League hitting coordinator. "He'll start making those on his own, or he'll come and question, and say, 'Hey, I want to do this.' He won't sit there and keep making outs. He's going to find a way to adjust, or he wouldn't be the second pick in the Draft."
Iapoce wasn't about to make any drastic changes in Bryant's approach.
"He loves baseball, and he wants to be the best at it," Iapoce said. "He knows the work he's put in has given him confidence for what he wants to accomplish."
Bryant is confident, and that showed on Draft Day in June when he sounded ready to step into the Cubs' lineup immediately.
"I think that was taken differently than what I intended," Bryant said now of his comments that he was ready for the Major Leagues. "I think that in order to play this game, you have to have confidence in yourself. And if you don't have confidence that you can play in the big leagues, then you really shouldn't be playing baseball.
"This game is built around failure. There are guys who strike out 10 people every nine innings and have people hit .150 off them. If you go up there and you're not confident in yourself, I think you've already lost the at-bat. I said that because I believe in myself and not necessarily saying that I should be up there. That's not how I feel at all."
Being picked in the 18th round helped push Bryant.
"I had a really good year my senior year [in high school], and I felt I was a little better than where people viewed me at," Bryant said. "I used that as motivation going into college and going out there with a chip on my shoulder, showing people I can play and not just hit in batting practice, and that I can do things in the game as well."
The Cubs were impressed. The question most Cubs fans now have is when Bryant will be in the big leagues. Will he be in the 2014 Opening Day lineup?
"I can't say that," Bryant said. "I would love to, but it depends on how I play, and that's what it goes back to. I'm just going to play as hard as I can. If I'm doing well, things will take care of themselves."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.