Brett Lawrie bound for greatness

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- If you utter that magic word, "phenom," in a baseball word-association game, you know the names you'll hear back:

Bryce Harper … Mike Trout… Matt Moore.

Every one of those names would represent a 100 percent correct answer, of course. But here's another name that should never again be left off your handy dandy list of Baseball's Brightest Phenoms -- or you'll be sentenced to watching 97 consecutive hours worth of highlights of The Bachelor's Greatest Dates:

Brett Lawrie.

The Toronto Blue Jays' 22-year-old third baseman isn't technically a rookie anymore, thanks to the 150 at-bats he got at the end of last season. But mention the name Brett Lawrie to people inside baseball's inner circle, and the responses blow your eardrums away.

"Wow," said one longtime scout.

"Oh my God," said another.

"Speed, power, attitude, hustle -- and he's got every intangible you could ever want in a player," said another.

"He's going to be a great offensive force," said yet another. "And defensively, I don't know what quality you'd want in a third baseman that he doesn't have."

And then you run across Blue Jays broadcaster Buck Martinez, a man who has seen many a ballyhooed young player hit the radar screen in his 45 years in professional baseball. But want to know where Brett Lawrie ranks? Here were the first words out of Buck Martinez's mouth when we asked him about the new third baseman in Toronto:

"He's got more ability than George Brett, and I was George's roommate in Kansas City," Martinez said. "Now obviously, he doesn't have 3,000 hits or [three] batting titles or an MVP award, so he's got a long ways to go. But he runs and he plays with the same kind of intensity as George did. And that's as high a compliment as I could pay any player."

We could keep spitting out these glowing testimonials for another hour or six. But it's time to address the most significant difference between Brett Lawrie and, say, Bryce Harper.

Harper, you see, still lives in the land of could-be's and should-be's. Lawrie, on the other hand, already has about a month and a half of been-there, done-it in the big leagues on his personal page at baseball-reference.com. And what he did in that month and a half has gotten way too little attention.

A .953 OPS? A .580 slugging percentage? More extra-base hits (21) in a month and a half than the National League's starting third baseman in the All-Star Game (Placido Polanco) got all season (19)?

And have we mentioned that this guy was 21 years old at the time?

You'd think that a month and a half in the big leagues wouldn't tell us anything meaningful about any player, right? Well, guess again.

Since 1900, only a dozen other players have had an OPS that high at age 21 or younger, in a season in which they got as many at-bats as Lawrie got in 2011. There's not a Shane Spencer-ish fluke in the bunch.

Ten of those players are now in the Hall of Fame. An 11th (Albert Pujols) is a lock to join them. The 12th was Hal Trosky, whose spectacular career path was cut short by migraines.

There is only one other name on the list: Brett Lawrie. Whew.

But you'll be fascinated to learn that nobody is less impressed to find that name included among that distinguished group than the guy who made it happen. Nobody.

Asked if the success he had surprised him in any way, Lawrie replied, almost casually: "Not really, because I just knew that it's baseball. I wasn't worried about who was throwing against me or whether we were playing the Yankees. It wasn't about that. It was like, 'We're playing in a big league stadium. We're playing on TV. Let's go have some fun.' And that's what it was about to me. It was, like, let's go play."

Asked again if he'd ever wondered, just a little, whether he could do what he did at that level, Lawrie responded, remarkably matter-of-factly: "No. I've always known that I could play up there. It was just about me getting the opportunity to. I've never questioned myself about playing at the big league level because all I've ever wanted to do my whole life is play against the best. And when I get put up against the best, I turn on my jets."

Now it's a common thread in most great players that they never doubt how good they are. So there's nothing all that unusual, and nothing all that wrong, with running across a guy whose confidence oozes out of every move he makes and every word he speaks.

But that doesn't mean everybody else on the planet will understand it, or approve of it. And that brings us to how Brett Lawrie wound up as a Blue Jay in the first place.

He was supposed to be following this path to stardom as a Brewer, you know. He was the Brew Crew's first-round pick (16th overall) in the 2008 draft. And from Day One, it was clear he knew exactly where he was headed.

Carlos Villanueva, a Blue Jays pitcher now and a Brewers pitcher back then, remembers Lawrie looking around the clubhouse in Milwaukee, after the Brewers brought their top pick in for a grand mini-tour after the draft, and telling his future big-league teammates: "Keep my seat warm. I'll be here real soon."

"I remember saying, 'Who's THIS guy?'" Villanueva said. "I mean, I'd heard about him. I knew he was a great player, even back then. He was very young, and he's a very excitable person. He excites everyone around him. But us, back then, not knowing him, we were like, 'Hey, keep that to yourself.'"

As it turned out, though, there was very little that Lawrie kept to himself in his two seasons in the Brewers' system. He was frustrated that the Brewers insisted on having him start in low Class A ball and earn his way up to Double-A and beyond. And he was frustrated by what he interpreted as their efforts to rein in his effusive personality.

"Things tend to go wrong when you try and change people," Lawrie said. "And I think when I was with the Brewers and I was in the minor league system, it felt like I was trying to be changed, like they were trying to change me, like I was the same as everybody else. I'm not the same as everybody else. I'm Brett Lawrie. It's like, everyone's different. You can't try and make everyone be the same."

So there were little clashes, right from the beginning. But Brewers general manager Doug Melvin says his team tried its best to make Lawrie happy.

"I think he felt we were taking his aggressive personality away from him," Melvin said. "But we didn't try to change him. When he first came in, we let him do what he wanted to do. When he first signed, he wanted to be a catcher because he thought that was the quickest way to the big leagues. Then he said he wanted to play second base because he thought Rickie Weeks would become a free agent. Then we signed Rickie to a long-term deal, and he wanted to play third base. But he was just a kid looking for the quickest way to the big leagues. And there's nothing wrong with that."

But at the end of Lawrie's second season in the system, in 2010, he and the club had a major blow-up. Lawrie felt that after a big Double-A season, he'd earned a big league call-up in September. Instead, the Brewers asked him to go to the Arizona Fall League. Lawrie said, "No, thanks."

"We told him the plan was, 'If you go to the Arizona Fall League, we'll invite you to big league camp, at 19, and that's never happened before here,'" Melvin said. "He said, 'I'm not going to the Fall League.' We said, 'Then we can't invite you to big league camp.' He said, 'I should be in the big leagues in September.' We said, 'We know what we're doing. We have a lot of confidence in your ability. Please trust us.' But he wanted to be in the big leagues."

So that winter, as the Brewers were gearing up for a big run at October in Prince Fielder's final season in Milwaukee, they dealt Lawrie to Toronto for pitcher Shaun Marcum. Melvin says now that personality conflicts only represented "some small percentage" of their reason for trading him. But Lawrie isn't so sure.

"To tell you the truth, I really don't know how they felt [about] me," he said. "I felt like I wasn't given the opportunity that I needed there. And it was time for a move, and they needed some pitching, so I was the first candidate to be kind of kicked out the door. I guess you could say it was OK with me because … I needed a fresh start. I needed a new team. I needed some new guys. And I think it was a good way to jump into the big leagues. I got a chance to jump in with a new team."

Whatever issues Lawrie may have had with his old team, though, they haven't shown up at all with his new team.

"I've never seen it," said Blue Jays manager John Farrell. "Never. From the day he walked into our clubhouse last spring, he fit right in."

Things tend to go wrong when you try and change people. And I think when I was with the Brewers and I was in the minor league system, it felt like I was trying to be changed, like they were trying to change me, like I was the same as everybody else.

-- Brett Lawrie

One of Farrell's managerial mottos is: Let players be themselves. So a Yunel Escobar has fit in Toronto after being an outcast in Atlanta. A Colby Rasmus can relax in this setting after battling Tony La Russa on every front in St. Louis. And a guy like Brett Lawrie can be unleashed as a 24/7 energizer, even for the veteran players around him, after less than two months in the big leagues.

So halfway through this spring, Farrell found himself describing his 22-year-old third baseman as "part of the heartbeat of this team." When we asked the manager about that quote this week, he replied: "Leadership, to me, doesn't have an age."

Brett Lawrie says he wasn't aware of either of those quotes until we passed them along. But if the Blue Jays want him to keep their hearts pumping, he's happy to serve.

"I don't feel like I have to be the heartbeat," he said. "It's just who I am. It happens because I'm just being myself. I like to get my teammates going."

Across the state of Florida this spring, Bryce Harper has had to tread cautiously through the Nationals' locker room, surrounded by veteran players who want to make sure he learns the ins and outs of big league clubhouse etiquette the hard way. But in Dunedin, where one of the youngest rosters in the league finds itself building toward contention, Brett Lawrie has been pretty much empowered to just do his thing.

So even after a mere 43 games in the big leagues, he has roared into camp and made his high-energy presence felt, on and off the field, this spring.

In the batter's box, he was hitting a mere .609 through his first nine games of spring training, with six doubles, a triple and five stolen bases in five tries, until a groin strain knocked him out of action for a week.

But off the field, his motor is still running, every minute of every day. And that's just fine with the Toronto Blue Jays.

"I probably wouldn't have had the same opinion of him in Milwaukee," said Villanueva. "But getting to know him here, I understand now he's just being himself. … He's being loud. He's being who he is. And he gets guys fired up. And I think guys here feed off of that."

So far at least, not many folks south of the border seem to have caught on to the budding legend-hood of Brett Lawrie. But that, said his manager, "is just fine" with the team that employs him north of the border.

"In time," said Farrell, "as long as health is on his side, he's going to put himself in position for everybody to take notice of who Brett Lawrie is."