MESA, Ariz. -- It's a warm, cloudless morning in late March as the Chicago Cubs take batting practice on the main practice field at their new $99 million spring training facility. Triple-A hitting coach Brian Harper is throwing to Kris Bryant, who at this time is still in major league camp, terrorizing Cactus League pitching and believing he has a chance to make the Opening Day roster.
Bryant starts in a wide right-handed stance with his bat nearly parallel to the ground, his hands raised high, just above shoulder level. As Harper starts his delivery, Bryant adjusts the bat into a more upright hitting position and drops his hands just a bit. It's not an exaggerated movement, simple and precise, and then he uncoils, his hands moving the bat laser-quick through the strike zone, his body maintaining balance. The ball zooms off into the Arizona air, reaching for the mountains off in the distance.
In many ways, Bryant is the archetypical baseball player of 2015. He wears his uniform pants down over the tops of his shoes, the bill on his cap flat and straight as if the clubhouse guy ironed it to perfection. He's missing the increasingly popular beard but has movie-star blue eyes and the chiseled good looks that suggest he could become the proverbial face of baseball that everyone thinks the sport needs. He grew up in Las Vegas, the son of a former minor league outfielder, with a batting cage behind his garage where he honed that swing into a finely tuned motor. Like most hitters today, Bryant grew up spending countless hours hitting baseballs in cages or against pitching machines or in practice. His objective: Hit the ball hard with every swing.
I'm talking with Marty Pevey, Bryant's manager at Triple-A Iowa. I ask if he thinks Bryant will be a pull hitter in the majors or if he'll spray the ball around the field. Pevey laughs. "Not spray. Drive. He drives the ball all over the field, pole to pole. What amazes me is the power he has to right-center. He drives the ball so well to right field. You've seen some big home runs here. He's hit some monster home runs in spring training."
Indeed, with Bryant, singles are mere byproducts of solid contact; when Bryant connects, the ball often travels somewhere far.
In the minor leagues in 2014, he bashed 43 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A while hitting .325. Even just a few years ago, that would have led to a September call-up and 100 or so plate appearances to get a taste of the big leagues. But it's a different time now and the Cubs held him down; with a minimum of 12 days in the minor leagues in 2015, they will get an extra season of service time from him before he became eligible for free agency. So even after hitting .425 with nine home runs in spring training, Bryant spent a few games in Iowa "working on his defense" at third base.
Now he's here, a 23-year-old kid, already one of the biggest names in the sport before his first official big league at-bat. The expectations are something along the lines of becoming the next Cubs legend and helping end the longest World Series drought in the majors.
"I don't want to say he reminds me of anybody because he hasn't played in the big leagues yet," says Pevey, "but I think he's going to lead the Chicago Cubs to a championship."
A tall order for Bryant?
Bryant is 6-foot-5. He knows what that means. With big, strong guys, you don't want to let them get their arms extended. "Ever since I've been this tall, pitchers have been trying to throw me in," he said in March. "I think I've been doing a pretty good job of it. A couple of my home runs have been pitches inside that I've actually backspun, and usually I topspin those to left field or something like that, so I'm pleased with how far I've come in that area."
As you might expect from somebody who bought a pitching machine in the offseason that could simulate Adam Wainwright's curveball, he's a student of hitting. He drew 86 walks in the minors last year, showing plate discipline and the confidence to hit with two strikes -- 12 of his home runs in the minors came when he was behind in the count. He spends time hitting off a low tee to work on his swing on pitches down in the zone. On this day, he talked about facing crafty right-hander Jered Weaver the night before, a game in which he went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. Weaver struck him out his first two times up -- on six pitches, all looking.
"Pitchers figure you out but you figure them out just as quick," Bryant said. "Yesterday was good for me, to go out there and face a guy like Jered Weaver who has incredible stuff, just a different type of pitcher. It was kind of good for me to go out there and struggle a little bit, see what kind of pitches he's going to throw me and learn from it."
Bryant summed up his outing another way: "You have to embrace the struggles when you are going through it."
The way Bryant hit this spring, one 0-fer constituted a struggle. He became the talk of Arizona, even among players on other teams. One of his home runs came off Felix Hernandez, a towering shot off a 2-2 breaking ball (check out video on MLB.com). Bryant said it gave him a lot of confidence to hit a home run off a Cy Young winner. Hernandez's assessment was pretty succinct: "Big power. Nice."
But he was quick to add: "It's spring training."
In other words, crushing spring training pitching is one thing, doing it in the regular season is something else. Bryant may be the best prospect in baseball, but that's no guarantee of success. Cubs fans will remember Corey Patterson, once rated as Baseball America's No. 2 overall prospect. Ruben Rivera ... Sean Burroughs ... Ian Stewart ... Joel Guzman ... Colby Rasmus ... Jesus Montero ... Domonic Brown. All consensus top-five prospects at one time.
Of course, none of them hit 43 home runs in one season in the upper minors.
On the other hand, none of them struck out 162 times either.
If there's a concern about Bryant's ability to become one of the best hitters in the game, it's the strikeouts. He fanned in 27.3 percent of his plate appearances in the minors, well above the averages in the two leagues he played in -- 18.7 percent in the Double-A Southern League and 19.8 percent in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. In the majors, the strikeout rate for non-pitchers in 2014 was 19.9 percent. Assume a higher strikeout rate -- at least in the beginning -- as he faces tougher pitching, and you wonder what numbers Bryant will put up. The most productive hitters in the majors last year who struck out at least 30 percent of the time were two Astros, George Springer and Chris Carter, who hit .231 and .227 respectively, although they combined for 57 home runs in 802 at-bats. Mike Trout and Giancarlo Stanton, however, both fanned more than 26 percent of the time and were two of the best hitters in the game.
"Swings have changed a little bit," said Pevey, with 31 professional seasons as a player and coach. "Swings have gotten a little bit longer. I think they started getting a little longer in the early-to-mid '90s and I won't say why. But we know why."
A long swing was the knock against Bryant coming out of high school. Baseball America rated him the No. 53 prospect in the country in the 2010, citing his power potential but noting it "mostly shows up during batting practice or when he has a metal bat in his hands. There are a lot of moving parts to his swing and he has trouble barreling balls up with wood. ... He has a long, loopy swing and he never changes his approach when he's struggling."
Bryant, with a commitment to the University of San Diego, fell to the Blue Jays in the 18th round but they refused to pay his $2.5 million bonus demand. Bryant is a smart kid -- he was a finance major at San Diego and had a 4.78 GPA in high school -- and he learned to adapt, quieting down his pre-swing movement. He hit 31 home runs as a junior and the Cubs selected him second overall, after the Astros took pitcher Mark Appel.
"His swing is super simple," Pevey said. "He stays inside of the ball well, controls the barrel, even in BP. He's kind of spread out. For a right-hander, he's a low-ball hitter. He can really drive that low ball and he has unbelievable leverage."
That sounds similar to Trout, who makes a living punishing pitches in the bottom third of the strike zone. Besides trying to bust him inside, Bryant knows major league pitchers will pound him at the knees. But he seems pretty confident that won't be a major problem. "Our best secret is they can't throw it there three times in a row, so you have to go up there with that approach and if they do throw it there three times in a row, you tip your cap. But I'll put money on them not doing that."
Bryant will strike out. Maybe he'll strike out a lot. That's the price you pay for power. "But with a guy like Kris Bryant," said Pevey, "you're not going to yell at him to choke up, don't strike out, because he can put up a three-spot in a hurry."
Next great slugger?
The Cubs made Bryant serve his minor league detention. His agent is Scott Boras and Boras clients almost always play through their six years of service time and hit free agency rather than signing a long-term contract with their original team. Instead of owning his rights for six seasons, the Cubs will now own Bryant for nearly seven full seasons.
By all accounts, Bryant handled the controversy with maturity and without complaint. When Bryant was sent down to minor league camp, Jon Lester spoke for him. "As a player, it sucks," he said. "It took me awhile to understand it when I was coming up. But the quicker you learn that this game is business the better off you are. They can say development, development, development all they want, but this game's a business."
Boras, of course, expressed his displeasure all spring training. Cubs president Theo Epstein said Bryant needed to work on some things. Bryant went down to Iowa and hit .321 in seven games with three homers and 10 RBIs.
No surprise, said Matt Szczur, his teammate last year in Iowa and now a backup outfielder with the Cubs. "The biggest thing that stands out about Kris Bryant is that he's a professional. You can't really say anything bad about the kid. He's fun to watch. He's a great teammate. I don't really have any good Kris Bryant stories. He keeps to himself."
Bryant's hype as the best prospect in the game is similar to that given to Bryce Harper, another Vegas kid who played on summer teams with Bryant. But while all the attention given Harper, combined with a little teenage cockiness, turned many non-Nationals fans against Harper -- unfairly, I would suggest -- it seems Bryant enters the majors with an attitude best described as confident but humble. Pevey described him as a leader on and off the field, a good kid from a good family. He's the kind of player, on a franchise with a large national following, who could become one of the biggest stars in the game, one of those faces of the game in the post-Jeter world.
Mike Bryant spent two years in the Red Sox minor league system, long enough to get a few lessons from a Red Sox instructor named Ted Williams. When Kris was 5, Mike built the cage behind the garage for his son. When Kris was 8, he hit a 247-foot home run in batting practice, longer than the fence distance at the Little League World Series for 12-year-olds. At 9, Kris was playing baseball year-round.
That certainly qualifies him as a symbol of the generation that has played the sport all year long since before they were teenagers. Bryant has been preparing for this moment since that first home run at Rainbow Park. All those swings. All that batting practice. All those home runs in high school, in college, in the minors.
The moment is now. "Just watch him," Szczur said. "He's unbelievable. His balls just keep going."
That day in spring training, Bryant said, "I look at it like, 'Why not me?'" He was referring to perhaps making the Opening Day roster, but his response sounds like the answer to another question: Who is the game's next great slugger?