Houston Astros prospect Alex Bregman, the second overall pick in Major League Baseball's 2015 first-year player draft, has shown an impressive ability to collect hits and contribute to winning baseball games. If Bregman's spring training portfolio is any indication, he's also well-versed in the art of collecting free meals.
Bregman enjoyed one of the thrills of his young career after introducing himself to a clubhouse full of new teammates at Osceola County Stadium in February. As a reward for the kid's poise, manager A.J. Hinch assigned him to go to dinner with the Astros' double-play combination of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa. Shortly thereafter, the three infielders drove from Kissimmee, Florida, to nearby Orlando for an evening of camaraderie and fine dining.
"Jose and Carlos talked about their journeys and gave me some words of advice," Bregman said. "Jose treated. I ordered the most expensive steak [on the menu] and enjoyed every single bite of it."
If his .896 OPS in the minors is a guide, Bregman might soon be dining with the two stars on a more consistent basis.
When baseball's top prospects assembled at Petco Park in San Diego for the Futures Game last weekend, scouts and the national media naturally speculated on which player might be closest to arrival in the big leagues. St. Louis Cardinals prospect Alex Reyes and Boston Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi are both in the conversation, but the front-runner might be Bregman, who received a promotion from Double-A Corpus Christi to Triple-A Fresno in late June to move within a rung of the majors.
Bregman's performance in the Futures Game did nothing to quell the social media frenzy among Astros fans. After turning around a 98 mph fastball from Reyes for a triple, he added a double and a single to come within a home run of a Futures Game cycle.
In the mode Derek Jeter, his favorite player, Bregman prides himself on staying in the moment.
"One of the things we talked about this offseason back home was, 'Be where your feet are,'" Bregman said. "If your feet are in Fresno, California, that's where your head needs to be. That's where your mind needs to be. You don't need to be thinking about anything besides the next pitch they're going to throw to you. That's the mentality I've been taking."
With second base and shortstop already spoken for in Houston because of Altuve and Correa, Bregman will most likely have to shift to third base or left field upon arrival at Minute Maid Park. For the short term, he's playing shortstop in Fresno. With Colin Moran, Matt Duffy, Jon Singleton and Tyler White on the Triple-A roster, the Astros have only so many corner infield at-bats to go around. Just in case the plans change, Bregman takes plenty of ground balls at third base to stay prepared.
The Astros threw an additional wrinkle into Bregman's future on Friday when they signed Cuban infielder Yulieski Gurriel to a five-year, $47.5 million contract. Gurriel is projected to play either third or second base in the majors, so the Astros are going to have to get creative or swing a trade to make all the pieces fit.
Houston's front office is confident that Bregman can handle whatever comes his way because of his intelligence, athleticism and flair for making adjustments on the fly. Quinton McCracken, Houston's director of player development, exhausts his supply of old-school baseball labels in describing Bregman's competitive spirit.
"The kid is a baseball player," McCracken said. "He's a grinder, he's a grunt, he's a baseball rat and a competitor. He gets the best out of his tool set. He's still young in his pro career, but he's really hit the ground running."
Bregman, 22, is trying to join Cody Ross, Matt Moore, Jordan Pacheco and his good buddy Blake Swihart, the Boston Red Sox outfielder, as the latest New Mexico native to reach the majors. While the Land of Enchantment has never been regarded as a baseball mecca, Bregman received more than his share of exposure as a Team USA member, Golden Spikes Award finalist and College World Series participant with a top-rated Louisiana State University program.
Bregman has developed a friendly rivalry with Atlanta Braves prospect and former Vanderbilt star Dansby Swanson, the top pick in the 2015 draft, from their time as competitors in the Southeastern Conference. Bregman concedes that Swanson has "better hair" but won't yield any ground on the baseball diamond. During a media scrum at the Futures Game, Swanson craned his head a few lockers down and jokingly asked Bregman if he has any "skill sets" other than baseball.
"Zero," Bregman said. "I used to play chess, but then I lost that [ability] too."
The baseball rat in Bregman happily coexists with the self-improvement buff. Bregman batted .319 for the Lancaster JetHawks in the High-A California League last season, but he was disappointed that he hit only three home runs in 37 games. So he dedicated the offseason to weight training and better nutrition and reported to camp 20 pounds heavier in an effort to more consistently drive the ball.
Bregman, a right-handed hitter, also visited what he calls the "lab" each morning and evening to work on his swing with his personal hitting coach, Jason Columbus. He's taking a more strategic approach this year than he did in his first professional season. Against pitches on the outer half, he shoots for doubles to right center. When the ball is on the inner half, he tries to pull it in the air.
"I'm not trying to hit a ground ball," he said. "In professional baseball, if you hit a ground ball to the left side of the infield, you're out."
Bregman's new approach has produced 19 home runs and a 1.009 OPS in 71 Double-A and Triple-A games. He also has 18 steals in 27 attempts in the minors, so he can run a little bit too.
Amid speculation that Bregman's time is fast approaching, McCracken defers to Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow for the final say on when the Astros will summon their hot prospect. But the folks in Houston's front office are all aware the question will be asked more frequently in the weeks to come.
"We don't want to get the cart before the horse here," McCracken said. "But he's definitely making a statement. There's no if, ands or buts about it."