MESA, Ariz. Cubs reliever James Russell was shagging fly balls at Wrigley Field last September when Dale Sveum approached him with a question: Whos this big left-handed guy?
The Milwaukee Brewers hitting coach had noticed Bryan LaHair swinging away in the cage. The way Russell remembered it on Thursday: Thats as far as the conversation went.
LaHair doesnt have much of a Q rating or a track record in the big leagues (195 at-bats), but hes definitely made an impression on the new people in power. The Cubs manager doesnt say much, but he had a clear message for anyone waiting on top prospect Anthony Rizzo to take over at first base.
Thats the world we live in (theres) competition, Sveum said. Were (not) going to go with Bryan forever and ever and ever. Hes got to play well. As long as he (does), its his job, but its not like anybodys going to panic after a month if hes not playing well or even two months.
Right now its a concrete plan to let Rizzo have another season in Triple-A, and let him be comfortable instead of moving him up and down and all that stuff. Its Bryan LaHairs job and its not his to lose.
The guys earned the right to have it. And hes earned the right for me to have a lot of patience, too, if things arent getting off to a good start.
At the winter meetings in Dallas, while the national media drove the speculation that the Cubs were after the big-ticket items, Theo Epstein sat in his hotel suite and explained that he would be comfortable with LaHair as their first baseman.
The skeptics still thought the Cubs would go hard after Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder (whos tight with Sveum from their time together in Milwaukee). The Cubs president of baseball operations said that he doesnt believe in the concept of 4A hitters.
But this front office also clearly believes in the 22-year-old Rizzo as a future foundation piece in the lineup and the clubhouse.
Two Cubs executives general manager Jed Hoyer and scoutingplayer development head Jason McLeod were instrumental in drafting and developing Rizzo with the Boston Red Sox before bringing him to the San Diego Padres in the Adrian Gonzalez deal.
Hoyer has repeatedly said that he made a mistake in rushing Rizzo to San Diego last season. Rizzo struck out 46 times in 128 big-league at-bats, while hitting .331 with 26 homers and 101 RBI in 93 Triple-A games.
If Rizzo starts to get on a roll like that in Iowa, the fans and media are going to start wondering when hes coming to Clark and Addison. At this point, Sveum doesnt envision LaHair playing the outfield.
Im not going to put anything in his head that way, Sveum said. Hes our first baseman and thats the bottom line. If anything was to happen somewhere along the line, well cross that bridge when we get to it.
The 29-year-old LaHair, who played winter ball in Venezuela, is coming off a season in which he generated 38 homers and 109 RBI and was the Pacific Coast League MVP. People might start asking: Who is this guy?
(Hes) tearing the cover off the ball no matter where he goes, Sveum said. Some guys whether its something clicks with swinging the bat or somebody tells them one little thing and all of a sudden it all comes together. Unfortunately for some kids, it comes a little bit later, but the fact of the matter is I think its clicked for him right now.