SAN DIEGO — Alex Lontayo was there before Cubs fans and the Chicago media became obsessed with Kris Bryant, wondering why he hasn’t been promoted to Triple-A Iowa and wanting to know the Wrigley Field ETA.
Lontayo, an area scout who covers Southern California, saw Bryant around 25 times with the University of San Diego last season, before the Cubs drafted him No. 2 overall, making him a foundation piece for the rebuild.
“I’ve been told that there was some stalking involved,” Lontayo joked.
So far, Bryant has lived up to the hype, hitting .335 with 12 homers, 40 RBIs and a 1.054 OPS through 45 games at Double-A Tennessee. The 6-foot-5-inch third baseman has picked up where he left off last season, winning USA Baseball’s Golden Spikes Award and national player of the year honors from Baseball America and Louisville Slugger.
“We sort of expected him to handle stuff as a professional,” Lontayo said. “He’s done a good job of making adjustments, (but) I wouldn’t say it was a surprise. I think the numbers are sort of where a guy with his tools and his skill set would end (up at). With some of those little stretches that he’s had, there are some days where you’re going: Is it really that easy for him?”
Lontayo checked in on Thursday night at Petco Park, taking a breather before the sprint to the finish line. The Cubs will have to make another tough decision on June 5 with the No. 4 overall pick.
Bryant grew up in Las Vegas as part of a close-knit family that had a batting cage in the backyard. Bryant’s father, Mike, once played in the Boston Red Sox system and listened to Ted Williams talk hitting. Bryant earned a spot on the West Coast Conference’s all-academic team and got invited to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship.
“It wasn’t just on the field,” Lontayo said. “It was how he treated others away from the field and how he performed in the classroom. He’s a special person. You look at the family and the makeup there. He’s one of these kids who was almost too good to be true.”
Between his time with the Toreros, stops at three minor-league affiliates and an MVP run through the Arizona Fall League, Bryant hit 46 homers and drove in 111 runs in 118 games last year. That whirlwind experience is part of the reason why the Cubs won’t rush him to Des Moines, where Javier Baez has struggled to live up to expectations.
“For Bryant, this is his first pro season,” farm director Jaron Madison said. “He’s trying to figure out how to get through a full season of playing every day — not playing three or four times a week. He still has a lot of things he needs to work on approach-wise. Defensively, he’s working his butt off. Those guys understand that there’s still things they need to work on.”
General manager Jed Hoyer pointed to the way Bryant responded with a 15-game hitting streak after going 0-for-5 with five strikeouts in his debut at Class-A Boise last summer.
“He’s one of these guys that knows himself really well,” Lontayo said. “There were some early struggles. Just talking to him, there wasn’t any panic in his mind. He knew exactly what he was capable of doing and when he was going to come out of it. From that point forward, there were never any questions about what he was going to be able to do, because he’s pretty confident in his ability.”
Bryant got a $6.7 million bonus and signed an endorsement deal with adidas. He generates national headlines, creates Twitter buzz and drives Web traffic. All this makes it easy to forget he’s still only 22 years old and will have to go through the same ups and downs Baez is experiencing now.
“It’s a little different pitching up here than down in the Southern League,” Madison said. “But those guys understand that it’s going to take some time. They still have some things they need to work on.”