It’s not always going to be this smooth for Kris Bryant. But the 21-year-old slugger hasn’t missed a beat since the Cubs selected him No. 2 overall in the June draft.
The accolades are starting to pile up for Bryant, who earned the Joe Black MVP Award in the Arizona Fall League. The third baseman also led his team, the Mesa Solar Sox, to the championship game in what’s considered the top showcase for the game’s best prospects.
This came after a record-setting season at the University of San Diego, where he led the country with 31 homers. And after helping advanced Class-A Daytona win a Florida State League title in September.
"I've been impressed by his performance so far. It's hard not to be," Cubs president Theo Epstein said recently. "You have to remember, this was a very advanced college bat who put up historically good power production at the college level.
"Traditionally, if someone's going to come out of the draft and dominate, it's that type of player — the elite position player chosen up high in the draft who's far outperformed his competition in college.
"Now that said, you don't expect it. We aggressively pushed him to high-A and he answered the call. (And) more importantly, helped lead the team to a championship. He fit in great with his teammates and handled the defensive side really well."
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Epstein compared Bryant to Tampa Bay Rays star Evan Longoria, the No. 3 pick in the 2006 draft who was also pushed to the AFL after his first professional half-season and dominated at every stop before becoming a perennial MVP candidate in the big leagues.
The Cubs started Bryant out in rookie ball in Arizona before a brief stop with short-season Boise, where he hit .354 with an eye-popping 1.108 OPS in 18 games. He bypassed Class-A Kane County and shot straight to Daytona, where he put up a 1.106 OPS in 16 games during a playoff race.
The 6-foot-5 Bryant dwarfed the AFL competition, leading the league in slugging percentage (.727), homers (6) and OPS (1.184) while also tying for the lead in runs (22), total bases (56) and extra-base hits (15) in 20 games.
"Very impressed by what he's doing," Epstein said. "Little bit surprised by the consistency of his elite production this early in his career.
"But also understand he has a long way to go. There are developmental issues for him and parts of his player plan that need to be worked on, just as there are for everybody else in the system. I look forward to him getting better over the course of the next minor-league season."
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With a big-league club that has lost 197 games the last two seasons, Cubs fans have shifted their focus to elite prospects like Bryant, Albert Almora and Javier Baez.
Bryant may be on the fast track to the big leagues, but Epstein and the front office won't rush him. He won't be stationed at third base and hitting cleanup for the Chicago Cubs on Opening Day.
So when can Cubs fans hope to see Bryant peppering the Wrigley Field bleachers with baseballs? There is no set timetable.
"Ultimately, a player's performance dictates his track," Epstein said. "Every player has a development plan. It's our job to make sure we identify strengths and weaknesses and work on those weaknesses so there are no major holes when he gets to the big-league level.
"That's part of the criteria for advancement. One thing we tell our players: 'If you want to move up, dominate your competition. Perform. Ultimately, it comes down to performance. You need to work on your player plan. You need to work on your weaknesses. You need to be a good teammate. But the single most important factor is performance. Dominate.'
"We'll see what our guys do when they go out there. If you are dominating your level over a significant period of time, you will advance in the system."
The Cubs still need to see Bryant mash at Double-A Tennessee and refine his game at Triple-A Iowa. There will be service-time considerations before a promotion to Wrigley Field.
Whether that happens in 2014 remains to be seen. But however you look at it, Bryant Watch has officially begun.