MESA, Ariz. – Kris Bryant has an unassuming personality and so much power that it almost looks effortless.
The buzz around Bryant and Javier Baez has been so intoxicating that you can push off questions for another day. Like: How is this team going to score any runs?
Cubs fans still feeling burned by Felix Pie and generations of lost prospects should be skeptical. But it’s definitely been fun to watch.
“They should be excited,” Eric Hinske said. “They’re good players and they’re coming.”
The new first-base coach isn’t just drinking the Kool-Aid. Hinske won World Series rings with the 2007 Boston Red Sox and 2009 New York Yankees. He helped the Tampa Bay Rays go worst-to-first and win the 2008 American League pennant. He saw a player-development machine running with the Atlanta Braves (2010-2012).
“They’re mature,” Hinske said. “They’re above their years. They have a presence about them when they go out on the field that you can feel. When they get in the box, everybody watches.
“They’re those guys. When they get in the box, you stop doing what you’re doing and watch them hit. It’s still a tough game and they still got to realize that they got to work. (But) they are (working), which is cool. They’re on their way, that’s for sure.”
Rick Renteria heard about the legend of Bryant last year, seeing all the coverage in the local newspaper as the San Diego Padres bench coach. Bryant led the nation with 31 homers at the University of San Diego, put up nine more in 36 games at three different minor-league affiliates and then hit six more bombs as the Arizona Fall League’s MVP.
“We know that he’s got that type of pop,” Renteria said. “His hands work extremely well. So it’s nice to see him having some success here in the spring. He’s a very confident kid.”
A likely scenario is the Cubs manager won’t see Bryant at Wrigley Field until 2015, and that brick wall can sneak up on you fast.
Ryan Raburn didn’t stop running until he crashed face-first into the right-field wall on Friday afternoon at Cubs Park. The Cleveland Indians outfielder told The Plain Dealer: “It was one of those low liners that just kept going on me.” Bryant’s missile shot carried over the fence and onto the berm for a two-run homer off Carlos Carrasco.
“That was a tough pitch he hit,” Renteria said. “It was down and away. It might have been off the plate a little bit. It just looks like (Bryant) handled that ball. Extremely strong man. That was a well-driven ball. It’s like a left-hander hit it.”
Baez – the 21-year-old shortstop who generated 37 homers and 111 RBI in the minors last season – should start playing at second base and third base this month. Renteria compared Bryant, 22, to a young Troy Glaus and thinks his 6-foot-5, 215-pound frame can work at third base.
“I know the argument is that a tall person has a tougher time getting down,” Renteria said. “But his feet move well. He’s working really hard. Time will tell, (but) he’s doing very well over there right now, handling both sides of the diamond, backhand/forearm side, very well.”
First-round picks Bryant and Baez have combined to hit four homers in 23 Cactus League at-bats. But it’s almost impossible to envision scenarios where they don’t begin their respective seasons at Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa.
It would have been unrealistic to bank on another 30-homer, 100-RBI season from Alfonso Soriano at age 38, but the Cubs will have to replace the $136 million man’s production and presence. They scored 602 runs last year, which ranked 14th out of the National League’s 15 teams, and didn’t add any big-ticket items this winter.
So the Cubs are counting on bounce-back seasons from Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo. They are hoping for a few surprises from this grab bag of prospects (Mike Olt) and non-roster guys (Emilio Bonifacio). They will go mix-and-match in the outfield with Nate Schierholtz, Ryan Sweeney, Junior Lake and Justin Ruggiano.
If you think the buzz is loud now, just wait until this summer.
“When guys show they’re ready, come up here and let them develop,” Rizzo said. “You want to make sure that they’re ready and get their amount of at-bats. But if they’ve shown that they’ve handled every level, the biggest learning period/process is up here. That’s where you learn the most.
“Adding that third deck to the stadium is huge. You can’t prepare for that until you’re in the big leagues.”