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Chicago’s Hope

In Baseball, Long form on June 27, 2012 at 10:26 pm

Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair spent a career in the minor leagues before becoming a starter. He hasn’t disappointed.

Teams have gotten better at identifying talent and predicting success in prospects, but the baseball draft remains a nebulous institution. Each year, there are a few can’t-miss prospects, guys with talent, maybe even a diamond in the rough. But, for better or for worse, most players selected in the baseball draft are just warm bodies. As a player falls deeper and deeper in the draft, expectations for his career potential fall accordingly. The Seattle Mariners selected Bryan LaHair from St. Petersburg College in the 39th round of the 2002 draft. According to 30 major league teams, 1,179 players had a better chance of becoming big league players than did Bryan LaHair.

LaHair made his professional debut the next year when the Mariners assigned him to the Everett AquaSox of the A- Northwest League. It wasn’t anywhere near “the show,” but LaHair was 20, and 20-year-olds don’t make it to the show unless they hit like Griffey or throw triple digit heat. So he stayed in the A leagues, advancing from A- to A to A+,  gaining the “seasoning” that big league clubs like to see in their minor league prospects. By 2005, LaHair was making better contact with the ball — he hit over .300 that year with Seattle’s San Bernardino affiliate — but he was still a free swinger (he also struck out 125 times). His 22 home runs were evidence of some power. It wasn’t an impressive resume, but it was enough for a promotion to AA ball.

At 23, LaHair was right on schedule. Some guys were good enough at 23 to be in the majors — by the time he was 23, Alex Rodriguez had been in the majors for five years. But most players weren’t Alex Rodriguez. Most players had to put in their time in the minors, a kind of penance to the baseball gods — or the front office — before the promised land of the majors became theirs. Of course, not everyone made it there — just ask Brien Taylor. It was difficult for non-blue chip prospects to make it to the majors. David Eckstein had been a 19th-round draft pick. Mike Piazza wasn’t picked until the 62nd round. It wasn’t impossible, just damned difficult.

The New York Times crunched some numbers to determine a rookie ballplayer’s average age upon his debut, ultimately arriving at 24.4. By that figure, LaHair still had a year and a half to crack the big leagues. He was 23 in AA, hitting close to .300, and he had cut down on his strikeout rate. A call-up to AAA Tacoma seemed fairly certain, and at AAA, anything could happen. AAA ball is the vice-president of baseball — it’s just a heartbeat away from the big job. One freak injury, one bad start, one errant throw, and a AAA player could find himself on a plane to New York or Boston or Chicago with a fresh jersey waiting for him. LaHair was promoted to the AAA squad in June 2006. Now all he had to do was wait.

And wait. And wait. And wait. LaHair spent three seasons in Tacoma, gaining his seasoning and putting in his time. He was 25 now, half a year older than the average rookie. His batting average started to drop a little, and he started striking out again. Thankfully for LaHair, he didn’t strike out as much as Richie Sexson. Sexson was Seattle’s first baseman, and he liked to swing. He swung at fastballs. He swung at curveballs. He swung at stuff up at his eyes and at stuff in the dirt. Through the first 74 games of the 2008 season, Sexson struck out 76 times. The Mariners decided that a strikeout per game from an aging slugger wouldn’t help the team, but Sexson’s pink slip was LaHair big break.

LaHair played in the majors for one week. The Mariners were unimpressed with his performance and decided to try their luck with another young infielder named Tug Hulett. LaHair made it back to Seattle in September when the major league rosters expanded. But he never found the swing that hit .332 in 2007, and he never rediscovered the power that clubbed 22 home runs in 2005. In 45 games, he hit .250 and struck out 40 times. The Mariners missed the playoffs that year, and LaHair went back to AAA. More seasoning.

For some players, AAA becomes baseball purgatory. You’ve demonstrated your skill as a ballplayer, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. You’re so close to the majors — it’s the next step up — and you never know when that freak injury may occur. ButWe really like what we see in (insert superior prospect’s name). We’ll call you if we need you

LaHair spent all of 2009 in Tacoma. In the offseason, he signed a minor league contract with the Chicago Cubs, and he was assigned to AAA Iowa. He also started to hit home runs again: 26 in 2009 with Tacoma, 25 in 2010 with Iowa and 38 in 2011. At the age of 28 and after 9 seasons in the minors, LaHair made the minor league all-star team. Crash Davis was a fictional character, but LaHair was starting to look a lot like him in the flesh.

The Cubs promoted LaHair in September 2011. He was more successful this time, hitting .288 and compiling an OPS+ of 140. It was good enough for an invitation to Chicago’s 2012 spring training. LaHair had played this game before: receive invitation to spring training, work your ass off, and get demoted. Why would this year be any different? Especially when he had to compete with super-prospect Anthony Rizzo for time at first base. Near the end of spring training, the Cubs’s new manager, Dale Sveum made an announcement — Anthony Rizzo would start the season at AAA Iowa. He needed more seasoning before making the big league club; he was only 22, so he’d have his chance. LaHair would be Chicago’s starting first baseman.

He hasn’t disappointed. Through 64 games, LaHair is hitting .281 with 13 home runs. He’s compiled an OPS+ of 142. He has more home runs than Albert Pujols and more hits than Justin Morneau. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in American lives. Baseball is willing to make an exception.


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