Good things are supposed to come to those who wait. Bryan LaHair is about to find out.
After a year of wall-to-wall production, the 29-year-old goes to Arizona penciled into the Cubs’ most historically stable of positions.
LaHair, signed to a minor league contract in 2010 after four seasons stuck in Triple-A with Seattle, is in line to supplant Carlos Pena with the responsibilities of a lefthanded-hitting run producer sandwiched between righthanded-hitting regulars Starlin Castro, Alfonso Soriano, Geovany Soto and Marlon Byrd.
“I have a soft spot for guys who hit everywhere they’ve ever been—hit, hit, hit and continue to hit,” said Theo Epstein, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations. “‘¦ (LaHair) is an asset. We’ll have to take a deeper look.”
LaHair has certainly earned the opportunity. His resume is stamped at the top “dues paid in full.”
After leading the Venezuelan League in home runs with 15 for Magallanes, LaHair can add another line to his resume: Baseball America’s 2012 Winter Player of the Year.
LaHair, who played high school basketball in Massachusetts for current Mets scout J.P. Ricciardi, has taken a long road. A Clemson recruit who wound up going the draft-and-follow route, he played at St. Petersburg (Fla.) JC and signed in 2003 as a 39th-round pick in 2002. He has played 970 minor league games, including 653 in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, where he’s put up a slash line of .297/.368/.528. His numbers surged the last couple of years.
LaHair led the minor leagues with 38 home runs in 2011, setting a franchise record for Iowa. He was more than just a guy who swung for the fences however, as he delivered an OPS of 1.070. He would have been in Chicago by August except then-general manager Jim Hendry declined to trade Pena. LaHair didn’t sulk, instead finishing off an MVP season in the PCL, and he was still hitting when he finally got to Wrigley in September.
In LaHair’s third game with the Cubs, he delivered a two-out home run off Cincinnati’s Mike Leake to tie a game in the ninth inning. He finished hitting .288 with eight extra-base hits in 59 at-bats, then signed on for more baseball over the winter, playing 47 games for Magallanes in Venezuela. He hit six homers in his first seven games there and finished with a league-high 15, including one of former Cubs teammate Carlos Zambrano.
LaHair had been scheduled to spend only about a month in Venezuela but the Navegantes convinced him to return for three more weeks in December after his fast start. He admitted the constant action left him “tired” but in many ways it was the season of his life.
The homers off Zambrano and Leake were among 55 that LaHair hit in 198 games for the year. It was enough to make Epstein realize he’d be foolish not to let this storyline carry over into 2012.
The Cubs haven’t developed a lefthanded hitter with power since they traded Rafael Palmeiro to Texas 23 years ago. Now they have two guys with a real chance, as the Epstein/Jed Hoyer management team also added 22-year-old first baseman Anthony Rizzo in a trade with the Padres. The first question to be answered is whether LaHair can build off 2011.
“The way we see it is Bryan had a terrific year last year in Triple-A and has been terrific this year in Venezuela,” said Hoyer, the Cubs’ general manager. “We see him as our first baseman. It’s likely Anthony will start the year in Triple-A.”
Some analysts minimize LaHair’s recent accomplishments because of his minor league experience. But Epstein looks at it differently, seeing a hitter that might have long ago established himself had he gotten a longer look by the Mariners or another big league club.
“There’s this myth about the 4-A hitter,” Epstein said. “Guys who perform all the way up the minor leagues, dominate Triple-A, get a cup of coffee, they hit a buck-fifty in the big leagues, and everybody labels them a 4-A hitter. The reality is, I’m not so sure there is something called a 4-A hitter. It’s just (a) pretty good major league hitter who never got an opportunity . . . If you hit the right way, outperform your competition consistently and dominate minor league baseball at every level, you’ll eventually hit at the big league level.”
With former manager Mike Quade continuing to play Pena into September, LaHair started 14 games in the outfield for the Cubs and just two at first base. But Epstein and Hoyer seem to see him as a full-time first baseman, not someone who can move between first and the outfield corners. That means that at some point within the next couple of years, possibly as soon as this summer, they’ll have to choose between LaHair and Rizzo, who batted .331/.404/.652 with 26 homers in 93 games for Triple-A Tucson.
For the moment, the Cubs are enjoying having them both. Hoyer said he feels the Cubs have the two hitters who were the best in the minors last season.
Epstein is always on the lookout for undervalued players, and the only way he’ll know LaHair’s real value is to let him play.
“Look, we’re looking for assets,” Epstein said. “We’re going to scratch and claw and do everything in our power—in the draft, internationally, small trades, waiver claims. We need to build assets because we don’t have enough of them. We’re not going to look past one that might be sitting right there in our organization.”
Dominican Wins Series
Escogido of the host Dominican Republic won the Caribbean Series, going 4-2 to edge Puerto Rico and Venezuela (3-3 each) and Mexico (2-4) in the round robin tournament.
Righgthander Lorenzo Barcelo (who pitched in the Mexican League in 2011) and Blue Jays righthander Jerry Gil each threw five shutout innings in their starts for the Dominican squad, while free agent infielder Pablo Ozuna led the Dominican hitters by going 8-for-18 with a .421/.476/.421 batting line.
Escogido won the first four games of the Caribbean Series to quickly clinch the crown. The Caribbean Series championship is the second title in three years for Escogido.
Tigers outfielder Andy Dirks was a standout for Escogido in the clutch, coming through with the game-winning hit in the final game of the Dominican League playoffs to send Escogido to the Caribbean Series.
Next year’s series is scheduled for Hermosillo, Mexico, and Caribbean Series officials were pushing to have Cuba participate for the first time since 1960.
— BEN BADLER