DURHAM, N.C.’"The scoreboard at Durham Bulls Athletic Park displayed the temperature on an August afternoon: 98. But with the oppressive humidity of a North Carolina summer, it felt like well over 100.
There were only a handful of Louisville players on the field for “optional BP,” but that didn’t matter to the Reds’ top prospect. Nothing about the game is optional to Jay Bruce.
|1981||Mike Marshall, 1b, Albuquerque (Dodgers)|
|1982||Ron Kittle, of, Edmonton (White Sox|
|1983||Dwight Gooden, rhp, Lynchburg (Mets)|
|1984||Mike Bielecki, rhp, Hawaii (Pirates)|
|1985||Jose Canseco, of, Huntsville/Tacoma (Athletics)|
|1986||Gregg Jefferies, ss, Columbia/Lynchburg/Jackson (Mets)|
|1987||Gregg Jefferies, ss, Jackson/Tidewater (Mets)|
|1988||Tom Gordon, rhp, Appleton/Memphis/Omaha (Royals)|
|1989||Sandy Alomar, c, Las Vegas (Padres)|
|1990||Frank Thomas, 1b, Birmingham (White Sox)|
|1991||Derek Bell, of, Syracuse (Blue Jays)|
|1992||Tim Salmon, of, Edmonton (Angels)|
|1993||Manny Ramirez, of, Canton/Charlotte (Indians)|
|1994||Derek Jeter, ss, Tampa/Albany/Columbus (Yankees)|
|1995||Andruw Jones, of, Macon (Braves)|
|1996||Andruw Jones, of, Durham/Greenville/Richmond (Braves)|
|1997||Paul Konerko, 1b, Albuquerque (Dodgers)|
|1998||Eric Chavez, 3b, Huntsville/Edmonton (Athletics)|
|1999||Rick Ankiel, lhp, Arkansas/Memphis (Cardinals)|
|2000||Jon Rauch, rhp, Winston-Salem/Birmingham (White Sox)|
|2001||Josh Beckett, rhp, Brevard County/Portland (Marlins)|
|2002||Rocco Baldelli, of, Bakersfield/Orlando/Durham (Devil Rays)|
|2003||Joe Mauer, c, Fort Myers/New Britain (Twins)|
|2004||Jeff Francis, lhp, Tulsa/Colorado Springs (Rockies)|
|2005||Delmon Young, of, Montgomery/Durham (Devil Rays)|
|2006||Alex Gordon, 3b, Wichita (Royals)|
“I don’t care what it is, if I can learn something and it makes me a better player, I’m there,” says the 20-year-old outfielder. “I don’t care if it’s a thousand degrees outside. I’m going to get better with more experience.
“I’m not a guy to blow off early work no matter what level I’m at. I could be a first-rounder or an undrafted free agent’"I’m going to play the game the same way.”
No one in the Reds organization would ask Bruce to change a thing about the way he plays the game. The 2005 first-round pick not only has as much talent as any prospect, but he also brings leadership skills that set him apart.
“That’s the one thing about him everyone says,” Reds farm director Terry Reynolds says. “He’s a great leader. He’s a fun player to watch because of his skills, but he’s a fun player to be around off the field as well.
“There isn’t too much to do until he’s the complete package, but the complete person is already there. It’s been pre-assembled. He had that when he got here.”
Indeed, Bruce has done nothing but perform since the Reds took him 12th overall out of Westbrook (Texas) High in the 2005 draft. So while the 2007 season presented plenty of strong candidates, Bruce turned out to be an easy choice for Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year.
“You just can’t say enough good things about Jay Bruce,” Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky says. “We’re thrilled that Baseball America would honor him with such a prestigious award. It’s an honor, not only for Jay, but for the entire Reds organization as we move forward.”
When and where that move forward for Bruce will come is uncertain. The 20-year-old outfielder started the year at high Class A Sarasota, hitting .325/.379/.586 with 11 homers and 49 RBIs in 286 at-bats before being promoted to Double-A Chattanooga.
Bruce spent just 16 games with the Lookouts’"going 22-for-66 with four home runs and seven doubles’"before moving on again to Triple-A Louisville. He was told by Reynolds to take that promotion in stride: Outfielder Dewayne Wise had gone on the disabled list with a leg injury, and Bruce was expected to remain with the Bats for just a few weeks.
“That was the plan the whole time,” Reynolds says. “We called him up as a matter of circumstance and a matter of need at the time. Dewayne’s injury lingered and Jay got the chance to prove himself.”
And prove himself Bruce did. In 187 at-bats, the 6-foot-2 lefthanded hitter performed against much more advanced pitching at a .305/.358/.567 clip and stuck himself in the middle of Louisville’s lineup.
“I definitely expected to be in Double-A the rest of the year,” Bruce says. “My goal at the beginning of the year was to make it to Chattanooga’"make it up to Double-A and finish the season there. I was kind of just getting settled in there when they decided to promote me, for what was supposed to be a short time. Here we are at the end of the year and I’m still in Triple-A.”
Krivsky made a visit to Louisville near the end of the regular season, in part to tell Bruce he wasn’t in the organization’s plans for a September callup, but raved about his ability and makeup’"calling both “off the charts.” But at the same time, the Reds GM said it was premature to think Bruce would debut in Cincinnati as a 21-year-old next season.
“He’s got a nice package of skills and ability to go along with that makeup,” Krivsky says. “He’s 20 years old and having success in Triple-A. We’re certainly pleased with what he’s done this year and extremely excited to have him in our organization. But for as much talent as he has, his family deserves all the credit for the quality person he is. Something like that cannot be quantified.”
Always Trying To Catch Up
Growing up, Bruce thought everyone was better than him.
Playing Little League baseball and then high school ball in Beaumont, mostly at first base, the native Texan had to gravitate to where the big players were.
And that led him to Houston, a little over an hour trip southwest from the town he grew up in. Soon, Bruce was playing on the same team as Marlins lefthander and 2005 first-rounder Aaron Thompson, and against Red Sox 2005 supplemental first-rounder Clay Buchholz on a team coached by former big leaguer Doug Drabek.
“Since he was 12, he always doubted himself,” says Bruce’s mother Martha. “He just always thought everyone was better than him. Once we got down to Houston and he started showing what he could do, that’s when I think he started to believe a little more.”
Bruce grew up in a blue-collar home. His father Joe was a master plumber, while Martha taught at Amelia Elementary School. The youngest of three children, Bruce was forced to hit the pavement to ask for donations to help send him to tournaments all over the country, because his parents didn’t have the money to do it on their own.
“I still say Jay was spoiled,” Martha says, “and I say that because Jay got what he needed. It might not be what he wanted, but he got everything he needed. We couldn’t afford a lot of things, but he went out there and got the money from sponsors to go to a lot of different tournaments. Our community had as much to do with his future success. Without them, Jay wouldn’t be where he is.
“We just really taught all our children the values of how to treat people: You treat them the way you’d want to be treated. I remember early on when he was playing’"he had to be maybe 13 or 14 and the other kids were all talking about themselves. I told him, ‘Don’t ever talk about yourself. When you start bragging about what you’ve done, then you’re no good’"as a person or as a teammate.’ “
Bruce has carried those words everywhere he goes, and rewarded his parents’ sacrifice on draft day when he signed for $1.8 million with the Reds. He bought his parents a house, helped his older sister Amy out with some money to put a down payment on a house before finally rewarding himself with a BMW 750’"the first car he’d ever owned.
“Everybody always asks me why I’m still working,” Martha says. “I’m like, ‘Are you serious?’ Jay helped us out’"he thought of all of us before himself and he understood our sacrifices as he was growing up’"but Joe and I still live paycheck to paycheck. It’s a simple life, but we couldn’t be happier.”
Bruce is close to his entire family, but one connection that remains closest to him is with his sister Kellan. The middle child in the Bruce family, Kellan is mentally handicapped’"the Bruces all refer to her as “special”‘"and she’s her little brother’s biggest fan. Kellan has also played a major role in keeping the young phenom grounded, regardless of what successes or failures come his way.
“She definitely keeps you down to earth, keeps you level-headed and doesn’t allow you to take anything for granted,” Bruce says. “Having the chance to do what I’m able to do and having her around really impacts me every day.
“We’re just like every other brother and sister’"we fight and argue; she used to beat me up when I was little and stuff, but there’s just something about her. She’s so easily entertained, happy all the time and has no worries. The littlest things keep her satisfied, and that makes you think. She’s only able to do a small amount of stuff and I have the chance to see the world and play this game. I just look up to her so much. You can’t get caught up in things that really don’t matter.”
The Reds Big Hope
The things that matter now are Bruce’s tools, and he’s quietly improving as a member of the vaunted 2005 high school outfield draft class that could end up ranking among the best ever.
Bruce is a five-tool player’"though he tends to disagree with that’"but compared to Arizona’s Justin Upton and Tigers outfielder Cameron Maybin, both of whom made their major league debuts this year and are close friends of Bruce, he shies away from the spotlight.
“If there are two guys that deserve it, it’s them,” Bruce says. “I respect them as people, I respect them as players . . . Those are probably the most talented players I’ve ever stepped on a field with.
“As for me, I have some talent. God blessed me with the ability to do what I do. People can take that in a lot of different ways. I think that gets away from a lot of guys. A lot of guys who don’t make it are plenty talented, they just don’t know how to play the game the right way and they don’t value things, not only in the game, but in life. For me, it’s big. I have the ability to do some things that a lot of people don’t, so I’m going to work to do those to the best of my ability and use every ounce of talent that I can.”
The talent and the person Jay Bruce is has put him on the verge of the big leagues. Still, like any other player his age in Triple-A, Bruce still has things to work on.
He improved significantly facing lefthanders this year after hitting just .236 with three of his 16 home runs coming against lefties. In 2007’"and at three separate levels’"Bruce batted .298 at Sarasota, .286 at Chattanooga and .298 at Louisville against lefthanders.
“That’s one of the things that’s kept my average up this year, and the way I hit off them last year is just not even worth talking about,” Bruce says. “In order to be an impact player or whatever people want to call me, I have to be a well-rounded player. I just can’t be good against righthanders. I need to be able to do the same things at the plate regardless of who’s on the mound at any given time.”
Scouts compare Bruce to a young Larry Walker, but in order to live up to those comparisons, he’s going to have to cut down on his strikeouts’"he whiffed 106 times in the Midwest League last year and had 134 this season.
“I think he’s a 20-year-old in Triple-A trying to stay afloat,” Reynolds says. “He’s made quick adjustments just to be able to put the bat on the ball, but hasn’t had the time to work out those refinements to make him a much more dangerous hitter. As he’s settled in, he works counts better. For a hitter with developing power, we’ll live with the strikeouts. He’s not a 200 per year strikeout guy by any stretch of the imagination.
“Jay’s had to learn on the fly in a lot of new challenges this season, and last year was his first full year. I think you’ll see the strikeouts go down as he expands his comfort zone.”
The other area of growth needs to come on the basepaths. Bruce swiped 19 bags last year at Dayton, but had just eight this year in 15 attempts.
“I don’t want to get thrown out’"honestly, that’s what it is,” he says. “And that’s not the way to go about it. In order to learn and get better at stealing bases, you have to run. And you can’t be scared of getting thrown out or scared of not making it. That’s been a big thing this year.
“There was a point where I stole four bases in three games and I thought I had it. People talk about me being a five-tool player, but that’s a part of the game where I haven’t come close to even being average at yet.”
Bruce was known as a “manchild” in his first full year at Dayton, where he often served as the designated driver for his older teammates when they went out to blow off some steam. He was referred to by the same moniker by Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell after taking Curt Schilling deep to the opposite field in spring training.
Just don’t tell him that.
“I’m just so excited about the future of the organization,” Bruce says. “For all the Reds fans, be patient. The ability we have here in the minor leagues is going to be up there eventually. And the Reds are talented, it’s not that they’re a bad team. We have a lot of guys down here who can contribute in the big leagues and we’re going to make some noise up there soon.”
And that includes Baseball America’s 2007 Minor League Player of the Year.