SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—Cubs third base prospect Kris Bryant topped off a whirlwind year that started in February with the University of San Diego by being named the Arizona Fall League's Joe Black Most Valuable Player for the 2013 season. Bryant batted .364/.457/.727 during the six-week fall season, leading all batters in home runs (6), slugging percentage (.727) and OPS (1.078). He is the first league MVP to earn the honors in his first professional season since the annual award was initiated in 2002.
Bryant's latest accolade comes just a few months after he was named BA's College Player of the Year and won the Golden Spikes Award. He also led all Division I hitters in home runs with 31 in his final season at San Diego.
After being picked by the Cubs with the second overall pick in the June 2013 draft, Bryant proceeded to hit a combined .336/.390/.688 over three levels, finishing the season by helping lead high Class A Daytona to the Florida State League championship.
In addition to reinforcing his reputation as one of minor league baseball's top hitting prospects, Bryant believes that he learned some valuable lessons in the Arizona Fall League.
"It's been a whole lot of fun," Bryant said just before the AFL championship game, which Mesa lost 2-0 to Surprise. "I'm getting to know some of these guys from different organizations and how they do their business . . . just learning from the older guys who have been around for a while. I'm going to take what I've learned here and head into the next season with a whole lot of confidence."
It certainly didn't take Bryant very long to get his feet wet in Arizona, with the 21-year-old righthanded hitter going 7-for-14 in his first three AFL games. While pitchers made adjustments to him during the season, Bryant never had more than one consecutive game in which he failed to record a hit. He reached base in all 20 games in which he appeared, hitting safely in 17 games.
"He started out hotter than a pistol," said Solar Sox manager Bill Richardson (Angels). "Pitchers made adjustments and then he countered with his adjustments . . . The adjustments he made were very impressive for a first-year professional." Richardson added that Bryant worked extensively with Mesa hitting coach Troy Gingrich throughout the fall season to work on his swing and improve his approach at the plate.
Going through the college season and then four levels of professional baseball in less than a calendar year, Bryant saw a steady improvement in the types of pitching that he faced.
"Every level you go up, the pitching's a little better," Bryant said. "In college, pitchers were good, but going into pro ball their fastballs are a little harder, their breaking stuff is a little sharper, and they command their pitchers a little better. It's just about going up there, getting used to how they're pitching you, trying to figure out how their pitches break, and how their fastball moves. I think I've been doing a pretty good job of that—just making adjustments going up to each level."
All eyes will be on Bryant next season as he moves up to the Double-A level in the Cubs organization, if not coming out of spring training then very likely at some point in the 2014 season. The grind of the long 9 1/2 months since his college season started has helped to prepare Bryant for the next step in his career.
"This was probably his fourth season in one year," Richardson said about Bryant's AFL experience. "He was a little fatigued, but he played hard and never let on that he had fatigue."
Bryant had his ways of keeping fresh throughout the year.
"In terms of the body, it's just going out here every day and taking ground balls and throwing, taking BP, and all that," Bryant said. "It really helped me keep my body in shape. In terms of the mental side, just not really taking the game too seriously, just having some time off the field. When you're off the field, just taking your mind off of baseball and not thinking about it. I've done that for the 9 1/2 months that I've been going, and I'm very pleased with my results so far."
Bryant will now get a few months to catch his breath before reporting in February for his first professional spring training. The Cubs are moving into a brand-new, state-of-the-art training facility in Mesa next spring. Despite playing just a few miles away from the new facility during the fall, Bryant has yet to get the grand tour of his future spring digs.
"I've only driven by it," Bryant said. "It looks awesome and I'm very excited to get in there and see what it's about."
That's how Cubs fans feel about Kris Bryant.
• While Bryant led the league in homers, slugging and OPS, his Mesa teammate C.J. Cron (Angels) was the AFL's top hitter with a .413 batting average. Surprise outfielder Mitch Haniger (Brewers) paced all batters with 24 RBIs and Salt River outfielder Kenny Wilson (Blue Jays) was tops in stolen bases with 12. Scottsdale catcher Andrew Susac (Giants) recorded the best OBP at .507.
• Lefthander Sammy Solis (Nationals), a Phoenix area product who attended Agua Fria High before pitching collegiately at San Diego, led all pitchers with five wins and 29 strikeouts. Peoria righthander Dominic Leone (Mariners), one of the AFL's surprise pop-up prospects this fall, led all relievers with six saves. Scottsdale bullpen ace Derek Law (Giants) was the only pitcher with 12 innings or more to not allow an earned run.
• Surprise Saguaros third baseman Garin Cecchini (Red Sox) was presented with the AFL's Dernell Stenson Sportsmanship Award prior to the recent championship game. The award, named in memory of the former AFL player who was tragically murdered in 2003 while a member of the Scottsdale Scorpions, has been given annually since 2004 to the league’s player who best exemplifies unselfishness, hard work and leadership.