2014 Minor League Player Of The Year: Kris Bryant

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See Also: For Cubs, One Position Doesn’t Fit All

Time after time, Cubs front-office officials believed they finally cracked the code on challenging Kris Bryant, only to see him step in the box, hit a few home runs and respond, "Is that all you've got?"

It started not long after Bryant, the 2013 College Player of the Year, signed last July for just more than $6.7 million. He went 0-for-3 with three errors in his pro debut, in the Rookie-level Arizona League, and had a brutal 0-for-5, five-strikeouts opener with short-season Boise two games later. He quickly took off thereafter, and the Cubs sent him to high Class A Daytona to try to help the club in a playoff push.

Chicago's front office thought Daytona would be a steep test for a hitter just weeks into his pro career. Bryant hit .333 with five home runs and a .719 slugging percentage in 16 games, then went 7-for-20 in the Florida State League playoffs to help lead the team to a championship.

OK, so the Cubs decided to raise the bar. They sent him to the Arizona Fall League, a very aggressive assignment for a first-year pro, especially one who would likely be worn out by playing baseball in October and November after beginning his college season in February. Bryant hit .364/.457/.727 with an AFL-leading six homers and was the league MVP.

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 Jr., 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)
2007 Jay Bruce, of, Sarasota/Chattanooga/Louisville (Reds)
2008 Matt Wieters, c, Frederick/Bowie (Orioles)
2009 Jason Heyward, of, Myrtle Beach/Mississippi/Gwinnett (Braves)
2010 Jeremy Hellickson, rhp, Durham/Charlotte (Rays)
2011 Mike Trout, of, Arkansas (Angels)
2012 Wil Myers, of, Northwest Arkansas/Omaha (Royals)
2013 Byron Buxton, of, Cedar Rapids/Fort Myers (Twins)

Not tough enough? The Cubs had debated sending Bryant back to Daytona to start the season this year, but ended up pushing him to Double-A Tennessee when spring training wrapped up.

It didn't stretch Bryant. He was leading the Southern League in most offensive categories in June, forcing a mid-season promotion to Triple-A. Bryant has yet to find the level that challenges him; he's been the best around wherever he's played the last three years.

"He's exceeded our expectations at every level," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. "At three different junctures we felt we were pushing him into struggles."

There's little doubt Bryant was the best player in the minors this year. In his first full pro season, Bryant led the minors with 43 home runs, 78 extra-base hits, a .661 slugging percentage and a 1.098 OPS. He wasn't just a swing-for-the fences slugger, as Bryant posted his gaudy home run numbers while hitting a robust .325 and posting the minor's second-best on-base percentage (.438).

Bryant's exceptional season made him an easy choice as Baseball America's 2014 Minor League Player of the Year. He joins Alex Gordon as the second player ever to win the College and the Minor League POY awards in consecutive years.

Light Tower Power Under The Lights

Bryant's 43 home runs are the second-most ever for a Minor League Player of the Year, topped only by Ron Kittle's 50 home runs in 1983. Last year, Bryant's 31 home runs with the NCAA's BBCOR bats not only lead Division I by double-digits, it was more than most teams hit.

But even with power evaporating from the game, it's Bryant's hitting approach that is more notable. It's hard to find a power hitter who can hit 25-30 home runs consistently. But a slugger who can hit for power and hit for average? That's limited to the best players in the game.

At the Futures Game in Minneapolis this July, Javier Baez reached the upper deck in left field during batting practice. Joey Gallo hit a ball that shattered a windshield and another that almost bounced out of the ballpark. Kennys Vargas, Hunter Renfroe, Jorge Alfaro and Michael Taylor all impressed with second-deck shots.

"When you see those guys Gallo and Baez hitting cars, I'm sure there is a temptation to let it out," Hoyer said.

Bryant hit some nice line drives to the right-field power alley. His batting practice was studious, it was professional and it was completely unmemorable.

Bryant doesn't care.

A look at the hitting stats for the position players who have won Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year award.
1981 Mike Marshall Dodgers 21 467 114 174 34 137 21 .373 .445 .675 1.120
1982 Ron Kittle White Sox 24 472 121 163 50 144 5 .345 .442 .752 1.194
1985 José Canseco A’s 20 444 88 148 36 127 11 .333 .424 .649 1.073
1986 Gregg Jefferies Mets 18 521 96 184 16 111 57 .353 .401 .549 .950
1987 Gregg Jefferies Mets 19 510 81 187 20 101 26 .367 .423 .598 1.021
1989 Sandy Alomar, Jr. Padres 23 523 88 160 13 101 3 .306 .358 .474 .832
1990 Frank Thomas White Sox 22 353 85 114 18 71 7 .323 .487 .581 1.068
1991 Derek Bell Blue Jays 22 457 89 158 13 93 27 .346 .424 .532 .956
1992 Tim Salmon Angels 23 409 101 142 29 105 9 .347 .469 .672 1.141
1993 Manny Ramirez Indians 21 489 105 163 31 115 3 .333 .417 .613 1.031
1994 Derek Jeter Yankees 20 540 103 186 5 68 50 .344 .410 .463 .873
1995 Andruw Jones Braves 18 537 104 149 25 100 56 .277 .372 .512 .884
1996 Andruw Jones Braves 19 445 115 151 34 92 30 .339 .421 .652 1.072
1997 Paul Konerko Dodgers 21 483 97 156 37 127 2 .323 .407 .621 1.028
1998 Eric Chavez A’s 20 529 104 173 33 126 14 .327 .388 .603 .991
2002 Rocco Baldelli Rays 20 478 86 158 19 71 26 .331 .370 .521 .891
2003 Joe Mauer Twins 20 509 73 172 5 85 3 .338 .398 .434 .832
2005 Delmon Young Rays 19 558 92 176 26 99 32 .315 .354 .527 .881
2006 Alex Gordon Royals 22 486 111 158 29 101 22 .325 .427 .588 1.016
2007 Jay Bruce Reds 20 521 87 166 26 89 8 .319 .375 .587 .962
2008 Matt Wieters Orioles 22 437 89 155 27 91 2 .355 .454 .600 1.053
2009 Jason Heyward Braves 19 362 69 117 17 63 10 .323 .408 .555 .963
2011 Mike Trout Angels 19 353 82 115 11 38 33 .326 .414 .544 .958
2012 Wil Myers Royals 21 522 98 164 37 109 6 .314 .387 .600 .987
2013 Byron Buxton Twins 19 488 109 163 12 77 55 .334 .424 .520 .944
2014 Kris Bryant Cubs 22 492 118 160 43 110 15 .325 .438 .661 1.098

"It's kind of tempting to launch some balls to the upper deck, but you can create some bad habits," Bryant said. "I'm big on having a routine and sticking to it. Just because it's an all-star game doesn't mean I should go away from my routine. My routine has gotten me to that type of game."

It's in there. When Bryant turns on a pitch, he can hit a ball as far as almost anyone in the game. But you're almost never going to see it if there's not a real pitcher on the mound trying to get him out.

When Bryant came to Wrigley Field for the post-draft meet and greet, Cubs senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod felt it necessary to warn his bosses that his pre-game batting practice might not be as impressive as they would expect.

"I saw him hit in the cage in college, but I had never seen him in batting practice," Hoyer said. "Jason said, 'Don't expect a big show. That's not what he does.' I'm glad he said that."

Fly balls didn't land on Waveland Avenue. There were no mammoth moonshots that left jaws dropped. Just a professional batting practice with lots of line drives to the opposite field gap.

Bryant will never be accused of being a five o'clock hitter, a disparaging term scouts toss around for hitters who put on shows in BP but melt away meekly when games start at 7.

Bryant's father Mike drilled Kris to be a hitter first. The power's important, but it can be saved for games. In batting practice work on getting the timing down that will pay off in the extra single a slugger may miss.

"The biggest thing with Kris is, he competes every pitch," Cubs hitting coordinator Anthony Iapoce said. "He doesn't waste pitches. He's a grinder. He's mentally exhausted after each game. It's a mental at-bat every time."

The Hit Tool

A plot of Bryant's home runs looks like the spray from a sprinkler. They range from the foul pole in left field to the one in right. There's not a lot of gaps left in between. The same disciplined approach Bryant uses in batting practice pays off in games; he is quite comfortable lining balls the other way.

"Pull power will translate into lower averages and home runs," Iowa hitting coach Brian Harper said. "The thing about Kris is he has more power the other way. He doesn't get into pull mode. That's the destruction of many young power hitters."

Kris Bryant (Photo by John Williamson)

Kris Bryant has power from line to line, evaluators say. (Photo by John Williamson)

Iapoce says he's coached one other hitter with a similar combination of power, hitting ability and a grinder's mentality—Giancarlo Stanton.

"You don't see a guy like Bryant and Stanton do what they do in the minor leagues," Iapoce said. "They pride themselves on being tough outs. When you pride yourself on being a tough out and you're big and strong, it's like hitting on a half field. Kris's line drives go off the fence. Mishits can leave the yard."

Bryant combines that all-fields strategy with a heady approach at the plate. As a 6-foot-5 hitter with long arms, Bryant is going to have holes in his plate coverage. But those holes don't stay static. Get him out one way and a pitcher is wise to not try the same thing again.

"You're going to get him out, but he's going to make an adjustment," Iapoce said. "If it's down and away or hard in or a first-pitch breaking ball, you've got to move it around."

Harper, a .295 career big league hitter in his own career, added, "When you get the big leagues, they'll try all different kinds of ways to get you out. Those who make quick adjustments will survive. Kris does that."

In 2014, Bryant's never went hitless in three straight games. He failed to reach base in only 14 of the 138 games he played.

A Big Third Baseman

Ever since Bryant signed, scouts and fans have questioned whether he'll stick at third base, largely because of the same 6-foot-5 frame that led some to question his hitting potential. Bryant's height does mean he has to spend extra work on agility and practicing getting to balls to his backhand side.

Kris Bryant (Photo by John Williamson).

The backhand is Kris Bryant’s priority, he says. (Photo by John Williamson).

"I definitely have to work on staying low to the ground more than the average third baseman," Bryant said. "The backhand is a priority of mine to work on. I do have to go an extra six inches to get down to the ground to field the ball. It's something I worked on all year."

Playing third base is very important to Bryant. He wants to stay there. Scouts and managers who have seen him this year range from seeing him as an adequate third baseman with an excellent arm to a potentially above-average one. Those same scouts do note that they expect he would make an above-average right fielder.

Whether he gets to stick there may be beyond his control, because he's in an organization that is trying to figure out how to get three shortstops (Starlin Castro, Javier Baez and Addison Russell) into its future lineup. But with a full season under his belt, the Cubs feel more confident than they did when he was drafted that Bryant is a viable third base option.

The Next Step

The Cubs have run out of ways to challenge Bryant in the minors. He wasn't called up this September in part so the Cubs don't have to put him on the 40-man roster so soon. But it's also a vote-of-confidence of sorts for a franchise cornerstone. Unlike Baez, the Cubs don't have many concerns about Bryant needing a period of time to get acclimated to the big leagues.

The only challenge left for Bryant is the toughest one. Major league pitchers likely will find weaknesses that college and minor league pitchers have failed to unearth. Just as likely, Bryant will continue to drive pitchers crazy by making the adjustments that are the mark of an advanced hitter.

And when he connects, Waveland Avenue will be a regular landing spot. Just don't expect him to hit 'em there during batting practice.