Kris Bryant’s dream of playing Major League Baseball took a significant step forward on Thursday when the University of San Diego third baseman was selected second overall by the Chicago Cubs MLB’s First-Year Player Draft.
Bryant’s early selection, coming after the Houston Astros chose Stanford pitcher Mark Appel No. 1 overall, was not surprising. It was a near consensus that the Toreros’ 6-foot-5, 215-pound power hitter from Las Vegas, would go no lower than third overall to the Colorado Rockies.
One decision Bryant, 21, did make was to stay in Las Vegas and to be surrounded by family and friends for the big moment rather than sit with other draft prospects in the MLB Network studio in Secaucus, N.J., when Commissioner Bud Selig announced his selection.
The Cubs’ decision to take Bryant certainly pleases family. He also endeared himself to Cubs fans with his initial reaction.
“My (mother’s) family is from Chicago, so that’s awesome I get to share that with them,” Bryant told the Chicago Tribune on Thursday. “I know they haven’t won a World Series in a while, so hopefully I can do all I can to help the Cubs win one. I know it’s a great baseball city, a great team and a lot of history to it. I’m excited. I’m just happy I’m going to get the opportunity to keep playing this game.”
While many expressed that he could be in a Cubs uniform in 2014, Bryant expressed confidence that once a deal is agreed to — Scott Boras is his agent and draft picks have until July 12 to sign — he’s ready to play.
“If we can make this deal happen, I obviously think I can play in the big leagues now,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “I have that type of confidence in myself. But that’s not my decision. I’ll leave that up to the guys in charge.”
Just four days prior to the draft, Bryant’s emotions were visible at a post-game media interview at UCLA’s Jackie Robinson Stadium. He knew he’d played his final college baseball game, a 6-0 USD loss to UCLA in the NCAA Los Angeles Regional championship. He, along with other departing players, had spoken to teammates after that game, expressing how much he enjoyed playing alongside them and that he cared about being part of the Torero program.
But being a Major League Baseball player has consumed Bryant’s thoughts since he was a young boy.
The Cubs’ selection at No. 2 makes Bryant the Toreros’ highest draft pick ever, surpassing left-handed pitcher Brian Matusz (fourth overall, Baltimore, 2008) and catcher John Wathan (fourth, Kansas City, 1971). Bryant’s play this season at USD made the Cubs’ decision, one made in part by Theo Epstein, the team’s president of baseball operations and a 2000 USD School of Law alumnus, an easy one.
Bryant led the nation in home runs this season (31), slugging percentage (820), walks (66) and runs scored (80). He hit .329 with 62 RBI, 75 hits, 13 doubles and three triples and helped the Toreros (37-25) win the West Coast Conference Tournament title. Bryant shattered USD’s single-season home run record (previously 18) and he leaves as USD’s career leader with 54. Bryant’s trophy case has been growing as of late, too. He was named the co-WCC Player of the Year, Collegiate Baseball National Player of the Year and USD Athletics’ Male Torero Athlete of the Year. Bryant is a national finalist for both the Golden Spikes Award and the Dick Howser Trophy.
“Kris had an incredible season at San Diego, hitting for both power and average,” said Jason McLeod, the Cubs’ vice president of scouting and player development. “He is a big, strong, athletic player, and we feel he has the attributes of someone who could fit into the middle of a lineup at the major-league level. He has the ability to hit for average along with power to all parks of the park.”
Toreros Coach Rich Hill was “elated” that the Cubs selected Bryant. He said Chicago got someone who, for USD, was a “once-in-a-lifetime” player.
Jay Johnson, USD’s associate head coach and hitting coach, followed Bryant’s progression since his sophomore year at Las Vegas’ Bonanza High School. Bryant hit 67 home runs at Bonanza — including 22 as a senior — and chose USD over other strong national college programs and the Toronto Blue Jays, who drafted him in the 18th round in 2010.
“The (USD) coaching staff showed me that they cared,” Bryant said. “A lot of others sent letters and showed some interest, but when I decided to come to USD, I wanted to show them that I wanted to be a Torero. The decision I made, I feel, was one of the best of my life. I’m so thankful for the coaches, my teammates and the school. It’s been awesome.”
Johnson, in a March 25 Inside USD story, talked about what he saw in Bryant during the recruiting process.
“The physical tools were always easy to see. He’s got tremendous size, bat speed and athleticism, but something that really stood out was his ability to see the ball really well. Nobody talks about that. We were having a conversation right after he committed to us, talking about a couple of at-bats in a game I saw. He talked about how he could pick up the breaking balls in the pitcher’s hand and see the spin. I thought, ‘Wow, with that gift, along with all of the physical things you already see, this kid has a chance to really be something special as a hitter.’”
Hill enjoyed seeing Bryant’s talent continue its evolution in a Torero uniform, especially this season.
“To hit 31 home runs with a BBCORE bat is ridiculous. That he plays third base like a major-leaguer now is ridiculous. The fact that he can go first-to-third or second-to-home in the blink of an eye is ridiculous. You can put him at the warning track in right field and have him throw a ball as hard as he can to home plate and it’s Ichiro-esque,” Hill said. “The scary thing is that he keeps getting better. I’ve watched him from day one to day whatever it is now and you wonder, ‘what’s it going to be like three years from now when he really fills out the uniform?’ There’s so much more in the tank. To watch what we’ve seen so far, it’s been special.”
Bryant is expected to reap the rewards for the effort he’s put into being successful at a game he’s loved for much of his life. The job, of course, gets tougher. Being a high draft pick and the chance to play for a big-city franchise with a national fan base that craves a winner won’t lessen the pressure. Through it all, though, Bryant said his approach to the sport has always been the same.
“Baseball, to me, is about trying to make it as fun as possible,” he said. “I know it’s so hard to make it solely about that because these days it’s all about numbers and whether you’re producing or not. But I just try to play like I’m eight years old again. If I’m doing that, I know I’m having fun.”
Let the fun begin.
— Ryan T. Blystone