- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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I don't know whether Bryan LaHair is the most surprising story of 2012 or the most intriguing or the most unlikely. You can't evaluate or analyze subjective opinions like that. His is a story that goes beyond numbers -- although those are spectacular, too -- one that reminds us of the hundreds of players who toil in Triple-A, on the cusp of playing in the major leagues, hoping to catch a break.
Most of those guys are a click short on the radar gun or a step too slow in the field or a few feet short with their power. Maybe they have a bad body or a loop in their swing that front offices believe will be exposed against better pitching. Some are one injury on the major league roster from getting an opportunity, if only for a few weeks. Many never get it, relegated to the dreaded label of Four-A player, maybe good enough to get a cup of coffee here and there, but not good enough to ever earn a consistent major league paycheck.
LaHair was a 39th-round draft pick by the Seattle Mariners in 2002, out of St. Petersburg College in Florida -- a school that produced former Mets third baseman Howard Johnson (and Doors frontman Jim Morrison). The 39th round is non-prospect territory, roster filler for low-level minor league squads. The deck was stacked against LaHair from the day he was drafted. He first put himself on the prospect radar by hitting .310 with 22 homers at Class A Inland Empire in 2005. But everybody hits in the California League. The next season, LaHair hit .309 with 16 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A.
Now he was a prospect. "LaHair offers Sean Casey-like production as a first baseman and may have even more power," wrote Baseball America, which named him Seattle's No. 16 prospect prior to 2007. "He uses the entire field and has good plate coverage. ... LaHair isn't very athletic and is limited to first base. He has below-average defensive speed and defensive skills."
And then he wasn't a prospect. He spent all of 2007 at Triple-A Tacoma, hitting .275 with 46 doubles but only 12 home runs. Major league teams don't like unathletic first basemen who hit 12 home runs in Triple-A. Baseball America once again compared him to Casey, but without the power, with his struggles against left-handed pitching and with his apparent lack of slick glovework, his major league prospects were dim. He did get a call-up late in 2008, after the Mariners released Richie Sexson, but he hit .250 BA/.315 OBP/.346 SLG with three home runs in 45 games and struck out 40 times. That's it -- 150 plate appearances, his one chance. He didn't hit, and The Label stuck.
He spent all of 2009 in Tacoma again and hit 26 home runs but the Mariners never called him up. He signed with the Cubs as a free agent and spent all of 2010 at Iowa, now 27 years old and turning into a Triple-A lifer.
There have been other hitters with that label who got a chance. Growing up in Seattle, one of my favorite players was Ken Phelps. He was a local product who put up big numbers with Montreal's Triple-A Wichita team in 1982, hitting .333 with 46 home runs. Can't hit a major league fastball, they said. And the Expos had an aging Al Oliver at first base. The Mariners purchased Phelps from Montreal, and he showed he could hit, batting .249/.392/.521 over six years with Seattle, which famously then flipped him to the Yankees for Jay Buhner.
Matt Stairs was a Four-A hitter, they said. Too short. Bad body. No position. The A's finally gave him a regular job when he was 29. He played until he was 43. Kevin Millar, Brian Daubach, Jack Cust. All had the label. Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz didn't get 100 games in a major league season until he was 28.
So LaHair tore it up in Iowa in 2011, crushing away with a .331/.405/.664 line. Thirty-eight bombs. This wasn't Albuquerque or Reno or Las Vegas. The numbers had some legitimacy in them, if you're the type to believe in numbers. The Cubs called him up in September. He played winter ball. He totaled 55 home runs between the three stops. The Cubs, rebuilding from bottom up, handed him their first-base job. Temporarily, of course, since they also traded for Padres first-base prospect Anthony Rizzo.
"There's no sentiment involved," Cubs president Theo Epstein told ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick in spring training about giving LaHair the job. "It's not a matter of whether someone deserves a chance or not. It's a matter of whether someone can help the Cubs.
"There are a lot of good players who perform all the way through the minor leagues who fail in limited opportunities in the big leagues and never get a longer look. When those players eventually do get a longer look, they have success. I think it benefits us to see what he can do. We think he'll hit big league pitching, so we're going to find out."
See what he can do.
Jerry finished his story with this line: Now it's up to him to determine how long he stays.
LaHair is insanely hot right now. He homered again Wednesday, his sixth of the season, and he's batting .381/.459/.794, giving Cubs fans one reason to keep paying attention to a bad team. Dale Sveum is platooning him, so he doesn't have enough plate appearances to qualify for the leaderboards, but his 1.253 OPS would rank second only to Matt Kemp.
"I think for me I just stay consistent with each at-bat," LaHair told ESPN Chicago's Doug Padilla a couple of days ago. "I don’t let any one at-bat overwhelm me. I go pitch to pitch and all I try to do is to get good pitches to hit and hit them hard every at-bat. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t but if I’m consistent doing that I’ll be all right."
We could delve into the numbers and explain that LaHair is striking out a lot, that his average on balls in play is crazy ridiculous -- .600 entering Wednesday's game (he went 1-for-4 with a home run and no strikeouts, so 0-for-3 on balls in play) -- that there's no way he'll keep this up and so on and so on.
Sure, we could do that. But for now let's enjoy a lifer getting his chance to shine.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.