- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Maybe it's true that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. But when two baseball hitting prospects and boyhood friends have a flair for making noise in increments of 450 feet, the industry buzz is going to be difficult to contain.
Chicago Cubs third-base prospect Kris Bryant, the second overall pick in the 2013 first-year player draft, has lived up to the hype this year while laying waste to pitching at two levels. He has 31 homers and a .701 slugging percentage between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa, and Cubs fans are looking forward to the day he and fellow prospect Javier Baez can give the franchise its first 30-plus-homer duo since Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez in 2005.
Bryant is tied for the minor league lead with Texas Rangers third-base prospect Joey Gallo, a fellow Las Vegas native who faced him in high school. Gallo went to Bishop Gorman High in the city, and he's proud to say that he once made a pitching cameo against Bryant and Bonanza High and lived to tell about it.
"I came on in relief and he got a hit off me, but it was only a single," Gallo recalled. "And it was with a metal bat. The old metal bats."
Pacific Coast League pitchers might consider that an achievement against Bryant, who is 22 years old, is 6-foot-5, 215 pounds and hits from the right side of the plate. He honed his game as a University of San Diego Torero and went to Chicago one spot after the Houston Astros selected Stanford pitcher Mark Appel with the top choice in the 2013 draft.
Gallo, 20, is 6-5, 205 and bats from the left side. He has a long swing that has produced a whopping 40 percent strikeout rate in the minor leagues, but his power first manifested itself during his Little League days and has yet to wane. Gallo set a Nevada high school state record with 65 home runs, prompting the Rangers to select him with the 39th pick in the 2012 draft and sign him to a $2.25 million bonus. Gallo hit 18 homers in 150 at-bats in rookie ball in his first professional season, and last year he led the minors with 40 homers even though he missed a month with a groin strain.
Power comes so naturally to Gallo, he seems baffled that it's such a rare and elusive commodity in baseball. His ability to pepper the bleachers with long, arcing rainbow shots and bust windshields in nearby parking lots is sufficiently fascinating that FanGraphs recently broke it down with a "War and Peace"-caliber scouting analysis.
"I'm not a big, huge body-builder guy, but I see big, strong guys who don't drive the ball and I'm like, How?" Gallo said. "It's hard for me to understand. I'm tall and I get leverage, and ever since I was a little kid I could hit the ball out of the park. Kind of like Bryant. People tell me it's because of my torque, my hips or whatever. I don't really try to do it. It just kind of happens."
The Rangers have maintained patience with Gallo during this lost season in Arlington, and he continues to address the finer points of the game in Double-A Frisco. After tough days at the yard, Gallo reflects on the lessons he's learned from big leaguer Jason Giambi, who lives in Las Vegas and worked with him during the offseason.
The Gallo family's connection to Giambi goes back a decade, when Giambi hired Joey's father, Tony, as a pitching instructor at a baseball complex that he owned in Vegas. After being drafted by the Rangers, Gallo began to work out at a facility with Giambi and Troy Tulowitzki. His relationship with Giambi grew from there.
"It was crazy," Gallo said. "We would go to eat lunch at Chipotle or wherever and I'd say, 'People are looking at you,' and he would be like, 'Whatever.' I remember when I was 10 years old and I was scared to say a word to him. But he treats everybody the same. He would talk to the janitor at the place where we worked out and he'd be like: 'Great to meet you. How's your family?' And people are like: 'What the heck? This is Jason Giambi.'
"The big thing he told me that stuck with me is: 'Don't get frustrated. Take every at-bat as a different at-bat, and things won't drag on.' I used to get frustrated and mad like any other high school kid. Now if I do bad, I try to find the positive out of it. He's helped me do that."
Bryant has his own highly acclaimed hitting guru in Manny Ramirez, who was recently hired by the Cubs to be a player-coach in Iowa. Bryant grew up a Red Sox fan because his father, Mike, is a Massachusetts native who spent two years in the early 1980s in Boston's minor league system as an outfielder. So he was well aware of the "Manny being Manny" phenomenon long before the Cubs brought in Ramirez to tutor the organization's young hitters.
Ramirez has quickly made a positive impression on Bryant with his ability to break down pitchers and his dedication to his craft. Bryant has watched Ramirez set the pitching machine on "curveball" and take swing after swing against benders, and he understands the commitment necessary to keep growing as a hitter.
For a young player who has generated so much hype, Bryant is refreshingly humble and laden with perspective. He credits his maturity to the time he spent in college and the priorities his parents instilled in him. "I used to get in trouble with my mom when I didn't get good grades," Bryant said.
Although Bryant feels comfortable at third base and would prefer to stay there, it's possible that a position switch is in his future. The Cubs have an All-Star shortstop (Starlin Castro) and a power-hitting Triple-A shortstop (Baez), and they just added to their stockpile by acquiring top prospect Addison Russell from Oakland in the recent Jeff Samardzija-Jason Hammel trade. Chances are someone will eventually have to shift to third base, which could necessitate Bryant's shifting to a corner-outfield spot.
Bryant refuses to sweat the speculation, and he has a ready-made answer for reporters who ask how eager he is to get to Wrigley Field. Even as Bryant punishes Triple-A pitching, Cubs president Theo Epstein has said he doesn't expect Bryant to receive a call-up to the majors this season.
"I don't even pay attention to it," Bryant said. "Every time I focused on distractions like that in high school -- like the draft -- I didn't perform the way I could have. I kind of learned a lesson from that. I'm never looking forward to the future. I just pay attention to the present moment."
For now, that means plugging away in Iowa and receiving daily updates on where he stands in an entertaining home run race with Gallo.
"Playing against him in high school, his team always beat me," Bryant said. "But it's kind of cool to see what he's doing now. He's a great person and a great player. I wish he was a Cub. But the Rangers have a good one."
14mDanny Knobler, Special to ESPN.com
8hInterview by Buster Olney