Quick trivia question: Who was the 2011 Pacific Coast League MVP? Bryan LaHair. For the first time since 2003, the Cubs will not start an established veteran at the first base position on opening day. With Carlos Pena gone, that job falls to LaHair. Now the question becomes: what do we have with him?
How Did We Get Here? – LaHair was drafted in the 39th round of the 2002 draft by the Seattle Mariners out of junior college. He played in the Mariners system for seven years and only saw a few at bats with the Major League club in 2008. Following the 2009 season he was granted minor league free agency and signed a minor league contract with the Cubs. He spent the season in AAA, his 5th straight year at that level, and had his best offensive season. LaHair won the Pacific Coast League Most Valuable Player Award and Joe Bauman Home Run Award in 2011. He was named the designated hitter on Baseball America’s 2011 Minor League All Star team. That success has the Cubs counting on him to bridge the gap between Pena and highly regarded prospect, Anthony Rizzo, who is expected to spend at least the first half of the season in AAA.
What Do We Have?- When you talk to most people, the immediate comp for LaHair is Micah Hoffpauir. They are similar in story, but not quite identical. Hoffpauir was never given the every day job to show if he could or could not handle it. Hoffpauir never had the power in one season that LaHair showed last year when he hit 40 bombs combined between AAA and ML. LaHair is a slightly better fielder than Hoffpauir with a little more range. Other than that, you can see how people come to the conclusion that Hoffpauir is the best comp for him. Side note, for all the Hoffpauirites, here are Micah’s numbers from his time in Japan last year:
The question now becomes what can we expect from LaHair when given every day at bats. Most of the projections on Major League players are fairly boring and routine. Projection service A projects numbers very similar to the career norm of Player A as does proejection service B,C, & D. When it gets fun is with players like LaHair. Guys that have not shown the Major League history to use in the calculations. For that, I went to Fan Graphs to see what the projections looked like. Six services are listed. Here are the averages as well as the high and low value for his numbers.
Home Runs – 14 (High – 24 / Low – 6)
RBI – 49 (High – 68 / Low – 24)
It’s a wide range for what people think we can expect. Personally, I want to give the guy the benefit of the doubt. He hit well when he was up in September and didn’t stop hitting all throughout the off-season in winter ball. There is no doubt he can hit the ball out of the ballpark. The biggest test for him will be if he can make adjustments to stay consistent once the book on him gets bigger. That tends to be the reason guys fail. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you lack the key ability of being able to make adjustments to your game, you will not succeed at the Major League Level. That’s the key for LaHair. I fully expect him to start well. If he does, it gives the Cubs a lot of options.
What Should We Do With Him? – For right now, he’s the first baseman. In a perfect world, I’d like to see the season play out this way. Rizzo begins the season in Iowa and shows he has mastered that level. LaHair is hitting the ball well at first base and is making it hard to move him from the position for Rizzo. The Cubs strike a deal to move Alfonso Soriano and shift Bryan LaHair to LF to make room for Rizzo. Jed and Theo explore trade options before the deadline to maximize return on LaHair before he has a chance to reveal that he’s not able to make adjustments.
Ultimately, I don’t have a lot of hope that he’ll have long term success in this league. I want to believe, but I’m fairly certain it will be a short burst that will be just enough to tease, but not enough to really satisfy.