Jay Bruce might actually be as good as everyone says he is. Watching Bruce's first week with the Reds, all anyone can see is upside, all the way from the action in his movements to his results against big league pitching. Not since Johnny Bench came up in 1967, more than 40 years ago, have the Reds brought a player along who promised so much and delivered so much so immediately.
Six games into his big league career, Bruce batted .591 with a 1.690 OPS. The plane of Bruce's left-handed swing is so true that he had his way on May 30 against a future Hall of Fame lefthander, the Atlanta Braves' Tom Glavine, dropping his bat on one pitch for a looping single to left in one at-bat, then slamming a line drive homer to right in the next.
Glavine certainly isn't the pitcher he was 10 years ago, but he still has craft and he couldn't solve Jay Bruce. By every indication so far, Jay Bruce is a star in the making.
But no one is perfect, and Bruce will certainly prove it through time. Baseball does that to hitters. Bruce is especially prone to strikeouts. The Reds were smart, by the way, to leave him in Louisville for the first six weeks of this season.
They clearly wanted to see how he would fare in a second round against Triple-A pitching and then bring him up under more casual circumstances than Opening Day.
After 49 games this year in Louisville, Bruce demonstrated that he has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues, hitting .364 with 10 homers and 37 RBI. Bruce was actually better during this year's 49 games in Louisville than in last year's 50, when he batted .305 with 11 homers and 25 RBI. He increased his slugging percentage from .567 to .630 and cut down his strikeouts slightly from 48 in 187 at-bats to 45 in 184 at-bats.
Bruce left the Reds with no choice. They kept him in Louisville for the sake of his development, and then he showed that his development required a promotion to the major leagues.
In light of the general discussion about Adam Dunn, one awaits the critical backlash against Bruce when his strikeouts begin to pile up, because big league pitchers will figure out how to do it. Bruce's minor league career featured 413 hits and 339 strikeouts, with only 125 walks to go with them.
We should remember, considering both hitters, that you can't judge a hitter by strikeouts, especially not when he's as productive as Dunn has been and Bruce will be. Like Dunn, Bruce's outfield defense is less than stellar. In time, probably right after the Reds lose Junior Griffey, they will move Bruce to right field, taking advantage of his throwing arm and enabling him to bulk up so he can increase his home run power.
Quibbling is easy, because there's not a single player in big-league baseball who isn't open to it. When a player comes to the major leagues and appears so perfect so soon, we should be suspicious. Nobody is as good of a hitter as Jay Bruce in his first five games of big league baseball.
But criticism isn't the same outlook as skepticism, nor should it temper a general sense of optimism about the Reds in this year of fruitful transition. If Jay Bruce were the only promising development for the Reds this year, we might just view him as a long-term replacement for Griffey and/or Dunn, and the club wouldn't actually be making progress with his emergence. But the Reds are doing much better than that.
Rookie Joey Votto is crushing the ball at first base, .288 with 10 homers. Imagine the Reds' batting order as Bruce and Votto develop, and if they keep Dunn, plus, conceivably, Griffey. They could stack up a row of left-handed power hitting to make even the most adroit right-handed pitcher shake.
They will need balance from the right side to keep left-handers from owning them. And the lineup we envision will avail itself of a lot of strikeouts. Yet the best left-handed hitters eventually figure out how to hit left-handed pitching, and an alert manager can figure out how to break up the strikeouts.
It helps to have Brandon Phillips around to hit in the middle of the order from the right side, and it will really help if Edwin Encarnacion produces more consistently. Suddenly, the Reds could be back among the league's best offensive clubs.
For all its struggles this season, the pitching staff is equally a source of optimism. Veterans Aaron Harang and Francisco Cordero already are among the best in their roles as ace starter and closing reliever. They give the pitching staff an excellent base in those two most important positions.
The two young starting pitchers, Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto, are well beyond sources of optimism. They are sources of victory. Cueto is off and on, but Volquez is always on.
Volquez, not surprisingly, is the more tested and mature pitcher. He's been through trials Cueto would hate to imagine. The Texas Rangers once envisioned Volquez as a rotation anchor and had him in the big leagues at the end of 2006. Last year, though, the Rangers dropped Volquez all the way down to Class A Bakersfield, and he fought through the ranks all the way back to the big leagues by the end of the season.
The Reds just promoted former top prospect Homer Bailey to the number-five spot in the rotation, and they also recently promoted Daryl Thompson to Louisville. The future hasn't looked so bright for the Reds in years.
If the present still looks blighted, we might have expected too much. The Reds could wind up with another losing season, but losing with young talent is no drawback. We don't expect young talent to win right away. We just want to see it improve before our eyes, and the Reds are giving us that.
And they could still surprise us. With a 6-2 win against the Braves on June 1, the Reds won five of six during their homestand, improving to 28-29 for the season. They're a club to watch for the rest of this year, for numerous reasons.
Contact Bill Peterson: [email protected]