This isn't the first time I have written on this topic, but if Bryan LaHair has anything to say about it, it might be the last.
LaHair, who at 29 is very old to become a major league regular for the first time, will be the Cubs' starting first baseman on April 5 at Wrigley Field -- probably so even if Anthony Rizzo, the "first baseman of the future", has a monumental spring training.
I have been skeptical in the past of players like this making it big; in fact, I wrote a long article at Baseball Nation last September on this very topic, citing a number of players who had minor league stardom much as LaHair has, who never made it:
Harvey Pulliam. Jay Gainer. Greg Pirkl. Tagg Bozied. Chad Mottola. Eddie Williams. Dave McCarty, once the No. 3 overall pick in the draft (1991). Alan Zinter, another former No. 1 pick who hit 263 minor league home runs over 6,800 plate appearances, but got just 78 major league at-bats as a reward. Kevin Witt, who holds the unusual distinction of leading both Triple-A leagues in home runs (PCL, 2004; IL, 2006). He, too, wound up playing in Japan. Andy Tracy, who is still going in Triple-A in 2011 at age 37, having spent 11 years there with 201 home runs. At least he got a World Series ring from the Phillies in 2008 for his trouble, although he played in only four games for that team and not at all in the postseason.
But hey, what do I know? Theo Epstein's opinion is the one that counts here, and he said:
Epstein on WGN Radio today: "Bryan LaHair is our first baseman. I don't believe in the concept of 4A players. The guy can hit."— David Kaplan (@thekapman) January 5, 2012
To be fair, I also wrote in the Baseball Nation article of some late bloomers who did wind up with productive major league careers, some longer than others:
There are guys like Nelson Cruz and Ryan Ludwick and Jack Cust and Travis Hafner, and before them John Jaha, Lee Stevens, Henry Rodriguez, Ron Coomer, Jeff Conine and Matt Stairs, guys who didn't get every-day playing time in the major leagues until they were about the age LaHair is now, and who still had some good major league seasons.
A number of those players had 30-homer seasons, and one (Hafner) had one of more than 40 homers.
For his part, LaHair knows that he's getting a chance and intends to make the most of it:
"It's a good feeling," LaHair said Wednesday. "I plan on working harder than I did before to keep it. I don't want this to be a one-year thing, I want it to be more than one. I want to be part of something and build toward something.
"This is probably, right now, the best franchise in all of sports as far as wanting to win," he said. "This is the place to do it if you're going to do it, so it's definitely a great opportunity."
Eventually, I think we all assume that Rizzo, who is just 22, will be the Cubs' starting first baseman. For LaHair, it could be a "one-year thing"; if he shows well and Rizzo appears to be ready, LaHair could be traded even during this season, or next offseason. Although LaHair's performance at Iowa in 2011 (.331/.405/.664 with 38 HR and 103 RBI) got him named PCL MVP, there's no question that Rizzo, who hit an almost identical .331/.404/.652 with 26 HR and 101 RBI in only 93 games, would have likely been the league MVP if he'd have played the full season at Triple-A Tucson instead of spending most of June and July in the major leagues.
As I said, I've been skeptical of LaHair (as I was, in hindsight correctly, about Micah Hoffpauir, who similarly destroyed Triple-A pitching). But that doesn't mean I'm hoping for him to fail. On the contrary, I'd love for him to succeed, because that would mean good things for the Cubs as a team.
But there's one thing I wish he hadn't said. From the photo caption on the cubs.com article linked above:
"I'm about as ready as I can be," Bryan LaHair said. "I'm probably in the best shape of my life."
"The best shape of my life" has become an offseason meme; probably half of all major league players have been quoted as saying that. At this point, it's not about shape, it's about results. Here's hoping LaHair's results are nothing but positive.