Humble Bruce knows his time is near

Reds phenom honing his skills in anticipation of big-league callup

(Stan Denny)

By Lisa Winston / MLB.com | April 11, 2008 8:11 AM

There are definitely other ways Jay Bruce could have envisioned celebrating his 21st birthday on April 3.

He could've been the starting center fielder at the Great American Ballpark as his Cincinnati Reds beat the visiting Arizona Diamondbacks, then going out for celebratory drinks -- legally! -- with his big-league teammates.

He could've gotten the red-carpet treatment at any of the best restaurants in the Queen City and treated his visiting mom and dad and girlfriend to a steak dinner to celebrate the milestone event.

Instead, the Reds phenom spent his 21st birthday in Syracuse, N.Y., batting third for the Triple-A Louisville Bats as they kicked off the official Minor League season in a hard-fought 2-0 loss to the Chiefs.

And Bruce, being Bruce, isn't complaining, though he admits he might have preferred some of the other options.

"I'd like to be in Cincinnati, that would be a little better," he admitted with a smile prior to that day's first pitch. "But my family and girlfriend and friends are here, it's a beautiful day and I'm healthy. I really couldn't ask for anything more right now."

An answer like that, which seemed as heartfelt as one could hope for, is part of the reason folks in baseball rave as much about Bruce's makeup as they do about his tools.

It's something that Louisville's veteran hitting coach, Adrian "Smokey" Garrett, commented on when asked if there were any players he'd worked with in the past who reminded him of Bruce.

"Not the swing so much, but in the way he goes about his business and his game, the guy he reminds me of is George Brett," Garrett said. "Jay reminds me a lot of him. They both love the game. George would have played the game for nothing, and Jay reminds me a lot of that. I won't say he's a kid, but he's a young man who plays with the young enthusiasm that George played with."

For Louisville manager Rick Sweet, it is not just a treat to get to write his name into the third spot on that lineup card every day, but it's a treat to get to work with the young man.

"It's just nice to be around him and watch him play the game, to see the enthusiasm he brings every day," said Sweet, who brings more than his share of enthusiasm to the table for that matter. "He's just fun to be around, to watch how he goes about playing the game. He's got that youthful enthusiasm you'd love everybody to have."

For all the talk about the youthful exuberance the baby-faced Bruce brings, his numbers and honors are certainly befitting a more established player.

Drafted with the 12th overall pick in the 2005 draft out of high school in Texas, he's parlayed two strong full-season campaigns into the heralded top spot on MiLB.com's preseason Top 50 rankings.

Last year, starting at Class A Advanced Sarasota, moving quickly through Double-A Chattanooga and finishing up with 50 games at Louisville, Bruce combined to hit .319 with 26 homers and 89 RBIs. That came on the heels of his first full season in 2006, when the left-handed hitter batted .291 with 16 homers, 81 RBIs and a league-high 42 doubles at Class A Dayton of the Midwest League.

So while it's the rare player who could even dream about coming to his first big-league Spring Training at the age of 20 with a shot at the wide-open starting center-field job, even as a non-roster invitee Bruce was not lacking the credentials.

His task was made a bit harder by the fact that Cincinnati had brought in veteran manager Dusty Baker to guide the club in 2008. Baker, though he had certainly heard and read about the club's top prospect, had not yet had firsthand experience with Bruce, so he couldn't be blamed if he might lean toward more seasoned options.

With veteran utilityman Ryan Freel and 28-year-old 2007 rookie surprise Norris Hopper already in the fold, it didn't help Bruce's cause when he suffered a mild quad strain just before games actually started, costing him a week of action when it counted.

During the time he was sidelined, the Reds inked free-agent center fielder Corey Patterson -- a former first-rounder himself who played for Baker with the Chicago Cubs -- so it was no big surprise at that point when Bruce was reassigned to Minor League camp on March 20.

Overall, Bruce hit .262 with three RBIs in 16 games, but the writing was very much on the wall at that point, so he was not surprised and certainly not devastated when he was finally reassigned.

"They signed Corey Patterson, who is a really good player, and that's the direction they want to go," Bruce said. "They just told me to go down and tighten up my game, and so that's my goal."

But his departure over to the backfields in Sarasota were not without some very positive lessons learned.

"I learned that I can play here, and that kind of gave me some confidence coming into the year," he explained. "You see them on TV and they seem like these superstars but, you know, you get with them and you realize you belong there. And I got a little more comfortable now knowing that."

The experience was also memorable since he got to play alongside a superstar he'd idolized since he was a kid in Texas.

"Ken Griffey Jr. was my idol growing up," Bruce admitted. "So it was a lot of fun being around him every day and being a part of that team for the time I was there. They made me feel like I was a part of the team, and that was a blast."

What was meant by Bruce "tightening up his game," Sweet suspects, was not so much specific "things" that needed to be done, but rather the kind of improvement that comes strictly through experience.

"Remember, he's only just 21 and still one of the youngest players in this league, so he just needs experience," Sweet emphasized. "You can be told about situations, but until you go out and experience it, it's tough to really understand what people are telling you. For me, he just needs to play. If he were playing at the Major League level, he'd still be learning the same things. It's just that it's a little more unforgiving up there as far as fans and media coverage. Down here it's a little easier to make mistakes and not get blown out of the water so much."

The field staff certainly loves the raw material they were given to work with.

"He just has the natural ability to go up there and swing the bat, to put the bat on the ball," Garrett said. "He has a nice approach, he's free and easy, his swing works perfect for him. He's very good, he's always listening, always trying to learn and get better. He's outstanding as far as coachability."

Bruce collected his first hit of the '08 season in the ninth inning of that game against Syracuse and added his first home run of the season April 7 against the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees when he went deep off another former first-rounder, Jeff Marquez.

Having had 50 games worth of Triple-A experience in 2007 at age 20, Bruce had already gotten an inkling of what to expect from the top Minor League level.

"I think I can be successful as long as I just play my game, be patient at the plate and don't swing at bad pitches I can't hit, because they really catch onto that quickly here, these pitchers," he noted. "They'll keep throwing whatever you swing at, so they know your weaknesses more quickly."

Not surprisingly, Garrett has honed in on just that area with his young protégé.

"I let him go and don't try to do anything mechanical with him," he said. "The only thing I talk to him about is pitch selection, trying to get a good pitch on a good count and when to expect it. My main approach with him is just trying to get good pitches to hit."

Bruce's fortuitous combination of talent, upside and notoriety (the good kind) would seem to make him a favorite for all of the midsummer festivities such as the July 13 All-Star Futures Game at Yankee Stadium, in which he participated in 2007 with a triple, and the 20th anniversary Triple-A All-Star Game, which will be played at his own Louisville Slugger Field three nights later.

But even the humble Bruce can be forgiven if he admits he hopes he's playing at Yankee Stadium a few weeks earlier -- June 20-22, to be exact.

Yes, he has the date committed to memory already. That's the weekend the Reds will be at Yankee Stadium for some interleague action.

Bruce admits, with something of a sheepish smile, he hopes that's where he'll be. Don't be surprised if he is.

Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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