Bryan LaHair's 2011 season wasn't an outlier -- he hit 25 homers and drove in 80 runs in each of his previous two campaigns -- but rather the culmination of nine years of hard work in the Minor Leagues.
The first baseman led the Minors (and set an Iowa Cubs team record) with 38 homers to capture the Joe Bauman Award, set career marks in batting (.331), on-base percentage (.405) and slugging (.664) and was named Pacific Coast League MVP. LaHair was only the seventh PCL player in the last 15 years to amass 300 total bases, while his 76 extra-base hits were the most in the league since Brooks Conrad registered 79 in 2006.
LaHair credited I-Cubs hitting coach Von Joshua for changing his hand slot and helping renew his confidence.
"He had his hands too close to his body," Joshua said. "We worked on freeing up his swing and generating more power. He squared up his stance a little bit. I just tried to remind him -- he did the rest.
"What really helped him was starting to hit the ball the other way rather than pulling everything."
The Worcester, Mass., native was the Mariners' 39th-round pick in the 2002 Draft. After modest performances in Everett and Wisconsin in 2003-04, LaHair spent the entire 2005 season with Inland Empire in the Class A Advanced California League, where he hit .310/.373/.503 with 22 homers and 113 RBIs, three off the league lead, and was named team MVP and a postseason All-Star.
After half a season in the Double-A Texas League, LaHair was promoted to Triple-A Tacoma in June 2006 at the age of 23. He batted .327 the rest of the way and finally made his Major League debut with Seattle on July 18, 2008, after the Mariners released first baseman Richie Sexson. LaHair hit .250 with three homers and 10 RBIs in 45 games with the Mariners, despite being hampered by a broken bone in his foot. He did not make the big league club out of Spring Training in 2009 and, after hitting .289 with a career-high 26 homers for Tacoma that year, he asked for his release from the Mariners organization.
"I have to say I wasn't super impressed when I saw him play for Tacoma," Joshua recalled. "I thought he had a slider-speed bat. It's very rare for a hitter to gain bat speed so far into his career, but that's exactly what he did."
LaHair signed a Minor League contract with the Cubs in January 2010 and proceeded to hit .308/.385/.557 with 25 homers for Iowa. He returned to the Chicago organization in 2011 and put up such tremendous numbers that the Cubs summoned him to Wrigley Field in September, despite the fact he wasn't on the 40-man roster.
LaHair's historic season for the I-Cubs started off hot -- he hit .343 in April -- but his power did not fully manifest itself until the weather warmed up. After a four-homer April, he slugged eight in May and 10 in June. At the Triple-A All-Star break, LaHair was batting .349/.418/.681 with 25 homers. After batting .203 with seven homers in 26 games in July, the St. Petersburg (Fla.) College product rebounded with nine blasts and 30 RBIs while hitting .336 in 28 August games.
LaHair had four multi-homer games for Iowa, including back-to-back two-homer contests in early May. On Aug. 23, he doubled four times and plated five runs against Oklahoma City, then went deep twice and drove in five more the following night. He joined the big league Cubs on Sept. 4 and collected hits in his first seven games, including a 3-for-4 night against the Mets on Sept. 11 that saw him double twice and score four runs.
Although LaHair is primarily a first baseman, he can play either corner outfield position. Carlos Pena, the Cubs' starting first baseman in 2011, is a free agent but has expressed interest in returning to the club. LaHair is hoping his monumental Triple-A campaign and solid big league performance will result in a Major League role in 2012.
"They have a pretty good idea of what I'm capable of doing," he told the Chicago Tribune. "There's a little dropoff between the big leagues and Minors, I understand that. But I had a really good year this year and I'm going to do whatever I can to show them I can play."
Cubs manager Mike Quade was positive about LaHair's future, telling the Chicago Sun-Times, "Never say never. History may say no, but he wasn't hanging around Triple-A to think that would be his future. There are a handful of guys who got here late.
"What a year he had. He's always put up numbers, but he was really good this year."
Joshua thinks LaHair just needs a big league club to give him a shot.
"He can hit -- this season was no fluke. He's very dedicated and is pretty good at first base. It would be a real shame if someone doesn't give him a chance in the Majors."