SARASOTA, Fla. – The response this spring has been almost Pavlovian. Every time the name of Jay Bruce surfaces in conversation – and with Bruce passing sliced bread and quickly approaching ice cream as the best thing ever in the prospect-mad baseball world, this happens quite often – Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker brings up another player: Norris Hopper.
Baker likes Hopper, who is regarded throughout the game as a nice little player. That is baseball's version of damning with faint praise, and considering that in the 3,753 at-bats as a professional Hopper has hit four home runs, it might even be kind. Bruce, on the other hand, is this year's can't-miss kid – a 6-foot-3, 210-pound power-hitting, BB-throwing, gilded-gloved center fielder with a track record so impressive that, well, any praise thrown his way ain't faint.
So all eyes are converging on Baker. This is not new. He managed Barry Bonds, or at least was manager for Bonds' first 10 seasons in San Francisco. He managed the Chicago Cubs through Steve Bartman and the three-year implosion that followed. Joining a team with as much young talent as Cincinnati – in addition to Bruce, the Reds have developed first baseman Joey Votto and pitchers Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey – means striking a balance between coddling and pushing.
"I know what I've got to do," Baker said Thursday, and while his .527 career winning percentage inspires confidence, his track record with young players is spotty enough to cause concern.
In his 10 seasons with the Giants, Baker did not develop a single everyday player. The closest was Rich Aurilia. Three starting pitchers from the Giants' organization stuck: Kirk Rueter, Russ Ortiz and Shawn Estes.
With the Cubs, Baker oversaw the destruction of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood's careers. He trotted them out for 130-pitch starts. Baker isn't big into statistics, so he probably wasn't aware that comprehensive studies on pitch counts show 130 is a young pitcher's equivalent to a national threat level of red.
Still, Baker met the suggestion that he might give Bruce or Cueto or even Votto more time at Triple-A with some derision.
"Who says they need to be eased in?" Baker said. "I wasn't eased in. Junior wasn't eased in. A whole bunch of guys weren't eased in. A lot of it has to do with need."
Hmmm. The Reds need a center fielder, the indomitable Norris Hopper or Ryan Freel notwithstanding. They could use some pop at first base (though Scott Hatteberg, the 38-year-old incumbent, did slug .474 last season). Certainly Cueto, the 22-year-old Dominican who the Reds now value higher than Bailey, is a better option than journeyman Josh Fogg, to whom Cincinnati committed $1 million Thursday.
The Reds have enough of a veteran presence – with Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn surrounding Bruce in the outfield, with Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo preceding Cueto in the rotation, with Brandon Phillips and Edwin Encarnacion making Votto's job easy – to steady the Reds' equilibrium.
"Yeah," Baker said, "but what if you say, 'Go play, kid,' and he's not ready to play winning baseball? Is it OK to overlook that? I don't know."
Nor does Bruce. Last spring, the Reds shipped him to high Class-A from spring training, so to be here – to be this close – tickles him. With Sarasota, he hit .325 and slugged almost .600. In a two-week stopover at Double-A, Bruce matched Hopper's career home run total. And then in a 187-at-bat cameo with Triple-A Louisville, Bruce hit 11 home runs.
"Don't believe the hype," Bruce said.
"Especially when it's your own," he said. "I need to be me. Some people aren't going to like it. Some people are. But the bottom line is, it's what I got and what I am, and it's all I can do."
To see Bruce traverse the clubhouse is stunning. Not even 21 years old, he chats with young and old, black, Latino and white. He tells jokes, offers praise, seeks advice. He's a baby face and old soul. In two years, Bruce ought to be the centerpiece of this franchise in every which way, and he seems to recognize it.
Because already, just two days into full-squad workouts, Bruce has taken it upon himself to glom as much wisdom as he can from Griffey, whom he grew up idolizing. Griffey smiles politely and dispenses it, appreciating Bruce's complete lack of pretense while snickering at it too.
"Everything here is going in the right direction," Bruce said. "I think we're going to surprise a lot of people this year. Hopefully, I'm here to help that out.
"I haven't interacted too much with (Baker) yet. But I feel like he's a fair person. I don't think he cares who you are. If you're here, you'll get a legitimate shot, and that's all you can ask for in this game."
He'll get his shot. The Reds didn't trade the productive and inspiring Josh Hamilton to Texas for Edinson Volquez this offseason because they expected Hopper to take over. They didn't sign closer Francisco Cordero to a four-year, $46 million deal because they figured he'd finish out the odd victory now and again.
Cincinnati expects to win. The National League Central is ripe. St. Louis is down, Houston rebuilding in the worst way possible and Pittsburgh eternally doomed. Chicago and Milwaukee are Cincinnati's competition, and neither distinguished itself last season.
Of course, the Reds went 72-90, and aside from the Cordero signing and Volquez trade, look about the same. They need something more, and it's there, with Bruce and Votto, Cueto and Bailey.
The bell is ringing. Cincinnati can only hope Baker's answer isn't so Pavlovian.
- Dusty Baker