The Cubs had one of the best power arms in the First-Year Player Draft available when it came to their No. 2 overall pick Thursday.
The easy choice would have been selecting Oklahoma right-hander Jonathan Gray, whose fastball hits 100 mph, after Houston drafted Stanford right-hander Mark Appel. Adding Gray to the organization finally would give the Cubs an impact arm in a minor league system devoid of top pitching talent.
However, the Cubs were convinced University of San Diego third baseman Kris Bryant was too good to pass over. Bryant, who just completed his junior season, possesses a combination of power and patience at the plate, leading the nation in both home runs (31) and walks (66) in 62 games.
Bryant, 20, said believes he immediately could play in the majors. However, Theo Epstein’s regime is notorious for sticking with a player development plan.
“I’m definitely going to leave it up to the Cubs to decide that, if we can make this deal happen,” Bryant said. “I obviously think I can play in the big leagues now. I have that type of confidence, but that’s not my decision.”
Based on Bryant’s attributes – particularly his plate discipline and impressive power – senior vice president of scouting and development Jason McLeod expects him to hit in the middle of the Cubs’ lineup for years to come. The Cubs must hope that happens. Bypassing on Gray, who the Rockies drafted at No. 3, puts more pressure on Bryant to succeed.
Gray’s positive test for Adderall before the draft wasn’t something the Cubs expected and it forced them to do more work. McLeod explained it did not alter their plans, and ultimately it could be a blessing they didn’t add a player who already has a red flag attached to his name.
“We looked pretty deep into that and, ultimately, it didn’t affect how we felt about him as a player and as a person,” McLeod said of Gray’s positive test. “That really had no bearing on it other than we had to get more details on it and figure things out.”
The last time the Cubs drafted a third baseman in the first round it didn’t turn out well. Former general manager Jim Hendry and the Cubs chose Josh Vitters at No. 3 overall in the 2007 draft. Six years after being drafted, Vitters has played in only 36 big league games with a .121 batting average. He’s on the disabled list at Triple-A Iowa.
“We’re going to take the players that provide the most impact in the organization for the long term, and that’s what played out,” McLeod said. “ … We’re never going to go into a draft just to draft on need.
“It wasn’t about pitcher over position player or position player over pitcher, we just made the pick we felt was right for this organization.”
Coming into college, Bryant said he was “pull happy” at the plate. But by the end of his college career, he consistently provided power, putting up better numbers each season.
He finished with a school-record 54 home runs in three seasons at San Diego. He wouldn’t speculate how long it would take to sign him. Bryant can take the heat off the Cubs if he continues to develop a patient approach, which the organization constantly has been preaching to players. Bryant labeled his ability to draw walks and read pitches “something I was blessed with.”
The Cubs’ pick will look better in the future if Bryant sticks at third base. Power-hitting corner infielders can be hard to find, particularly at third. For now, Bryant will have a chance to prove he can play the position.
“It kind of goes under the radar because you see the kind of hitter I am, but I take tremendous pride in my defense,” Bryant said. “I’m open to playing anywhere on the field as long as I’m in the middle of the lineup.”
• Meghan Montemurro covers the White Sox and Cubs for Shaw Media. Write to her at email@example.com. Read the Sox Insider and Inside the Cubs blogs at NWHerald.com and on Twitter @Sox_Insider and @InsideTheCubs.