Baring something very unusual in spring training, the Cubs Opening Day first baseman will be Bryan LaHair. The minor league veteran had a great season in 2011, and he continued that success into the Winter Leagues. His 15 HR performance in Venezuela was impressive enough that Baseball America has named the left handed slugger their 2012 Winter Player of the Year. That winter league success just caps off a year of full of records and awards that included the 2011 Pacific Coast League Most Valuable Player.
Of course, the prize that matters most to LaHair is a regular job in the majors. With Anthony Rizzo on the horizon, will he get that chance?
Fortunately for LaHair, the same front office that believes so much in Rizzo that they have brought him along to three different teams also is committed to giving LaHair a chance. Theo Epstein said it best.
There’s this myth about the 4-A hitter. Guys who perform all the way up the minor leagues, dominate Triple-A, get a cup of coffee, they hit a buck-fifty in the big leagues, and everybody labels them a 4-A hitter. The reality is, I’m not so sure there is something called a 4-A hitter. It’s just (a) pretty good major league hitter who never got an opportunity . . . If you hit the right way, outperform your competition consistently and dominate minor league baseball at every level, you’ll eventually hit at the big league level.
LaHair absolutely fits the description of someone who has been a good minor league hitter and who has never gotten the opportunity. At some point in the 2012 season he will be pushed off first by Rizzo, who plays better defense. If LaHair has been hitting up until that time, however, I think he’ll simply make a new home in left field as a platoon partner with Alfonso Soriano.
There are other players in the minors who should be encouraged by Theo’s comments about AAAA players. If players like Matt Cerda, Rebel Ridling, and Steve Clevenger keep hitting as they work their way up the system, they are likely to get a chance to play in Wrigley one of these days. That philosophy is going to make for some difficult roster decision as the vast bulwark of the Cubs depth moves out of A-ball and into the upper minors. In long run, it should also result in a better team in the majors.