Szymanski serves as mentor to Bruce
Reds' outfield prospects learning from each other
By Kevin T. Czerwinski / MLB.com
DAYTON, Ohio -- If any reminder was needed that Jay Bruce turned 19 this week, the sight of him dancing on the tarp around home plate during batting practice Thursday afternoon gave testimony to his youth.
As "Stacy's Mom" blared over the loudspeaker at Fifth Third Field, Bruce shook his hips, sang along and bounced his batting helmet like a basketball. Dayton's starting center fielder proceeded to step into the batter's box and rock a few balls off the center field fence, some 400 feet away.
If Bruce, Cincinnati's first pick in last year's draft, was nervous as he prepared for his full-season debut against South Bend, he was shaking it off as easily as he moved to the music. The idea that he'll be taking over for his idol, Ken Griffey Jr., someday at The Great American Ballpark isn't all that far-fetched. After all, the Reds did make him the 12th overall pick and with such a pedigree comes great expectations.
In a stark contrast to Bruce, B.J. Szymanski -- Dayton's other prized outfielder -- was a bit more composed Thursday afternoon, not as interested in the music as he was with sizing up hitting coach Alonzo Powell, who was throwing batting practice. The expectations placed on Szymanski (second round, 2004) are a bit different but no less great as he begins his third season with the Reds.
Injuries have limited the 23-year-old Szymanski to 72 games over his first two seasons, forcing the club to return him to Class A Dayton, where he spent last year. When healthy, he is a brilliant talent, hitting for power from both sides of the plate while utilizing the speed that once made him a top wide receiver at Princeton.
Though Szymanski initially was disappointed that he wouldn't be starting the year in the Florida State League, the situation probably couldn't have worked out better for either player. His future and that of Bruce are expected to be intertwined for many years and it's already obvious that these two native Texans have formed a bond. Szymanski has -- intentionally or not -- taken on the role of big brother, rooming with Bruce and serving as a mentor, sharing with him the experience of spending two injury-plagued seasons in the Cincinnati system.
"I've learned a lot just from living with him," said Bruce, who hit .266 with nine homers and 38 RBIs while splitting 54 games between the Gulf Coast and Northwest Leagues last season. "It's just a blast being around him. He's been here before, so I'm trying to take as much from him as I can. I don't have to ask him too much because he leads by example.
"I've asked him things like what it's like dealing with the fans here (in Dayton), but it's more of a wait-and-see what he does thing. I really can't explain it. I just take what I can from him every day."
One thing that Szymanski should be able to impart on Bruce is a sense of maturity. That's not to say Bruce isn't already mature. But the way Szymanski has handled returning to Dayton after missing much of last season with hand and knee injuries is commendable. He says he's fine mentally and physically and is ready to put the nagging ailments that have limited him since turning pro in the past.
To that end, he understands why the Reds chose not to start him in Sarasota. They want him in a comfortable setting where he won't press. And in time, his talent will force Cincinnati to make a move. For now, though, he and Bruce will serve as the heart of Dayton's batting order while filling two-thirds of its outfield.
"Jay and I clicked immediately," said Szymanski, a psychology/pre-med major at Princeton who is putting the finishing touches on his thesis. "We're both light-hearted, go-lucky kinds of guys. And I think we're pretty much interchangeable in the outfield. He's still very young, what is he, 19?
"But I'd match his athleticism with anyone's. He is further advanced than I was at that age. I was much more of a raw athlete and he's a sheer baseball talent. He's far ahead of me. But we have the same sense of humor and we're both very light-hearted."
Bruce, however, had the upper hand, if there was one to be had, on Thursday night in Dayton's 7-5, 11-inning loss to the Silver Hawks. He had two hits, including a double, and a stolen base, while Szymanski went hitless in five at-bats with a pair of strikeouts.
"This is like a dream, the biggest thing that ever happened to me," Bruce said. "I'm not taking anything for granted. Not everyone gets a chance like this, so I'm going to make the best of it."
Kevin Czerwinski 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.