Bruce has big-league swagger
In spring, he'll get the chance to back it up on field
BY JOHN FAY
Here's a little story from the last day of the Reds' season:
Jay Bruce was in Cincinnati to accept Baseball America's minor-league player of the year award.
He wore his Sunday best - tailored suit, white shirt, tie. Adam Dunn jumped on the chance to apply the needle.
"Why didn't you just wear your normal stuff?" Dunn asked. "Why you gotta try to impress everyone?"
"I'm getting the minor-league player of the year award," Bruce replied.
"When I got my award, I just wore my usual stuff," Dunn said.
"Was it for the Reds organization or all of baseball?" Bruce said.
Bruce didn't mean what he said as a dig, but it tells you something about him. He's a bit naïve - he's only 20 after all - but he has the confidence that goes with always being the best player on the team.
That's why Bruce took in stride the news that the Reds had traded Josh Hamilton. Once Bruce got the invitation to big-league camp, his goal was to make the team.
"I don't think it changes anything for me," he said. "It doesn't drive me anymore. Obviously, it opens a spot. I guess it makes it a little more real."
The Reds have moved cautiously with their young players the last couple of years. And the company line is the center-field spot will be open competition among Bruce, Ryan Freel, Norris Hopper and Chris Dickerson.
But it's clear that if Bruce is what the Reds think he is, he's going to be the center fielder some time this year and into the foreseeable future.
Bruce was the first Reds farmhand to win Baseball America's highest minor-league honor. He did it with a sensational year as far as numbers: a combined .319 average, 46 doubles, eight triples and 89 RBI while moving from Single-A Sarasota to Double-A Chattanooga to Triple-A Louisville.
The Reds like what they see from Bruce beyond the numbers.
Rick Sweet, the manager at Triple-A, absolutely raves about him.
"He's special," Sweet said. "A very special player and person. He's fun to be around because he loves to play."
Sweet gave Bruce the ultimate compliment when he said: "I had (Ken Griffey Jr.) his first year. I put Jay Bruce in that category."
Ownership sees Bruce as a leader and the face of the franchise down the road. That's why the Reds never seriously considered trading him.
But for Bruce to make an impact off the field, he's going to have to shine between the lines.
In scouting terms, he has great tools.
"You grade the tools and how they project," Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky said. "He can hit, hit for power, throw, run. He can play all the outfield positions. When you add in the intangibles, you've got the total package."
Bruce is not without flaws. He struck out 137 times in 521 at-bats.
"That's something you'd like even a power guy to cut down on," Krivsky said.
But Bruce was playing at a high level for his age. At 20, he was among the youngest players - or was the youngest player - in all three leagues he played in.
Dunn, for example, played for low-A Dayton as a 20-year-old. Griffey, who made the majors at 19, is a rare exception.
"You don't see many 20-year-olds in Double-A," Krivsky said, "let alone Triple-A."
Bruce missed playing with Team USA in the World Cup because of a hamstring injury. He said he's over that.
"That was precautionary," Bruce said. "I didn't want to push it too, too much. But I've been lifting for eight, nine weeks."
This will be Bruce's first big-league camp.
"It's going to be a blast," he said. "I'm looking forward to going in and playing my game and showing everyone what I can do."
Bruce said he has concentrated on getting stronger this offseason.
"I've never played a 162-game season," he said. "That's another whole month."
Sounds like Bruce plans on making the club. And after the year he had in '07, who could blame him?