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Jay Bruce: Born to Hit

As mentioned yesterday, the Cincinnati Reds outfield is something of a mess right now. However, there is one leviathan-sized exception: 21 year-old prodigy Jay Bruce. Since the Texas native was selected out of high school with the 12th overall selection in the 2005 amateur entry draft, Bruce has been “The Boss” of minor league pitchers by compiling a career .308/.366/.555 minor league line. In his first action in the big leagues, the 6-3, 205 pounder held his own (.254/.314/.453). That’s pretty darned impressive for a guy in the majors at an age where some players are college juniors. To determine what we can expect from Bruce in 2009 and beyond, let’s take a closer look at his minor league resume.

2005
GCL Reds (Rookie ball, GCL): 122 AB, .270/.331/.500, 9BB%, 25.4K%, .230 ISO
Billings (Rookie ball, Pioneer League): 70 AB, .257/.358/.457, 15.7BB%, 31.4K%, .200 ISO

Right off the bat, Bruce showed the lefty pop that led Baseball America to liken him to a young Larry Walker who possessed the “strength and skill to eventually hit 30-plus homers.” In a small sample size, he showed the ability to drive the ball, though the K rates were a bit high. BA noted that he could occasionally become “antsy” at the dish. Still, as far as debuts go, this was an extremely promising one. Prior to the 2006 season, BA ranked Bruce as the 76th-best prospect in the minors.

2006
Dayton (Low-A, Midwest League): 444 AB, .291/.355/.516, 9BB%, 23.9K%, .225 ISO

In a league that tends to suppress power, Bruce posted a .220+ ISO as a 19-year old. He popped 16 home runs while compiling 63 extra-base hits overall. Suffice it to say, those power projections looked spot-on after his full-season debut. Prior to the 2007 season, Baseball America ranked Bruce as the 14th-best prospect in the minors, again making comparisons to Walker. His walk rate was solid, if unspectacular, and the K rate was a little high, but few teenagers show as much in-game power as Bruce did at such an early stage of development. As BA noted, “he can show more plate discipline, but the Reds will happily live with some strikeouts if Bruce continues to pound the ball.”

2007
Sarasota (High-A, Florida State League): 268 AB, .325/.380/.586, 8.2BB%, 25K%, .261 ISO
Chattanooga (AA, Southern League): 66 AB, .333/.405/.652, 10.8BB%, 30.3K%, .318 ISO
Louisville (AAA, International League): 187 AB, .305/.356/.567, 7.4BB%, 25.7K%, .262 ISO

Talk about a quick rise through the minor leagues. Bruce obliterated the baseball at every stop, hitting a combined 26 homers and 80 extra-base hits (!) between his three stops. His control of the strike zone remained a bit unrefined, as the lofty strikeout rates and moderate walk rates attest, but for a 20 year-old to sprint through the minors and tear the seams off of the ball at every level is mighty impressive. Prior to the ’08 season, Baseball America ranked Bruce as the very best prospect in the game, rating his power as a 65-70 while rating all of his tools as at least a 55 on the 20-80 scouting scale (50 is considered major league average). In other words, BA ranked every aspect of Bruce’s game as above the norm.

2008
Louisville: 184 AB, .364/.403/.630, 6.1BB%, 24.5K%, .266 ISO
Cincinnati (MLB): 413 AB, .254/.314/.453, 7.4 BB% 26.6K%, .199 ISO

After aggressively punishing the International League pitching staff for a while, Bruce was called up to Cincinnati in late May and proceeded to cream everything in sight, posting an absurd 1.575 OPS in 25 PA. He cooled off over the next few months before posting solid numbers in September and early October (.924 OPS in 92 PA). The strikeout rate remains something of an issue (his contact rate with the Reds was a low 71.61%) and he was a bit liberal in terms of swinging at pitches thrown out of the strike zone (30.39 O-Swing%). However, considering Bruce’s lukewarm walk rates in the minors, a 7.4BB% is rather promising for a 21 year-old cutting his teeth in the majors, as is the near-.200 ISO.

Bruce is obviously an extremely valuable long-term property. In keeper leagues, he should be near the top of your list. However, I would caution against going too hog-wild for him in 2009. He’s a very bright young player with star-caliber talent, but he also has some rough edges to smooth out in the plate discipline department. Select Bruce knowing that he has the ability to become a star, but also knowing that he might not quite reach that level this upcoming season.