Is this the year Jay Bruce reaches his full potential?
Finding baseball's next breakout player isn't as simple as just waiting for each team's top prospect to be promoted to the big leagues. Just ask the owners who have been drafting Alex Gordon the last three or four years, or those who have been reaching for Matt Wieters five rounds too early ever since he became the Baltimore Orioles' full-time catcher. It usually takes time before a player's full potential is reached (if it's ever reached at all). And that's been the case with former first-round pick Jay Bruce.
We've been excited about Bruce for years now. Ever since the Cincinnati Reds drafted the outfielder with the 12th overall pick in 2005 and the Larry Walker comparisons started making the rounds, expectations have been high. While Bruce has made strides in his first three big league seasons, he hasn't reached his star potential … yet. Will that happen in 2011?
Bruce showed definite growth in 2010. Even the Reds showed their faith in the youngster by handing him a six-year, $51 million contract extension over the offseason. In addition to setting career bests in every standard fantasy category (.281 average, 25 homers, 70 RBIs, 5 steals, 80 runs scored) despite missing some time in September with an oblique injury, he produced the best walk rate of his three-year career, drawing free passes 10.1 percent of the time, and batted .277 AVG/.352 OBP/.547 SLG against left-handed pitchers after averaging just .200/.288/.297 the previous two years combined.
More interesting, however, is the power he displayed last season. While he hit 25 home runs -- just three more than he did in 2009, in 164 fewer at-bats, no less -- it was when he hit them that's important. Fifteen of those 25 homers came in his final 34 games. Ordinarily, we'd probably pass off a power outburst like this as an aberration that won't be repeated. But there's more going on here.
If you remember, Bruce was limited to just 101 games in 2009 due to a broken right wrist suffered in mid-July. He returned from the disabled list in mid-September and finished the season. However, it's important to know that when a player suffers a broken hand or wrist, it typically takes him up to 12 months before his power fully returns. Looking back, Bruce's power binge in 2010 began shortly after he was a full year removed from his 2009 wrist injury, signifying that he was 100 percent recovered. No, Bruce won't average one home run per every seven at-bats like he did in that 34-game stretch, but it does showcase his future power potential.
Even if we look at Bruce's entire second half and not just his final 34 games, we see that he averaged a home run for every 12.4 at-bats. And in 2009, he averaged one home run per 15.6 at-bats. To compare, Adam Dunn, who's hit at least 38 home runs for the last seven seasons, had a 14.7 HR/AB mark last year. In short, Bruce's power upside over a full, healthy season is pretty intriguing. Thirty home runs seems like a given, and getting into the 35-40 range is definitely possible.
Most fantasy owners don't care about defense all that much, but Bruce posted a 20.2 ultimate zone rating in right field last season, the second-highest rating in all of baseball, behind only Brett Gardner (22.3). Not that the Reds would seriously consider platooning Bruce if his struggles against southpaws cropped up again this year, but the fact he's such an asset as a defender just adds to the certainty that he'll be in the lineup every day, no matter what.
If there's one area where Bruce has struggled, however, it's in the batting average department. He hit a career-best .281 last season, but it was aided by a .334 BABIP, which is 44 points above his career average. The fact he batted a combined .240 over his previous two seasons (spanning 758 at-bats) doesn't lend much optimism, either. It also doesn't help to realize his contact rate went in the wrong direction (78 percent in 2009 to 73 percent last year) and that he struck out 26.7 percent of the time, the 11th-highest rate in the National League.
Maybe Bruce is destined to be a .260-.270 hitter in his big league career, which, combined with his power upside, means he could eventually settle in as a lite version of Dunn. Then again, perhaps we shouldn't be so quick to discount Bruce. Remember, he will turn just 24 shortly after the regular season begins, and he hit .308 over 1,359 minor league at-bats, including a combined .334 between Double- and Triple-A. He also sported a 20.1 percent line-drive rate last season, which was a significant increase over his 13 percent mark from 2009. Plus, let's not forget he actually hit .306 after the All-Star break last season, so it's not like he's never done it at the big league level. Sure, it's possible that Bruce has simply traded in some of his batting average potential for more power, and he'll probably never be a consistent .300 hitter. But for you glass-half-full types, there is reason to hope that he can settle in as an annual .280-plus hitter, or, at the very least, not be a liability in the batting average department like many other big-time sluggers.
Truth be told, this isn't a situation where every metric in Bruce's profile is trending upward and a 2011 breakout is inevitable. While there are many encouraging signs, there are still a few kinks he has to work out, meaning we may have to wait until Bruce turns 26 or 27 before he truly peaks, which is normal for most players. However, a step forward -- and perhaps a significant one -- is likely for the Reds outfielder in 2011. According to ESPN's average draft position data, he's being drafted in the eighth round, and I'm more than comfortable grabbing him there.
After all, there's a saying in fantasy sports: It's better to be a year too early than a year too late. And with the potential upside he hinted at last season, Bruce is definitely a guy I don't want to be a year too late on.