Former University of San Diego Toreros baseball player and current Chicago Cubs prospect Kris Bryant has come a long way in a very short period of time, and his talents are poised to put West Coast Conference baseball on the national radar.
From Bill Russell to John Stockton to Steve Nash, the nation has long focused on the WCC exclusively as a basketball conference. While the conference has a long and rich history of team success in baseball, individual stars have been few and far between both at the collegiate and professional levels.
The conference boasts just 30 Baseball First Team All-Americans dating back to 1968, and of the fewer than 150 WCC players to reach the Major Leagues none have become bona fide superstars. The closest thing the WCC has had to a major star at the top level of professional baseball is former Pepperdine pitcher Mike Scott who won the 1986 National League Cy Young Award and had his number retired by the Houston Astros. The conference has also produced solid performers like Jason Bay of Gonzaga, C.J. Wilson of Loyola Marymount, and Dan Haren of Pepperdine. Excellent players all of them, but the WCC still lacks a signature star who dominated at the MLB level to define themselves as a baseball conference in the way Russell or Stockton or Nash might define the WCC in basketball.
Kris Bryant is poised to be that player. Just over a year ago few outside the WCC and baseball scouting circles knew of the third baseman from Nevada. After going toe-to-toe with the famous Bryce Harper in high school, Kris retreated to the relative anonymity of a scholarship at the University of San Diego to hone his skills. While Harper captured the attention of the baseball world becoming a top draft pick and star with the Washington Nationals, Bryant was quietly developing at the little school on the hill in San Diego.
Bryant made an immediate impact being named Co-WCC Player of the Year as a freshman when he belted a team-best 9 home runs, no small feat in the first year of the new BBCOR composite bat era that significantly decreased the power numbers in college baseball. As other teams and players struggled to find the home run power that came so easily with the old aluminum bats, Bryant continued to pound the ball increasing his output to 14 home runs his sophomore year.
Entering his junior season in 2013, Bryant was still an unknown commodity to most college baseball fans despite having become one of the best players in the WCC. However Major League Baseball scouts had started to take notice of his tremendous power.
Bryant entered the season as a consensus top 10 pick in the 2013 MLB Amateur Draft, and Bryant was expected to anchor another deep and talented Toreros squad. With the eyes of Major League Baseball watching to see if he could confirm his status as an elite prospect, Bryant embarked on one of the greatest seasons in collegiate baseball history. Bryant hammered a nation-best 31 home runs, a total that was more than the majority of teams hit combined during the season. The highlight of Bryant’s power came on a rainy night during the USD Tournament in March in front a sparse crowd when Bryant hit a monumental blast against Saint Louis that was estimated by some witnesses to have cleared the light towers in Fowler Park traveling upwards of 500+ feet.Adding to the legend of this home run was the fact that it was one of the only USD games with no video available due to the equipment being used at the WCC Basketball Tournament in Las Vegas the same week, meaning the home run was left to grow in length and legend over the rest of the season.
Meanwhile Bryant went on to lead the nation in a number of major offensive categories and caught the attention of scouts and fans alike. Bryant went on to win the 2013 Golden Spikes Award, was named a First Team All-American and the Baseball America National Player of the Year, and became the highest drafted player in West Coast Conference history when he was selected 2nd overall by the Chicago Cubs. Bryant had outdone all expectations and was on his way to becoming a star at the professional level.
Despite his amazing season to end his USD career, much was left to prove. Bryant was not the first highly regarded prospect to come out of the conference, and many fans were still skeptical about a player few of them had heard of despite his amazing collegiate career.
At the start of his professional career, Bryant was still being overlooked in the same way he was in college. Bryant was talked about less than the foreign prospects who are considered the future of the Cubs like Albert Almora, Javier Baez, and Jorge Soler. However like at USD, Bryant was not fazed by being overlooked and again quietly built himself a stellar reputation. A
fter a brief stay in the Arizona Fall League, Bryant was promoted to the Low A Boise Hawks where he batted .354 with 13 runs scored and 4 home runs in just 18 games. By the end of 2013 and only a few months removed from college baseball, Bryant was in High A with the Daytona Cubs. Bryant helped lead the Daytona Cubs to a Florida League Championship while batting .333 and continuing to show his ability to hit for power and score runs. Meanwhile on the defensive side, Bryant continued to play a confident and efficient third base despite rumors that he would be moved to the outfield.
The immediate success in professional baseball put Bryant in position to be a highly regarded name entering 2014. The MLB Network named him the #9 prospect in all of baseball entering the season, and Bryant backed up the lofty ranking by starring for the AA Tennessee Smokies. Bryant hit .355 and belted 22 home runs in 68 games for the Smokies and was leading the Triple Crown race in the Southern League before his call-up in June to the AAA Iowa Cubs. Bryant has continued his torrid pace at the AAA level hitting .351 with 8 home runs in 21 games since his promotion.
Bryant is one of the minor league leaders in home runs through the first half of the season and is averaging just under one home run for every three games played in his minor league career. This comes after his stellar junior season at USD when he averaged slightly better than one home run every two games played. His power numbers have hardly changed despite the jump from college to professional baseball, and Bryant is being recognized for his efforts with a variety of honors including various First Half Minor League Player of the Year honors as well as being named to the prestigious MLB Futures Game taking place this Sunday as part of the MLB All-Star Game festivities.
With his spot on the MLB Futures Game roster, Bryant looks to take the next step of making his name known among the casual fans that are looking for the future of the Cubs and baseball in general. The Futures Game has often been a final preview of top prospects as they near the Major League level, and Futures Game alumni include stars like Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Cano, and Clayton Kershaw. A strong showing in the Futures Game by Bryant combined with his impressive minor league career so far could lead to a debut with the Cubs as early as later this season.
If his power numbers continue for the Cubs, Bryant could be on his way to anchoring a young and dangerous lineup that looks to turn around the Cubs and end their World Series drought. If Bryant can accomplish this feat, he would cement himself as the face of WCC Baseball and become perhaps the greatest baseball player to come out of the conference.
Catch Bryant in the Futures Game this Sunday at 2 p.m. PST on the MLB Network and on MLB.com as the former Torero looks to put himself and the WCC on the baseball map.