University of San Diego third baseman a likely top 10 Draft pick; could go No. 1 overall
SAN DIEGO -- The atmosphere at Fowler Park, home of the University of San Diego Toreros, is no different than that of any other quality college baseball program across the country.
Fans mill around the concourse, waiting in line for concessions. Students gather in small packs, chattering on about postgame plans. A few children play a disorganized game of Wiffle ball on the miniature diamond down the left-field line.
But something changes when No. 23 steps to the plate. Fowler Park is suddenly abuzz in collective anticipation.
It's easy to see why. The batter entering the box has the looks of something more than a college ballplayer, and his clean, smooth right-handed swing reinforces that notion. His slender, athletic, 6-foot-5 frame produces arguably the best power bat in this year's Draft class.
Kris Bryant's future is bright. There is no denying that.
A likely top-10 pick in the upcoming 2013 First-Year Player Draft, the Las Vegas native is certain to cash in very soon with a big league club. Bryant, who leads the NCAA with 26 home runs, even has an outside shot at being selected No. 1 overall. He's thought to be one of six players that the Houston Astros are considering with the first overall pick.
The other five leading candidates to go first are: Stanford right-hander Mark Appel, Georgia high school outfielders Clint Frazier and Austin Meadows, Oklahoma right-hander Jonathan Gray and Indiana State lefty Sean Manaea.
The media requests and the hordes of Little Leaguers lining up for autographs would send most 21-year-olds on an understandable ego-trip. Kris Bryant is not most 21-year-olds.
"I would be lying if I said I didn't think a lot about the future," Bryant said Saturday, after the Toreros knocked off Portland, 10-2. "For me, it's just about sticking with that routine and not letting the outside factors get to me. When you start letting that get to you, you aren't having fun, and that's what this game is all about."
Fun? Bryant and the Toreros are having plenty of it this season. First, there was Bryant's three-homer game against BYU. He capped that night with his first walk-off homer, and he followed it up by walking off again two days later.
But the BYU series wasn't even his most talked-about effort of the season. That came on a foggy Friday night against San Francisco, when Bryant crushed a home run that has become the stuff of legend around the USD campus.
"I couldn't tell you how far it went," Bryant says. "I just know it's the farthest ball I've hit in my life."
Some claim the ball was level with the 80-foot light pole in left field when it left the yard. Others say it went over that pole. Ask around, and 500 feet begins to seem like a conservative estimate.
"Every time someone tells the story, it grows," Bryant's manager Rich Hill says. "There's no way it went over the light tower. It looked like it did. The fog was coming in. Maybe that adds to the allure. Maybe Bigfoot was out there and the Loch Ness Monster was in Mission Bay."
The actual distance of the home run may be in doubt, but Bryant's power never has been. Bryant says simply, "it's just something I was blessed with from Little League to high school to college."
That blessing landed him at No. 5 on MLB.com's Top 100 Draft Prospects list. The lone deterrent to Bryant's offensive game is his high strikeout totals -- understandable for a player as lanky as he is. But with the current evolution of the game, there will be plenty of teams lining up to trade a few extra K's for the long ball.
2013 draft order
The order of the first round of the 2013 First-Year Player Draft:
Bryant's father, Mike, says he knew his son had the tools to be a big league ballplayer when Kris was 5, taking hacks on a Little League field for the first time.
"The first pitch I threw to Kris, he just absolutely ripped it into the outfield," Mike Bryant said. "He probably hit it maybe 30 feet into the outfield, it was hit hard and deep and high and a beautiful, smooth swing."
That moment was a bit of a life-changer for Mike Bryant. Realizing shortly thereafter that he absolutely had to be by his son's side throughout his baseball journey, Mike sold the family's patio furniture store and got a job that would allow him to coach Kris' youth teams.
The talent was there, but Mike, who had spent two seasons in the Minor Leagues with the Red Sox organization in the early 1980s, wanted to instill the proper mindset in his son. Mike acknowledged his own "hair-on-fire" approach to the sport was ineffective, and worked on instilling a more even-keel demeanor in his son -- the type of demeanor Mike admired when he watched Carl Yastrzemski prepare and play.
But Mike didn't have to do much teaching. Kris always played in leagues with players who ranged from one to four years older than him. As a result, he remained shy in the dugout, often gravitating to his father so they could discuss the game's strategy. That helped develop Kris' quiet-but-deadly approach.
"On the field, he doesn't get rattled," Mike said. "Don't think for a minute that internally [failure] doesn't drive him. But on the outside, he's very calm. He'll never let that pitcher know that he's got you."
Bryant was drafted out of Bonanza High School by Toronto in the 18th round of the 2010 Draft but chose to attend USD instead -- a different path from the one chosen by his old high school rival, Bryce Harper, who was taken first overall that year.
"It's the best decision that I've made in my life," Bryant said. "I knew … that the coaching staff here would get me a whole lot better, and they obviously have. I couldn't be more pleased with where I'm at in this game."
Defensively, Bryant has a plus arm at third base, and his athleticism often saves him from his need for a quicker first step. Some feel he projects better as a corner outfielder or first baseman.
Offensively, the questions are fewer. In Hill's mind, there's really only one:
"He wants it so bad, and that's the only thing I think he needs to work on," Hill said. "Sometimes he just has a tendency to press. He wants to do so well for his team, and he wants to win. It's difficult for him, because he never sees anything to hit. He's a baseball player and he wants to hit. At the next level, they come at you a little bit."
Hill considers Bryant to be "a once-in-a-career player to coach" -- both talent-wise and humility-wise. Hill compares Bryant to Colts quarterback Andrew Luck -- not coincidentally, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. So how good can Bryant be at the next level?
"Sky's the limit," Hill said. "You don't like to put expectations on kids. But I'll tell you I've never coached a guy like him."