Spring Training begins in earnest this weekend. One of the more interesting roster decisions is in Chicago, where Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have named Bryan LaHair as the starting first baseman for the Cubs, with top prospect Anthony Rizzo likely to begin the season in Triple-A.
Who exactly is Bryan LaHair, is this a good decision, and how long can he hold off Rizzo?
LaHair was originally drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 39th round in 2002 from St. Petersburg Junior College. After a pair of mediocre seasons in the low minors, LaHair emerged as a prospect by hitting .310/.373/.503 with 22 homers and 113 RBI for Inland Empire in the California League in 2005. He had an effective season in '06 (.293/.371/.428 in 60 games in Double-A, .327/.393/.525 in 54 games in Triple-A) but has spent the last five years in the Pacific Coast League. He got a 45-game trial with the Mariners in 2008, hitting .250/.315/.346, then hit .288/.377/.508 in 20 games for the Cubs last year, positioning himself for the job in '12.
LaHair has played 653 games in Triple-A, hitting .297/.368/.528 with 123 homers, 273 walks, and 583 strikeouts in 2709 plate appearances. All of this has been in the high-offense Pacific Coast League, although Tacoma (his home from 2006 through 2009) is not a terrific hitter's park. Iowa (where he has played the last two seasons) is more conducive to hitting, and indeed his numbers there are excellent (.308/.385/.557 in '10, .331/.405/.664 in '11).
I've seen LaHair many times over the last few years. He's big (6-5, 240) and his power is legitimate. He lacks speed and athleticism at first base, but he's not a butcher there and is reliable on the routine play. You could play him in the outfield corners in an emergency although not for the long-term due to lack of range. LaHair isn't a pure pull hitter (at least not in the games I've seen) and his hitting skills aren't one-dimensional, but he's had some problems with lefties and handling inside pitches at times. I can't see him hitting for a high batting average in the majors, but I bet he can hit .250/.330/.450 and knock 20 homers if you gave him enough at-bats.
That's not great, but it would keep the seat warm long enough for the Cubs to make sure Rizzo is ready for the job later this year or in 2013.
The negative interpretation is that LaHair is a 29-year-old "Quadruple-A" player who is too good for Triple-A but not good enough for the majors. Is this true? I would be loathe to assume that based on a mere 65 major league games and 219 plate appearances, most of them (45 games, 150 PA) from four years ago. He hit quite well in his time with the Cubs last year, granted the sample was small.
Nevertheless, having extra options is always preferable to not having enough options, and I don't think the Cubs lose anything by penciling in LaHair as the starter (for now) and giving the 22-year-old Rizzo additional Triple-A time. If LaHair is struggling in early May and Rizzo is ripping things up in Des Moines, then you can make the switch. And if LaHair hits well in the majors, you can still promote Rizzo at some point and use LaHair as a pinch-hitter or as a trade chit.