Thoughts on Jay Bruce
The winner of the most recent "Guess the Prospect" contest asked for my take on Cincinnati Reds outfielder Jay Bruce. Here is a look at his prospect background and how I see his future.
Jay Bruce was drafted by the Reds in the first round in 2005, 12th overall, out of high school in Beaumont, Texas. He impressed scouts with his left-handed power potential and all-around tools that reminded them of Andy Van Slyke and Larry Walker. There was some concern about his willingness to chase pitches outside the strike zone, but scouts felt he had the aptitude to adjust. His pro debut was decent: .270/.331/.500 in 37 games in the Gulf Coast League, followed by .257/.358/.457 in 17 games in the Pioneer League. I gave him a Grade B in the 2006 book, noting his power potential but the need to make some strike zone adjustments.
Moved up to Low-A Dayton for 2006, Bruce hit .291/.355/.516 with 42 doubles, 16 homers, 19 steals, 44 walks, and 106 strikeouts in 444 at-bats. Scouts also praised his throwing arm and outfield defense. His statistical performance was very strong (OPS +26 percent), but scouts reported that his swing got long at times and there was some concern about what his batting average would look like at higher levels. I gave him a Grade A- in the 2007 book, writing that he was "one of the most complete prospects around" and that I felt his flaws were fixable. He ranked Number Nine on my Top 50 hitters list.
Bruce began 2007 with High-A Sarasota, hitting .325/.379/.586 in 67 games. Promoted to Double-A Chattanooga, he remained hot with a .333/.405/.652 line in 16 games, then moved up to Triple-A Louisville and didn't skip a beat, hitting .305/.358/.567 in 50 contests. He combined for 46 doubles and 26 homers, with a 47/135 BB/K in 521 at-bats. Scouting reports indicated that his strike zone judgment was an issue, but that his bat speed was so good that it didn't matter much against minor league pitching. After seeing him play, I wrote that he might struggle "in the majors, at least at first, but in the long run I am very optimistic about his bat" and that the plate discipline thing didn't concern me too much. I gave him a Grade A and ranked him Number One on my hitting prospect list.
2008 was split between devastating Triple-A pitching (.364/.393/.630 in 49 games) and the majors (.254/.314/.453 in 108 games). He hit 21 homers for the Reds but struggled with his plate discipline and contact a bit. In 2009 he hit .223/.303/.470 in 22 games, but last year he took a big step to becoming a complete hitter with a .281/.353/.493 mark, with 25 homers. His career line so far in the majors is .257/.327/.474 with 68 homers in 1267 at-bats. His WAR last year was an excellent 5.3, giving him a career number of 7.8 so far. He's a very good fielder and his bat is just entering the prime years.
Comparable players through age 23 are fun: Willie Horton, Reggie Jackson, Pete Incaviglia, Barry Bonds, Dick Kokos, Curt Blefary, Adam Dunn, Jeff Burroughs, Harold Baines, Darryl Strawberry. Reggie is in the Hall, Barry is Barry, and Baines is a borderline guy. The weakest guy on the list was Kokos, who was actually a good player but didn't last long.
The Reds recently gave Bruce a contract extension, and based on what he's done so far and the historically comparable players, I think it was a good decision. Certainly the trend lines in his data look great (OPS+ from 97 to 101 to 127 in three years), and given anything approaching a normal age curve, Bruce should have some MVP-quality seasons.