It's ironic, given the fact that the Cubs used defense as the excuse for having him start the season in Triple A, that it was Kris Bryant's glove, not his bat, that stood out in his major league debut on Friday afternoon. Bryant went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts at the plate, but made a diving catch to end the fifth inning and a nice play ranging into foul territory in the seventh. That wasn't enough, though, as Chicago lost to the Padres, 5–4, in its first game with Bryant in the lineup.
To be fair to Bryant, he wasn’t given the easiest of assignments in batting cleanup against James Shields, the Padres' ace. In doing so, Bryant became just the third active player to hit fourth in his major league debut, joining the White Sox’s Jose Abreu, who did so last year after starring in his native Cuba, and Justin Morneau, who did so for the Twins in 2003. Bryant is just the fourth to do so in the last decade, joining Abreu, Barbaro Canizares—another Cuban veteran whose major league career lasted all of five games with the Braves in '09—and Brad Eldred, a minor league slugger who debuted with the Pirates in '05.
Bryant’s first at-bat came in the bottom of the first after a two-out walk by third-place hitter Anthony Rizzo, but it ended a scant three pitches later with Bryant swinging over a Shields changeup that dove out of the zone. Bryant fared better in his second trip, which came leading off the fourth inning, as he fouled off two pitches and worked the count full before again swinging over a changeup. Bryant’s third at-bat came with men on second and third and one out in the bottom of the fifth and ended much like the first two, this time with Bryant swinging over a 1–2 cutter.
Bryant didn’t let his struggles at the plate impact his play in the field, however. In fact, his two best plays at third base came in the half innings following his second and third strikeout. After the second whiff, he made a diving stab of a Derek Norris line drive down the line to rob the Padres' catcher of a likely double and strand a runner on first base:
After his third strikeout, Bryant ranged over to the line to scoop up a hard grounder off the bat of Will Middlebrooks in the seventh and made a strong throw to Rizzo at first base for the out.
Bryant’s last and most compelling at-bat came in the bottom of that frame, with the Padres now leading after a three-run home run by Wil Myers in the top of the inning. With two outs and Dexter Fowler on second base thanks to a double that got stuck in the still-withered vines on Wrigley Field’s outfield wall, the Padres had righty reliever Dale Thayer intentionally walk Rizzo to put the go-ahead run on base and bring up Bryant. Thayer came right after Bryant with 93-mile-per-hour fastballs; Bryant took the first two to put the count at 1–1, then grounded the third pitch to third base to end the threat.
Outside of Bryant’s nice work in the field—he also barehanded a ball that kicked high off the third base bag in the first but didn’t have a play and wisely held the ball—there wasn’t much to take away from his major league debut. Going 0-for-4 with three strikeout might seem problematic, but that’s the exact same line Troy Tulowitzki put up in his debut in 2006. One game is, ultimately, pretty meaningless, but for all the focus placed on his home runs and ridiculous slash lines in the minors, Bryant did strike out 206 times in 181 minor league games. There’s no doubt that he’s going to have to adjust to the league and that the league will adjust right back. That’s the natural process of breaking into a higher league for any hitter, as my look at the early careers of several other top hitting prospects of recent vintage showed.
Indeed, the contrast between Bryant and the player who hit the game-winning home run, Myers, is informative. Originally a Royals draft pick, Myers was traded to the Rays for Shields and was rated the fourth-best prospect in baseball by Baseball America prior to the 2013 season, with his debut prompting comparable anticipation that season. While he did win the American League Rookie of the Year award that year, he did so in a weak field and ran hot and cold over a mere 88 games. The next year, he got off to a poor start, then fractured his wrist, costing him a huge chunk of the year.
That closed the book on Myers in Tampa: Last December, he was traded for the second time in two years and continues to work to try to fulfill the sky-high expectations that greeted him in his major league debut (0-for-4 with one strikeout, by the way, though the Rays played a doubleheader and Myers got a single in the nightcap, going 1-for-7 on the day with two strikeouts). Going 3-for-4 with a home run on Friday afternoon raised Myers's season line to .333/.348/.511, but the home run was just his first of the season, and the 24-year-old is still a long way from living up to his prospect potential.
As for how far Bryant is from fulfilling expectations, that remains to be seen. But even if he struggles, his mere presence in the lineup should make an already solid Cubs team more compelling to watch in the interim. Welcome to the big leagues, Kris Bryant.