It's hard to imagine Kris Bryant's year getting any better, yet it keeps happening.
After a spectacular junior season at San Diego propelled him to the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 First-Year Player Draft, Bryant had a tremendous pro debut that culminated in a Class A Advanced Florida State League championship. The Cubs wanted to get him even more exposure to quality pitching, so they sent him to the Arizona Fall League.
In the first two weeks of AFL play, Bryant has reinforced the perception that he's the best college power hitter to come along in years. Though he played just 10 of the Mesa Solar Sox's first 16 games, he led the league in several categories, including runs (13), homers (four), extra-base hits (11), RBIs (14), total bases (38) and slugging (.905) while batting .429.
Bryant's college season began in mid-February and he has had little downtime since, but at the outset of the AFL schedule, he said he was happy to keep playing.
"I'm really excited to actually face some really good pitching," said Bryant, ranked as the Cubs' fourth-best prospect. "These guys have been playing for a while, and a lot of them are ready for the big leagues. I just hope I come here and compete and show everybody that I can play this game."
Bryant has been raking all year. He led NCAA Division I with 31 homers, more than 223 of the 296 teams hit at that level and more than anyone has hit since college baseball toned down its bats three years ago. He also topped D-I in runs (80), walks (66), total bases (187) and slugging (.820), setting a Toreros career record with 54 homers and winning the Golden Spikes Award and Baseball America's College Player of the Year Award.
Bryant signed for $6,708,400, a Cubs record and the most any player has received since new Draft rules came into effect in 2012. It's also the biggest up-front bonus for a position player in Draft history.
Bryant began his pro career by going 1-for-6 in two games in the Rookie-level Arizona League, then moved up to the short-season Northwest League. In his first game for Boise, he went 0-for-5 with five strikeouts. His box-score line may have been ugly, but he didn't let it shake his confidence.
"I just think it all comes down to believing in yourself," Bryant said. "I've had plenty of bad games in my career and I know that I'm probably going to strike out five times again. It just happens in baseball. Hitting is so hard. You just got to go out there and believe that you're better than the pitcher. I really just put that game behind me, and I went on a good little run."
Bryant wound up batting .336/.390/.688 with nine homers and 32 RBIs in 36 regular-season games between three levels, then hit .350 with four RBIs in six Florida State League playoff contests. There's little doubt that he'll make an impact with his bat in the big leagues. He's a 6-foot-5, 215-pounder who generates huge power with his bat speed, strength and the loft in his right-handed swing.
The only questions with Bryant are how quick he'll get to Wrigley Field and what position he'll play when he arrives. He could be ready for prime time by the end of 2014. He has a strong arm and enough athleticism to stick at third base, though his size leads some scouts to project him as a corner outfielder.
In the long run, whether Javier Baez stays at shortstop or moves to third base could be the determining factor as to whether Bryant heads to the outfield. He'd like to stay at the hot corner and said he takes as much pride in his defense as his hitting.
"I really love playing third base," he said. "It's always a challenge for a big guy to stay there, and I'm up for that challenge. I'm going to come out here and work really hard and take as many ground balls as I can, and hopefully show the guys up there that I can stay there."
Cubs hitters in the AFL
• Extremely polished for a teenager, Albert Almora has hit .326/.361/.465 and looked like a future Gold Glove center fielder since the Cubs selected him from a Florida high school with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2012 Draft. A natural hitter with an advanced approach at the plate, he could grow into a batter with 20-homer power. He's making up for lost at-bats after missing time this season with hamate bone and groin injuries.
• Infielder Wes Darvill signed out of a Canadian high school as a fifth-round pick in 2009. He still needs to add strength to his 6-foot-2, 175-pound frame, and if he does, he could have a future as a utility man. He offers versatility and solid athleticism, but he will have to produce more at the plate.
• Like Almora, Jorge Soler is a top outfield prospect who received big money in 2012 and missed time with injuries this year. Signed to a $30 million Major League contract after defecting from Cuba, he played in just 55 games in 2013 because of a stress fracture in his left leg. Soler has some of the best power in the Minors, shows a good feel for hitting and has the solid speed and arm required in right field.
Cubs pitchers in the AFL
• Right-hander Dallas Beeler made the climb from 41st-round Draft pick in 2010 (when he was recovering from Tommy John surgery at Oral Roberts) to one of Chicago's best pitching prospects by the end of 2011, but he regressed the following year and made just nine starts this year while battling a finger injury. He gets good sink on his solid fastball and changeup, and he also throws a hard breaking ball that isn't as consistent as his other offerings.
• Originally signed out of the Dominican Republic by the Phillies in 2006 as a shortstop, right-hander Lendy Castillo moved to the mound in 2010 and went to the Cubs in the Major League Rule 5 Draft a year later. Chicago has tried to make Castilloa a starter, but he looks more like a reliever, a role in which he has run his fastball into the mid-90s and his slider into the mid-80s. His feel for pitching lags well behind his pure stuff, however.
• A 23rd-round pick from Jacksonville in 2010, righty Matt Loosen topped the FSL with 11 wins in 2012 but struggled with his control when he made the jump to Double-A this year. He throws an average fastball and a pair of decent breaking balls in his slider and curveball. He also has a developing changeup.
• Righty Armando Rivero defected from Cuba and signed in March for $3.1 million. After not having pitched competitively in two years, he broke into the Minors in late June and reached Double-A by the end of the season. He can pump his fastball into the mid-90s and flashes a promising splitter, but his secondary pitches and control are still works in progress.