Bryan LaHair of the Chicago Cubs bats against the San Diego Padres during a MLB spring training game at Peoria Stadium in Peoria, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Tuesday night, Triple-A Iowa first baseman Bryan LaHair hit his 38th home run of the season, setting a franchise record. He's hitting .331/.405/.664 and has driven in 109 runs. Iowa is the Chicago Cubs' top farm club. Wednesday, LaHair was named Pacific Coast League MVP.
So Cubs fans should be excited, right? LaHair, a first baseman, is likely going to be recalled by the Cubs after Iowa's season ends on Monday, and he'll be ready to step into the lineup in 2012 and blast home runs onto Sheffield Avenue in Chicago and...
Not so fast. You see, LaHair turns 29 in November and is finishing his fifth full season in Triple-A. His only major league time was a not-very-productive 150 plate appearances (.250/.315/.346 with three home runs) with the 2008 Mariners.
But wait, you're saying! There are guys like Nelson Cruz and Ryan Ludwick and Jack Cust and Travis Hafner, and before them John Jaha, Lee Stevens, Henry Rodriguez, Ron Coomer, Jeff Conine and Matt Stairs, guys who didn't get every-day playing time in the major leagues until they were about the age LaHair is now, and who still had some good major league seasons. Why not give LaHair a chance?
There are several problems with this idea, starting with the fact that LaHair is nearly 29. Most players who have productive major league careers are beginning those careers by the time they're 24 or so; the mere fact that LaHair has spent five years in Triple-A with one month in the majors is a red flag. All his performance in Triple-A has proven is that he can mash Triple-A pitching. And giving him playing time in the 22 games the Cubs have remaining after Labor Day won't really tell us much about his ability to hit major league pitching, either. September baseball involving noncontenders isn't played with anywhere near the intensity or meaning as the game is played through the other five months. Further, the Cubs already have a first baseman, Carlos Pena, who they might invite back in 2012. Perhaps as a result, LaHair has played some outfield for Iowa in the last few weeks. The Cubs tried this with Micah Hoffpauir -- who had also torn up Triple-A in 2008, to the tune of .362/.393/.752 with 25 HR and 100 RBI in only 71 games, at the same age as LaHair is now, 28.
All that got them was some mediocre outfield play in 2009, and Hoffpauir a ticket to Japan.
The point is that for every Nelson Cruz, there's an Ivan Cruz. I-Cruz spent ten years crushing Triple-A pitching, hitting 181 homers there, without ever getting even a cup of major league coffee. For every Jeff Conine, there's an Ernie Young, who spent 13 years in Triple-A, twice hitting more than 30 homers and consistently posting OPS's over 900. Young hit .225 in 798 major league plate appearances. For every Travis Hafner, there's a Jason Dubois, once the Cubs' top power prospect, who hit 137 home runs in seven Triple-A seasons, but who hit .235 with seven home runs when essentially handed the Cubs' starting left-field job in 2005.
You could look these guys up all day. And I did: Harvey Pulliam. Jay Gainer. Greg Pirkl. Tagg Bozied. Chad Mottola. Eddie Williams. Dave McCarty, once the No. 3 overall pick in the draft (1991). Alan Zinter, another former No. 1 pick who hit 263 minor league home runs over 6,800 plate appearances, but got just 78 major league at-bats as a reward. Kevin Witt, who holds the unusual distinction of leading both Triple-A leagues in home runs (PCL, 2004; IL, 2006). He, too, wound up playing in Japan. Andy Tracy, who is still going in Triple-A in 2011 at age 37, having spent 11 years there with 201 home runs. At least he got a World Series ring from the Phillies in 2008 for his trouble, although he played in only four games for that team and not at all in the postseason.
You get the idea. I found 25 guys like this -- from the Pacific Coast League alone, and only from the last 15 years. Perhaps the all-time champion of such things is Scott McClain, who played 11 Triple-A seasons for seven different organizations, and in 2004 had the spring training of his (or almost anyone's) life: 16-for-48 with five doubles, six home runs and 16 RBI. For that, he got released at the end of camp, and his only major league distinction came on September 3, 2008, when at age 36 he became the oldest position player to hit his first major league home run.
Every baseball fan wants to believe that his or her team has answers to all its problems waiting in its farm system. But the reality is, if a player hitting that well is going to have a long major league career, he's going to be in the major leagues at a young age, as Mike Stanton of the Marlins was, at 20, after pounding pitching in Double-A.
Could Bryan LaHair be a late bloomer, another Stairs or Cust? Anything's possible, although it should be pointed out that Cust posted only two (maybe three, if you're being generous) solid major league seasons and was released this year at 32. More likely, LaHair will get his September call-up as a reward for time served, and will be this year's Brad Snyder. Snyder, in 2010, had a year like LaHair's: .308/.381/.568 with 25 HR and 106 RBI. By midseason 2011 he was back in the minors to stay.
You might be wondering who held the Iowa home-run record that LaHair broke and what happened to him. Joe Hicks set that mark in 1984 and hit .266/.344/.574 with 90 RBI, good numbers for that lower-offense era. Yet that didn't even get him a September call-up to the NL East champion Cubs. He spent 1985 in Japan. Like Hicks and Hoffpauir, that's the most likely destination for Bryan LaHair, and other older minor leaguers like him.
The moral of this rather long story: if one of your team's Triple-A players is putting up big numbers at 28 or older, don't get too excited about seeing him play a handful of major league games in September.