Bryan LaHair finally gets his chance with Cubs
BY GORDON WITTENMYER email@example.com February 23, 2012 10:30PM
Bryan LaHair (above) has been assured of the Cubs’ first-base job despite the team’s acquisition of Anthony Rizzo. | Getty Images
Updated: March 25, 2012 8:20AM
MESA, Ariz. — Get ready for the Cubs’ version of Linsanity.
Not to mention the pun parade if long-overlooked slugger Bryan LaHair does anything like the New York Knicks’ Jeremy Lin has done.
Brace yourself for late-inning ‘‘LaHair-oics’’ and long home runs that were ‘‘LaHair today, gone …’’ uh, later today.
OK, maybe it won’t work exactly like the Lin thing. But it’s hard not to think of the previously undervalued Lin when looking at LaHair, a former 39th-round draft pick who has spent almost all of his nine-year pro career in the minors. He never has made a big-league club out of spring training, yet he opens camp as the Cubs’ undisputed starting first baseman, replacing departed free agent Carlos Pena.
‘‘It’s Bryan LaHair’s job. And it’s not his to lose. It’s his job,’’ manager Dale Sveum said Thursday. He also mentioned he might bat the 29-year-old ‘‘kid’’ cleanup.
Talk about Linsanity.
Not that LaHair looks at it that way.
‘‘I don’t know if that’s really for me to decide,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m getting an opportunity I feel that I’m ready for. I have no reason to believe that I can’t handle this opportunity.’’
Getting other people to believe the same thing has been the issue for much of LaHair’s career, even as he played through a foot injury in his 136-at-bat big-league debut with the Seattle Mariners in 2008, then put up big seasons at Class AAA from 2009 to ’11.
After a strong finish with the Cubs last September, LaHair was considering several ‘‘really attractive’’ opportunities to play in Japan.
That’s about when the Cubs hired Theo Epstein. The new team president called LaHair’s agent and let him know LaHair didn’t have to worry about the Cubs signing Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder.
‘‘Basically, Theo said it’s too early for me to go to Japan and that he felt like I can hit here and it’s time for me to prove that I can hit in the big leagues,’’ LaHair said. ‘‘That’s what I’ve been looking for my whole career, and my whole life.’’
Of course, the elephant in the room is the big guy on the other side of the Fitch Park clubhouse, power-hitting, prospect Anthony Rizzo. The 22-year-old has been regarded highly enough by Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer that he traded for him twice since Epstein, Hoyer and Cubs scouting and player development boss Jason McLeod drafted him five years ago for the Boston Red Sox.
Almost as soon as the trade for Rizzo was completed last month, ‘‘Theo called my agent and basically said, ‘We traded for Rizzo, but this isn’t going to affect Bryan.’ At least right now. I don’t know what the future holds.’’
Said Sveum: ‘‘It’s a concrete plan to just let Rizzo have another season at Triple-A and let him be comfortable instead of moving him up and down.’’
There’s no wavering, no outfield time for LaHair just in case and no doubt who will play first base.
‘‘The guy’s earned the right to have it,’’ Sveum said, ‘‘and he’s earned the right for me to have a lot of patience, too, if things aren’t getting off to a good start. He’s our first baseman, and that’s the bottom line.’’