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April 8, 2008

Ballz: Get yer hot young prospects here!

Jay Bruce and Homer Bailey bolster Bats’ ‘best team’ in years[img_assist|nid=6610|title=Jay Bruce|desc=©sportsimage/stan denny Jay Bruce plans to be the Reds’ center-fielder — in a month or a year.|link=|align=left|width=160|height=200]Ask Jay Bruce where he hopes to be in, say, one year.Or one month.“Which one?” asks the 21-year-old Texan, who will hit third in the line-up for the Louisville Bats home opener Friday night against Pawtucket.Well, Jay, how about a year from now?“Starting center-fielder for the Cincinnati Reds.”And a month from now?“Starting center-fielder for the Cincinnati Reds.”Such is the boundless optimism of young Jay Bruce, who last year began his second season in professional baseball at Single-A Sarasota, where he hit .325, before being promoted to Double-A Chattanooga, where hit .333, before winding up at Triple-A Louisville, where he hit .305 in 50 games — and left Bats fans convinced it wouldn’t be long before Bruce is, indeed, the starting centerfielder for the Bats’ parent Cincinnati Reds.“My gut feeling is when Jay Bruce is called up to the Big Leagues, we won’t be seeing him back here,” Bats manager Rick Sweet says. “If people want to see him, they better do it pretty soon.“He’s one of those guys,” adds Sweet, “you get him out of bed, roll him out there — and I don’t really want him to hear this — but he can go out there and hit.”That’s Sweet’s version of the old line about pinch-hitter deluxe Smokey Burgess — that you could wake him up in the middle of the night and he’d hit a line drive.“Jay hits for average and he hits for power,” Sweet continues. “He has a command of the strike zone and he can not be overpowered with the fastball. He’s a pure hitter.”Homer Bailey is rated the Reds’ top Triple-A pitching prospect.: courtesy of the Louisville batsNot to mention that he can throw. Bruce talks about the accuracy of outfielder’s arms being a lost art — as if he was around when outfielders actually could throw guys out.But his bat is the reason Baseball America rates him the top prospect in minor league baseball.Bruce stands into the batter’s box very conventionally: A 6-foot-2 left-handed hitter getting set for the pitch. “I kind of double-tap with my right foot (closest to the pitcher), to get my timing for the pitch,” Bruce says.Then a quick, compact swing, with his black Louisville Slugger model S-318 bat — 34 inches, 32 ounces. So automatic-looking that fans might get a best impression of Jay Bruce with their ears: listening for the sweet sound of white ash on leather.Bruce cocks his back arm level with the plate. “Kind of like (Reds future Hall-of-Famer) Junior Griffey,” he said. “When I was younger, I did everything like Junior, but now the elbow is about it. There’s only one Griffey.”Meanwhile, Bruce is not the only 21-year-old on the Bats roster with a star penciled in by his name. There’s also slender 6-4 right-hander Homer Bailey, rated as the Reds’ top pitching prospect. But don’t confuse Bruce with Bailey.“Now, you look at Homer, and you look at Jay, and they’re two different people,” says Sweet, a 20-year veteran skipper. “Jay’s always messing around in the clubhouse, always smiling and bouncing around. Homer is more serious. He’s very businesslike in his approach. So you’d think that he’s more mature and been around longer. But they’re both just 21.”Bailey was 6-3 with Louisville last season, but was twice placed on the disabled list with a groin injury — but also twice promoted to Cincinnati, where he was 4-2.Bats’ skipper Rick Sweet has his eye on a pennant this year.Sweet says the big reason Bailey did not make the big-league club this spring was the outstanding springs enjoyed by young Cincinnati pitchers Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto. Bailey says he didn’t throw enough strikes — and offered a light-hearted comparison to everyday life.“It’s like you’re out mowing the lawn and you look back and go, ‘Oops, I missed some spots.’”But even as Bailey corrects his control consistency problems, he’s not as likely as Bruce to be yanked up to the majors. Hot pitching prospects are the rarest of all baseball commodities, and Bailey will be carefully seasoned here.Which means he’ll work under a strict pitch-count — limiting the length of his outings to, say, 70 pitches to start the season — and then be taken out of the game, no matter the situation.Of course, Homer wants to go nine innings every time.“I always say I was born 50 years too late,” Bailey says. “I understand why the club puts young pitchers on a pitch count, to protect their investment. But in the old days, guys threw 300 innings a year and took the ball every fourth day. That’s the way I am.”Sweet seems very pleased with his roster. The ideal minor-league formula is to balance bright young prospects with solid Triple-A veterans — though the Bats in recent seasons have been short on prospects and long on long-toothed veterans. This year the youngsters seem better, and the veterans not so elderly. Several have major league experience, including infielders Andy Phillips (Yankees), Jerry Hairston (Orioles) and ex-UK star Andy Green (Diamondbacks).Pitching? Well, the Bats belong to Cincinnati, so all you can do is keep your fingers crossed.But Sweet says he wants the club to get off to a good start and contend for the International League pennant. “It’s is my fourth year here,” he says, “and this is the best team I’ve had.” Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com