Anyone who has read Bus Leagues since the beginning knows of our fascination with Cincinnati Reds outfielder Jay Bruce. He was named the top prospect in the game by Baseball America and USA Today shortly after Eric and I started pretending we knew something about minor league baseball, and so we have followed his career arc more closely than that of just about any other player.
With Bruce firmly entrenched in the Reds lineup, we haven’t had much reason to write about him lately, but last summer I discovered some startling information. His agent is Matt Sosnick. And Matt Sosnick’s business contact information is online. Several emails, a few phone calls, and a few months later, and I had myself a 1:1 phone interview with the man we once called The Deal.
We spoke on Tuesday afternoon, covering a number of topics ranging from the honor of being baseball’s top prospect to the advice he can give today’s minor leaguers to help them reach the majors.
We’re kind of into prospect season now, where Baseball America is naming their Top 100 and other places are naming theirs. Back in 2007, I think it was Baseball America and USA Today, you were their top guy, their top prospect coming up. What did it mean to you to be honored like that?
It was great, because you see some of the guys that were the top prospects of the year and they had really successful careers, and it was cool just to be mentioned in that capacity with those guys, on the one hand. On the other, a lot came with it. You try not to really worry about it or think about it too much, but you still have to go out and prove yourself as a player, and in my opinion I’m still doing that today. Cause at the end of the day all it is is a ranking, it’s one person’s opinion, you know what I mean? Like, there’s no set way to determine the top prospects. So it’s just a group of guys who consider themselves experts on grading talent and they come up with a list, and I’d say for the most part that they do a pretty good job. But at the end of the day you have to go out and prove yourself, and when you are the number one prospect people expect a lot more out of you.
Right, that’s what I’ve noticed. You’ve had a couple really good years the past couple years, the past 2-3 years, but there always seems like there’s that expectation of “more”. Having that number one prospect, first round draft pick, on your resume – do you feel like that causes people to raise their expectations of you to a point where it’s hard to reach?
I definitely think they raise expectations because they expect you to come into the league and just not miss a beat at all, just keep on doing what you were doing, and some guys do it. Some guys absolutely have done it. But…I’m pretty certain that no one has as high of expectations of me than me. I’m my hardest and worst critic. I have the highest expectations that I feel like you could possibly have for yourself, and I think that from time to time people can maybe be a little impatient, and not understand the process, but it’s fair because they’re fans and they don’t see the real nuances of the game that change.
There is definitely a learning curve, and I think that you have to take that into consideration, and there’s a lot of stuff that I’m still learning in the big leagues. And I’m still learning. I’m gonna be learning until the day this is all over. But as far as expectations, I knew that they had risen, and it didn’t really bother me too much because I knew the expectations I had of myself, so if I reached mine I would definitely reach everyone else’s.
You mentioned the learning curve. What adjustments did you make as you were moving through the minor leagues and then on into the majors?
I think it’s just getting at-bats. For me it was just getting at-bats, seeing different pitchers, different pitches, playing against the high level of competition every single day in professional baseball as opposed to high school or in the summer. Even in the lower level minor leagues you run into some guys who probably are gonna be fortunate enough to make it to the big leagues, and a lot goes into that. A LOT goes into that, and when you get up to Double-A, Triple-A, you start facing guys pretty much day in, day out that have a pretty good idea what they’re doing and have a lot of talent.
You get to Triple-A and the big leagues, pretty much every single guy out there is deserving to be there, for the most part, and when they’re out there they’re not really working on stuff anymore. Their job is to get you out. Seeing more of that helps with the whole process, just understanding what they’re trying to do to you and applying that and being able to defend that when you’re up at the plate or out in the field or on the bases.
You had also mentioned the various levels that you’ve seen time at. Three of those levels you spent time at in 2007 alone. Is it difficult when, in one year, you’re bouncing around like that, to produce consistently?
I think that maybe it could be, but in my situation it was so exciting. You know, I was moving, and I was moving up levels. I was always pretty impatient, so when the call came I was always ready. I was always ready to go. I think that if you just take it with a grain of salt and you just continue to go and practice and apply yourself in a way that you always have, and try to stick to the routine that you’ve committed to for yourself, I think that you’ll be fine. And obviously the landscape changes a little bit, the facilities change a little bit. There is definitely some adjustment time to be had, but for the most part I really enjoyed it and it was just a blast. It was a whirlwind of a year and I took it in stride. I went to the Futures Game that year as well. It was just an unbelievable season for me. So I didn’t have a whole lot of trouble or it didn’t bother me too much, but it can definitely be pretty taxing on you mentally.
That came after a year where you spent, correct me if I’m wrong, the full season in Dayton. We hear great things about that ballpark, about the fans there. What was that experience like playing in Dayton?
Tell you what, it is top of the line. It doesn’t get any better than Dayton in the minor leagues, in my opinion. They have a great staff there, it’s a great facility, it’s a good city. The company that runs it, that owns the Dragons, they do an unbelievable job with marketing. You have 8,000 people at the game every single night. It’s just a fun atmosphere. You come from Rookie leagues, where there aren’t many fans, to there, where there’s 8,000 fans, it’s unbelievable. It’s pretty much like the big leagues as far as that’s concerned, but without that third deck.
So it’s kind of nice preparation for the feeling of what it’s like to be in front of all those people?
Absolutely, and not just on that side of it, but the other side of it, the nerves you have to deal with and the adrenaline that gets you going. Because regardless of what anyone thinks, playing in front of fans is obviously much more enjoyable than playing in front of no one.
Obviously now you’re in the major leagues, you’ve been there for a couple years, you’re pretty established. Fans of any organization want the young talent to stick around. They want to keep those guys that have come up through the organization. You signed a deal that’s gonna keep you in Cincinnati for several years. What went into the decision to sign that contract, what were you taking into consideration during negotiations, that sort of thing?
Well, I really like the direction Cincinnati is going. They gave me the opportunity in the very beginning to play professional baseball, and obviously what everyone sees and hears is the financial obligation they made to me. I mean, that’s truly life-changing money and it’s set me up to live a comfortable life for the rest of my life if I manage it correctly, which I think I will.
When it came to the money, it wasn’t as much about the money as about the situation that I was in. I was young, I could sign that contract, I could be there, and still be fairly young when the contract’s up. And during that time, I was confident that Cincinnati was gonna continue to make the moves in the right direction to be a sustainable, competitive, winning team. Not competitive – anyone can compete – a winning team. That’s all I want.
And I feel like that by doing that, it was the right situation for me because I love Cincinnati. I love it, it’s a great city, I like where the team’s going, we have a great group of guys, great staff. There’s a lot of things that played into it. Two-thousand-ten really helped with my decision-making too because we had a great year. I expect a year better than that this year.
Talking about the organization: how much do you follow the younger players as they’re coming up through the organization? The guys in the minor leagues now?
I hear about the top ten or fifteen guys from time to time, that I guess are the bigger prospects. When I was younger, a lot of my friends – I mean, I still have a lot of friends in the minor leagues – but a lot of my friends were playing in the minor leagues as well. So right in the first couple years after I got to the big leagues, I knew a lot more about the lower levels of the minor leagues. Now, it’s really my fault that I haven’t kept up with it more, but a lot of things are going on and I have my season to worry about or to focus on.
I don’t know as much about the lower levels, but still the higher levels I do. I still know some guys there and I keep up with the teams and the coaches for a lot of those guys coached me. I keep up with them. I think it’s a really integral part of becoming a winning organization is to have the farm system that produces talented players that are ready to play in the big leagues when they get there. So I try to keep up with it for sure.
Is there anyone in particular that you do hear about that you’re excited at the opportunity to have them playing with you in Cincinnati over the next few years?
I think there are a couple guys. Obviously Devin Mesoraco. He broke into the big leagues and I’m excited to see where his career takes him. Mike Leake – he never really played in the minor leagues, which is a crazy story, but he actually went back a little bit this year, but I’m excited about that. Ryan LaMarre, I think that he’s a pretty talented guy. We’ll see what happens. He was a really good college player and he’s had some really good seasons in the minor leagues. I think as long as he stays healthy he can do some things in the game, hopefully.
Who else? There are a couple young Latin guys that I think have a chance to do something: Yorman Rodriguez, I think that he could definitely be a good player if he stays healthy and continues to learn and apply what he’s learning. And the guy that hasn’t done a whole lot yet but I think that has a ton of ability, we signed him I guess in ’06, maybe? Or ’07, I forgot, but for a couple million dollars, Juan Duran, from the Dominican. Like I said, he hasn’t done much, but the talent’s there, from what I understand anyway. I think he’s got a long way to go as far as actually learning the game of baseball, but it’ll be interesting to see how he does too.
When those guys now come up, as you’re becoming a major league veteran, how much of a role do you take in helping them adjust once they reach the major leagues?
To be honest with you I’m not a talk-about-it guy. I’m not really the rah-rah leader, I wouldn’t say. If I do lead, and I don’t know if people consider me a leader or not, but I try to lead by example. I try to do the right thing, play the game the right way, go about my business in a professional manner, and hopefully people see that and learn from that. Hopefully I have a positive impact on these guys coming up. That would be my hope and my ideal situation, because if I can’t impact a young player positively, then there becomes a question in my mind as to if I’m doing things correctly.
Was there anybody, any player or players, who might’ve done that for you when you came up? Who made sure you were comfortable and helped you get settled?
I would definitely say Adam Dunn made my transition from the minor leagues to the major leagues more comfortable. I knew him a little bit before I got to the big leagues just because we worked out at the same place in Houston. He made my transition a lot easier. And nowadays, Scott Rolen is a huge part of my learning. I try to learn a lot from him. He is the epitome of a professional. He does things the right way, plays the game the right way, he conducts himself professionally. It’s pretty cool to watch because he definitely does it right.
I know you said you try to lead by example, you’re not really a vocal guy, but if you were talking to a roomful of minor league players, and you could give them some advice on how to best use their time and what to do to try to help them get to the major leagues, what do you think you would tell them?
I would probably tell them to focus on keeping their bodies healthy. Not enough guys learn that early enough. Find out what works for them. Find out, whether it’s on the field, off the field, at night, whatever – find out what works for them. Everyone is different and everyone is gonna have a different idea of what they need to do in order to be successful. And thirdly, which kind of parlays into that, is have a routine. Have a routine, stick to it, and when you’re going to work at something, work correctly. Works towards it in the right way. Don’t do things if you’re sick of doing them.
Take your time, work hard, understand what you’re doing, and understand why you’re doing it. Because then you can start applying that to your game, and I think that that routine helps helps you be successful on the field because when you go on the field it’s all muscle memory. You don’t wanna have to think about what you’re doing. You don’t wanna think about TRYING to do this or TRYING to do that. You wanna have done that off the field, and when you go out on the field just have fun and let your talent and what you worked on take over.
That’s actually not bad advice for anybody, in just about any field.
Yeah, absolutely. You can apply it to life I think too. It’s funny, I really think that baseball can teach you lessons in life in general, and I think it comes down to a lot of things that make someone successful as a person, as an athlete, as a businessman, as a student. It all coincides.
Very special thanks go to Jay Bruce for taking time out of his offseason to speak with me, and to Matt Sosnick for setting up our conversation. If not for their cooperation, this idea likely would have stalled out last summer.