Finally, after the 2009 season, the M's allowed Bryan LaHair to become a minor-league free agent. He promptly signed with the Cubs, and now is just about the hottest hitter in baseball not named Kemp or Hamilton.
As Justin Smoak’s ongoing struggle to conquer major-league pitching continues, it’s impossible not to look at Bryan LaHair and wonder, “What if?”
For eight years, he toiled in the Mariners’ farm system, putting up great numbers and yet getting just one abbreviated shot at the majors leagues. Finally, after the 2009 season — one in which LaHair hit .289, with 26 homers, 85 runs batted in and a .530 slugging percentage for Class AAA Tacoma — the M’s allowed him to become a minor-league free agent.
LaHair promptly signed with the Cubs, and now is just about the hottest hitter in baseball not named Kemp or Hamilton. After Friday’s games, LaHair is hitting .354 with a .447 on-base percentage, .698 slugging percentage and 1.145 OPS (third in the majors behind Hamilton and Kemp in the latter two categories).
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“I’m not surprised at all,” said Mike Carp, LaHair’s teammate in Tacoma in 2009, when Carp moved past him on the Mariners’ depth chart. “LaHair’s a great hitter. He’s worked hard, and he’s proven himself the last couple of years. I’m so happy to see him finally get a chance, and to run with it. It’s pretty amazing what he’s done.”
That’s not to say the Cubs knew exactly what they had in LaHair, either. After the left-handed hitter put up a .308 average, 25 homers and 81 RBI for their Iowa farm club in 2010, they, too, allowed him to become a free agent.
For the second time in two seasons, every club in baseball had a shot at him, but LaHair wound up signing back with the Chicago organization — right before it signed free agent Carlos Pena to play first base.
LaHair went back to Iowa, where he was so dominant last season the Cubs simply had no choice but to give him the starting job in 2012, even after trading for first-base prospect Anthony Rizzo last winter. LaHair was the Pacific Coast League Most Valuable Player last year, hitting .331 with 38 homers and 109 RBI, followed by a .288 average with two homers and six RBI in a 20-game September stint with the Cubs.
In the offseason, LaHair was wooed by some Japanese teams that were prepared to make lucrative offers. But when the Cubs had a change in management, with Theo Epstein taking over as president and Jed Hoyer as general manager, the new brain trust assured LaHair he was their man at first base.
“It was very, very serious,” LaHair’s agent, Alan Nero, said by phone of the overtures from Japan. “But in order to accept an offer from Japan, you have to be a free agent. Offers started coming in when it was apparent he was the No. 1 minor-league hitter. Then there was a changing of the guard with the Cubs, and they made it clear he would be given every opportunity.”
So finally, at age 29, after 10 minor-league seasons, LaHair became an everyday player, and now he’s playing like an All-Star.
“It’s just incredible — his commitment, never wavering, never giving up,” said Nero.
So, the million-dollar question (or in LaHair’s case, for now, anyway, it’s the $480,000 question, the major-league minimum salary): How did the Mariners let him get away?
I posed that question via email to Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik, who was at the end of his first season with Seattle when the decision was made to drop LaHair. I also asked him if he was surprised at LaHair’s emergence.
“I think we are all surprised,” Zduriencik replied in an email. “I believe he spent 5-plus years as a 3A player. That is quite remarkable, and at 29-30 to just begin to have (major league) success is rare. He was a great kid but it was a numbers game and what people thought he would ultimately become. Everyone has to tip their hat to him and congratulate him for his perseverance. He was out there for a lot of clubs to have. I am happy for him and for his success.”
LaHair’s one chance with Seattle came in 2008, when he was called up in July, eight days after Richie Sexson was released. The delay was so LaHair could heal a foot injury he had incurred in Tacoma. He appeared in 45 games, hitting .250 with three homers, 10 RBI, 13 walks and 40 strikeouts.
It was a blasé performance that effectively knocked LaHair out of further consideration for the first-base job. Turns out the foot injury wasn’t completely healed, but LaHair kept that to himself. He had a torn ligament, he later discovered, as well as a hernia.
Despite LaHair’s impressive Class AAA numbers, there was concern about his strikeouts and his ability to hit lefties. When Carp was acquired from the Mets that winter, he took over first base at Tacoma, with LaHair playing mostly left field.
Then after the 2009 season, the two sides parted ways. It has been reported that LaHair asked for his release, but Nero said, “I don’t think there was a formal request for his release. It just happened.”
In a 2010 article in the Telegram and Gazette of Worcester, MA., his hometown newspaper, LaHair elaborated on his time with the Mariners:
“I felt like (Seattle was) where I belonged. The whole time I was there, I felt very comfortable. I had some injuries when I was up there, but I didn’t say anything, and I just kind of played through it until the end of the year.”
On his departure from the organization, LaHair said: “It was a tough situation, especially with how I left because I had an incredible season last year (in 2009), but they just threw me away, basically. I don’t know how else to say it because they just let me go, and it was a tough thing to handle, especially coming off a career year.”
It turns out that 2009 was far from a career year, because much better things were ahead for LaHair. The fact he’s not doing it in Seattle will continue to be a sore point as his statistics are juxtaposed against those of Smoak, for whom the Mariners traded Cliff Lee.
“It takes an opportunity,” said Carp of LaHair’s breakout. “It takes someone to give you a chance and stick with you. That’s what he got, and he’s making the most of it.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or email@example.com. On Twitter @StoneLarry.