Hustling to meetings Feb. 18, Kevin Goldstein heard the familiar crack of bats.
Position players were not required to report to the Houston Astros’ Kissimmee, Florida, spring training facility for another four days. Right fielder George Springer ignored this deadline. Utility man Marwin Gonzalez, too. The two swung inside batting cages as Goldstein approached.
Alex Bregman, the team’s No. 2 overall pick nine months prior, followed the veterans into the cage.
“I had never seen him hit balls that far in my life,” said Goldstein, the Astros’ director of pro scouting. “Just was consistently barrelling balls and throwing them over the fence like that. This was the first day of spring training. We had never seen that kind of power before, ever, out of him.”
Bregman, a nonroster invitee, added 20 pounds in an offseason when he and his longtime hitting coach, Jason Columbus, split home plate in half. The focus was twofold for a right-handed hitter who had yet to showcase the power major league evaluators knew was present.
Bregman concentrated on fastballs that tailed in on the inner half of the plate. He’d grown accustomed to rolling over them for grounders to the left side. Columbus emphasized line drives, lifting to the opposite field.
“Sacrificing what you are now for what you’ll become,” Bregman said Tuesday night. “That’s kind of the mentality for making that change.”
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What Alex Bregman will become is an unanswered question, though he’d be quick to provide a glimpse.
Asked during the MLB Futures Game what he wanted the world to know, Bregman said he was “ready.” One hour later, he was a home run shy of the cycle in the bottom of the fourth inning.
In 136 minor league games, he’s done nothing but crush skeptics and create an almost mythical persona among those fascinated by the 6-foot shortstop with a 1.019 on-base plus slugging percentage in 70 games.
“He’s just different,” Astros part-time scout Justin Cryer said. “From top to bottom, the guy you want on your team but you don’t want to play against. … At the end of the day you’re like ‘Damn, man, I’m glad he’s on my team.’”
There is no longer chatter of whether he’ll be called up. The only mystery is when the Astros and general manager Jeff Luhnow will promote Bregman to a team that’s clawed itself back into American League West contention.
“He’s making a mockery of the minor leagues,” Cryer said. “Everyone’s just waiting for him to keep his foot on the gas and ride it.”
Now a full-time employee at Marucci Sports in Baton Rouge, Cryer was hired as an area scout by the Astros in 2013. He’s since become part-time. The crowning achievement during his full-time tenure? Scouting and signing Bregman, whom he first met in 2012 just before accepting his job with the Astros.
“Hey, I’m going to be the starting shortstop here, nice to meet you,” Bregman said, as Cryer recalled, when the two met. “Will you hit me some fungos?”
“I don’t want to say I went into man crush mode in 2013,” Cryer said. “But I could easily see this guy was a top of the draft talent and hopefully (the Astros) would have a chance at him in two years at some point. I let everyone know it right away.”
Area scouts pass along the top players in their region — Bregman was in Cryer’s — to cross-checkers, who add more eyes to prospects.
“There were other guys with bigger tools or higher ceilings,” said J.D. Alleva, the cross-checker who saw Bregman and the son of LSU athletic director Joe Alleva. “But there was no question to me in my mind that he was the best baseball player and best hitter in the draft.”
Bregman followed a meteoric ascent in the Astros system since the draft13 months ago. Cryer and Alleva were sold on the bat; but did anyone think it would click this quick?
“No. Just flat-out no,” Goldstein said. “Everyone thought he could hit, everyone knew beyond the baseball talent this was a special kid as far as the makeup and dedication and work ethic. … To find that kind of power in his first year, with wood, has been surprising.”
The organization likes nothing more, Goldstein said, than having players force its decisions.
“(Bregman) is getting awfully close, isn’t he,” Goldstein quipped.
Houston very much enjoys its major league shortstop — reigning American League Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa. Luis Valbuena’s past 21 games — mostly at third base with a .353 batting average and 1.086 OPS — have entrenched him as an everyday player.
Gonzalez is versatile and can play every infield position. Most of his time is spent in a first base platoon with A.J. Reed, the recently promoted former Kentucky star who has struggled offensively. Valbuena can also move to first base, leaving third base vacant in an organization that is well known for its proclivity to shift.
“Wherever it is,” Bregman said. “I don’t care where I play. I just want to try to help contribute and win games.”
Alleva added: “He could play second, short or third in the big leagues. Right now. That’s my opinion.”
ESPN’s Jim Bowden reported Tuesday night the club was expected to call Bregman up “as early as this weekend.” Manager A.J. Hinch debunked the report MLB Network Radio, saying Bregman would not join the team this weekend in Seattle.
Instead, Bregman boarded an airplane to New Orleans on Wednesday, one day ahead of his Fresno Grizzlies’ four-game series with the Zephyrs. He will play baseball in Louisiana, the state in which this rapid professional journey was set into motion, for the first time since departing LSU.
Bregman said he will exhaust the Grizzlies’ limit of will-call tickets, hoping to see purple and gold mixed with orange and blue in the Zephyr Field stands.
“We set out this year with two goals,” Bregman said. “One was to get to the big leagues and one was to win in the big leagues. I can taste it. We’re almost achieving one.”
Who: Grizzlies at Zephyrs
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Zephyr Field
Probable pitchers: Fresno RH Cesar Valdez (6-1, 3.36 ERA) vs. Zephyrs RH Jose Urena (1-2, 3.63)
Radio: WODT-AM, 1280