Youthful Bruce capitalizing on his opportunity

Youthful Bruce capitalizing on his opportunity

Youthful Bruce capitalizing on his opportunity
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Jay Bruce has been in the Majors long enough to know what it takes to prepare for the 162-game grind. He's accomplished enough that he signed a lucrative long-term contract this winter. He's becoming a household name beyond the defending National League Central champion Reds clubhouse and fan base.

Oh, and one more thing: He's still just 23 years old.

As in, not quite six years out of high school. As in, his career track is still rounding the first turn. As in, the sky's the limit, and he's not there yet.

"He hasn't even scratched the surface yet," Reds manager Dusty Baker says.

"He's advanced for his age, but he's still got room to improve, and he understands that," says Reds GM Walt Jocketty.

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That Bruce understands that is part of what sets the Beaumont, Texas, native apart, and part of what the Reds believe will continue to make him one of the game's top all-around right fielders.

Having signed at age 18 and advanced up the ladder to the big leagues by age 21, Bruce doesn't merely comprehend where he stands in his career -- he embraces it.

"That's just a product of the opportunity I was presented with, and I feel like I've made the best of it. I plan on being here a long, long time," Bruce said. "At some point, you have to realize it's time to grow up and you can't use the 'I'm young' card.

"But, really, when it comes to doing your job, I don't think you should ever be able to use it. Gaining experience during the game and stuff like that, OK. But when it comes to preparing yourself every day, I mean, that's your job, whether you're 21 or 41. That's something I take pride in, and I've learned from guys here now and guys before me: Your job is to play baseball."

Obviously, that job's paying better now. Bruce, who made $440,000 in 2010, signed a six-year, $51 million contract in December that not only took him through four arbitration years as a "super-two" eligible for the first time this offseason but also two years into free agency.

It was the kind of mutual agreement that makes it clear Bruce likes where he is and the Reds like where he's going.

"In a lot of ways, it makes me more hungry, makes me want to earn what I have even more," he said. "I plan on outplaying this contract, and that's the best-case scenario for everyone. It's not about making more money. It's about being the player I can be and helping my team win, because I have the ability to help my team in a lot of ways."

That, the Reds -- and anyone who has followed him since he was selected in the first round (12th overall) in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft -- know already.

Bruce, who will turn 24 on April 3, has 68 homers thus far in his career -- more than any Major Leaguer his age and ranking 41st in Major League history for a player in his first three years. What makes that even more impressive is that Bruce wasn't called up until May 27 his first year and missed another two months his second season with a broken wrist, so that's three years minus about four months. He set career highs in 2010 with 25 homers, 70 RBIs and a .281 average, and his 180 career RBIs rank second to Arizona's Justin Upton (205) among players younger than 24.

Add to that a rising reputation as one of the game's best defensive right fielders, and the five-tool package is taking shape on the Major League stage. His 20.2 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating, which quantifies runs allowed/saved by a defender) was by far the best in the Majors at his position, he's blessed with a strong arm and -- one big fly ball in the Division Series lost in the lights aside -- he had only three errors in the regular season last year while making 133 starts in right.

Bruce began this spring a little light on results, getting just four singles in his first 20 at-bats. But a home run and single Sunday and another base hit Monday has him making progress.

"You always like to get some hits, but as far as I'm concerned, I'm feeling really good and making good decisions," Bruce said. "The results haven't been that great, but it's all about getting to March 31 and being ready then."

He continues to hone his approach, knowing he has to trust his work before games in order to perform at his best during them, again showing some wisdom for his years.

"He's mature for his age, and I think we always felt that way, especially for a kid being drafted out of high school," Jocketty said. "He's got a great work ethic and a real drive to be an outstanding player, and it's refreshing to see something like that."

Still, Bruce is a young man -- and still relatively young in the game of baseball, even though this will be his fourth season in the Majors.

Baker is of the mind hitters don't really have the full book on them written and don't become true veterans until their fifth or sixth year in the big leagues. And part of the rite of passage is that pitchers who have been around awhile can make even the most talented of young hitters miss, perhaps accounting for Bruce's 136 strikeouts a year ago and any other earlier struggles at the plate.

"They weren't getting him out, they were tricking him," Baker said. "Soon, they won't be able to trick him anymore."

From Bruce's perspective, the best approach is to keep working as hard as he always has to become better, even when he's already established a pretty solid foothold in the Majors.

He has the resume starting to build toward career excellence, and he understands expectations are higher as he moves into higher financial territory, not to mention further responsibility as a leader on and off the field for a team expected to contend.

"I don't take anything for granted," Bruce said. "I understand the situation I'm in now. It actually makes me work harder, in my opinion."

John Schlegel is a national reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.