Growing up in Las Vegas, Kris Bryant was in awe of the players he saw at Cashman Field on Big League Weekend.
Drafted second overall last year by the Cubs, Bryant, a third baseman, will be one of the players wearing a major league uniform today and Sunday at Cashman, where Chicago will play the New York Mets in two 1:05 p.m. split-squad exhibition games.
“It’s coming full circle now,” said Bryant, 22. “Some kids will be coming to the games to watch me and the team play. That’s pretty cool.”
The 6-foot-5-inch, 215-pound Bryant’s ability to hit for power already has left many observers awestruck.
The former Bonanza High School slugger belted 31 home runs last season for the University of San Diego en route to earning the Golden Spikes Award as the nation’s top amateur baseball player.
After hitting more homers than 223 NCAA Division I schools and receiving a $6.7 million signing bonus — the largest in Cubs history — Bryant continued his tear in pro ball.
He hit .336 with nine homers and 32 RBIs in 36 games on three minor league levels, then launched six more in 20 Arizona Fall League games, earning Most Valuable Player honors.
“I couldn’t have dreamt it any better,” Bryant said. “It was the best year of my life.”
Picking up where he left off last season, Bryant homered in his first spring training at-bat, blasting a 3-2 pitch from Angels right-hander Jarrett Grube over the wall in straightaway center.
“That’ll be an at-bat I remember for the rest of my life,” he said. “It’s good to get that first hit out of the way, let alone the first home run.
“It definitely gave me a whole lot of confidence the rest of spring training.”
A right-handed hitter, Bryant also connected on a towering opposite-field shot off Indians right-hander Carlos Carrasco on March 7 that impressed Cubs manager Rick Renteria.
“It was down and away. It just looks like he handled that ball. Extremely strong man,” Renteria said. “That was a well-driven ball. It’s like a left-hander hit it. We know that he’s got that type of pop.”
Bryant was sent down to minor league camp Wednesday in Chicago’s first round of spring cuts, but not before earning high praise from several unnamed National League executives.
“All-Star third baseman … soon,” one told cbssports.com.
“Fifty-homer power,” said another.
Bryant already has been compared to several prominent sluggers, past and present — including former Cubs star Dave Kingman, Troy Glaus, Dale Murphy and Ryan Braun. But he downplayed the comparisons.
“It’s very cool to be compared to guys of that caliber, but I really just go out there and try to be myself,” he said. “I don’t try to emulate anybody. Some of that can be a distraction.”
That said, Bryant’s favorite players as a kid were Manny Ramirez and Barry Bonds.
“I tend to like guys who hit homers,” he said. “They were fun to watch. They dominated at what they did. If I can do half of that, that would be incredible.”
Every morning, Bryant need look no further for motivation than his bathroom mirror, where he posts his preseason list of lofty goals.
“I started that a couple years ago and it’s really helped me in my game, to stay focused,” he said. “Setting goals high has definitely been a big part of my success.
“Everybody has expectations of me, but all that really matters are my expectations of myself.”
Despite the hype surrounding him and high hopes of long-suffering Cubs fans — which include relatives from his mother Susie’s side of the family — the humble Bryant is handling the attention well. This is due in large part to his father, Mike Bryant, a former Boston Red Sox farmhand who tried to steer his son clear of the pitfalls of the game.
“I was fighting demons all my life with this game,” Mike Bryant said. “I insisted on Kris not dealing with the same issues I had to deal with — to not get too excited if he hits a home run and not get too down if he strikes out.
“The way to succeed in this game is somewhere in the middle of that, and he’s done a great job of that.”
Kris calls his father — his former coach who works as a sales rep and private hitting instructor — after each game.
“He knows me as a person and a player. He knows all the right things to say,” Kris said. “He told me ways to avoid the holes he stepped in.”
Mike Bryant, who expects up to 200 friends and family members to attend today’s game, speculated that Kris will start the season at Double-A Tennessee and could make his big league debut as a September call-up.
“It’s my job to make it hard on them (to keep me in the minors),” Kris said. “I’ve just got to get over the fact I’m facing guys I’ve seen on TV and watched growing up. Once I get past that, it’s the same game I’ve been playing my whole life.”
■ NOTES — Right-handers Bartolo Colon (Mets) and Carlos Pimentel (Cubs) are slated to start today’s game, which will be televised on WGN (16). … Sunday’s scheduled starters are right-hander Jenrry Mejia (Mets) and left-hander Chris Rusin (Cubs). … New York will feature third baseman David Wright and outfielder Curtis Granderson, and Chicago will be led by first baseman Anthony Rizzo and second baseman Darwin Barney. … The Mets also will feature several ex-51s players, including Travis d’Arnaud, Wilmer Flores and Kirk Nieuwenhuis, as well as Las Vegas manager Wally Backman.
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at email@example.com or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33.