Fresh off a 2011 season that saw him destroy pitching at AAA, and then have a nice little stint with the Chicago Cubs in September, Bryan LaHair headed off to the Venezuelan Winter League to try and continue to show his chops.

He did. And now he’s got another award to show for it. From Baseball America:

After leading the Venezuelan League in home runs with 15 for Magallanes, LaHair can add another line to his resume: Baseball America’s 2012 Winter Player of the Year.

LaHair, who played high school basketball in Massachusetts for current Mets scout J.P. Ricciardi, has taken a long road. A Clemson recruit who wound up going the draft-and-follow route, he played at St. Petersburg (Fla.) JC and signed in 2003 as a 39th-round pick in 2002. He has played 970 minor league games, including 653 in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, where he’s put up a slash line of .297/.368/.528. His numbers surged the last couple of years.

LaHair led the minor leagues with 38 home runs in 2011, setting a franchise record for Iowa. He was more than just a guy who swung for the fences however, as he delivered an OPS of 1.070. He would have been in Chicago by August except then-general manager Jim Hendry declined to trade Pena. LaHair didn’t sulk, instead finishing off an MVP season in the PCL, and he was still hitting when he finally got to Wrigley in September.

In LaHair’s third game with the Cubs, he delivered a two-out home run off Cincinnati’s Mike Leake to tie a game in the ninth inning. He finished hitting .288 with eight extra-base hits in 59 at-bats, then signed on for more baseball over the winter, playing 47 games for Magallanes in Venezuela. He hit six homers in his first seven games there and finished with a league-high 15, including one of former Cubs teammate Carlos Zambrano.

LaHair had been scheduled to spend only about a month in Venezuela but the Navegantes convinced him to return for three more weeks in December after his fast start. He admitted the constant action left him “tired” but in many ways it was the season of his life.

LaHair, now 29, is expected to start the season at first base for the Cubs, while the team’s long-term answer there, Anthony Rizzo, continues to develop at AAA. Most projections see an OPS right around .800 for LaHair, which would be adequate, though not compelling, for a first baseman.

His glove will be an interesting part of the equation. Thanks to Mike Quade’s preference for trying to get Carlos Pena to 30 home runs last year, we haven’t gotten to see much of LaHair at first base. I’m told his defense there is, at best, average, and probably a little below.┬áIf true, no matter how great the story, LaHair will not block Rizzo whenever the youngster is ready. Heck, even if LaHair plays sparkling defense, he’s not likely to block Rizzo.

Unless, of course, he hits this year in the bigs like he hit last year in Des Moines and Venezuela. If that happens, the Cubs will have one of those “nice problems to have” on their hands. Rizzo’s future isn’t anywhere but first base, but LaHair can theoretically play some left field. He could also make for a very inexpensive DH or first baseman on a team looking to upgrade or replace an injured player at mid-season. Again: that’s if he’s killing the ball.



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