Results tagged ‘ Anthony Rizzo ’
Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo participated in Tuesday night’s All-Star Game in Cincinnati. The 25-year-old has become the leader both on and off the field and is doing so with a relaxed and positive attitude. The following story can be found in the July issue of Vine Line.
He has been seen with an empty bubblegum bucket on his head as a rally cap and does a “bear dance” in the dugout after home runs. But he’s also the first to reprimand one of his Cubs teammates whenever it’s necessary and has become the captain of the infield. In his youthful, exuberant way, Anthony Rizzo is already the leader of the Cubs at just 25 years old, and his teammates are taking notice.
“He sets the example of how we want to play baseball on an everyday basis,” Cubs veteran catcher David Ross said of Rizzo. “For me, he’s obviously the most valuable player on our team, bar none. He’s the center of our lineup, and he jokes around out there and has fun. He’s learned how to be ‘the guy,’ and I think it’s been nice for him to have some veteran presence around him so he sees what professionals are.”
Ross is new to the Cubs this year, but he’s heard how Rizzo stepped up in the second half of last season.
“Whether that’s maturity or just finding your stride in the game, he’s done it,” Ross said. “He may be one of the most unappreciated guys, in my mind, not knowing how good a player he was. He is a very, very good player—and young still.”
But the fact that Rizzo is a leader certainly doesn’t mean he’s boring. The Florida native, who has been near the top of NL leaderboards in on-base percentage and on-base plus slugging all season, likes to have fun and is often the ringleader when it comes to postgame celebrations or picking music for batting practice. So what’s different for Rizzo this season?
“It’s the comfort of being here in this organization,” he said. “I feel like I’m really here. This is my home. This is kind of all I know now, the Cubs, the city of Chicago. I’m all in. I’m invested all in, from top to bottom.”
The investment he’s made goes beyond spending six months playing at Wrigley Field every year or having his Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation host events in Chicago. He thought he would stay with the Red Sox when they drafted him in 2007. Then, he figured he’d call San Diego home after he was traded there. But now he has a long-term contract that could keep him in Chicago through the 2021 season, which means he can settle down as much as an eager-to-win young athlete can.
“It’s just loving the situation, being comfortable with where we’re at, having Joe [Maddon], having the front office, and really being in the same place for three, four years—there’s that comfort,” Rizzo said.
Doing his homework
Rizzo and Maddon first met at the manager’s Italian restaurant, Ava, in Tampa last December, when Rizzo and a friend, pitcher Casey Kelly, had dinner there. Maddon kept bringing platters of food and bottles of wine as he got to know his All-Star first baseman.
“The conversation was a lot about philosophically what I think and how I like to do things,” Maddon said. “He listened a lot. From him to me, I got that he was pretty mature for his age and a guy who understands his role within this organization and within the game of baseball.
“I think he understands the bigger picture too. He wants to win, and he’s a guy who embraces a more free-spirited approach to life and the game. We’re on board with the same thing there.”
In parts of five big league seasons, Rizzo has earned a reputation as someone who will do anything he can to improve his game. And that includes much more than just taking extra cuts in the batting cage and studying video of opposing pitchers.
“I constantly pick guys’ brains. I’m constantly talking to [Jon] Lester about the playoffs and David Ross and [Jason] Motte,” Rizzo said. “My big thing is when people who are older than you and have been there and done it and tell you something more than once—and you hear from different sources all the time—it’s usually right. I try to take all that information and process it, and try to pass it along now.”
And the veterans learn from Rizzo too. On the road, Rizzo, Ross and strength coach Tim Buss have a daily routine in which they go to a gym to work out and then grab breakfast. Who started it?
“I’m jumping on his program,” Ross said. “That’s the kind of example he sets. He’s fun to be around. He’s easy to talk to. He asks good baseball questions. I enjoy talking baseball with him—and we talk about everything. He genuinely wants to learn and make himself better for the betterment of the group, not just himself. That’s fun for me. It’s fun for me to be a part of and talk about and give some of the lessons I’ve learned over my career.”
Give Rizzo’s parents, John and Laurie, credit for the player’s positive, life-affirming attitude.
“You’ve got to have fun,” Rizzo said. “That comes from my parents, living it up. We play a game of baseball, but it’s a lot of fun. We’re going to make this as fun as we can possibly make it. We only have a short window to play this game. Everyone in here has fun, and that’s what the game is all about. It’s just like when we were kids.”
That youthful enthusiasm has likely helped Rizzo relate to rookies Kris Bryant and Addison Russell in a way some of his older teammates, like the 38-year-old Ross, cannot.
“That’s what you need to do as a leader is relate to all of your teammates,” Ross said. “[Rizzo] does a very good job of that. He can be silly, fun and young, and he also can be mature and professional.”
Rizzo makes an effort to reach out to everyone on the team. This offseason, he called Starlin Castro a few times to check up on the shortstop when he was in the Dominican Republic. On off days during the season, Rizzo and Castro often eat together. And if something needs to be said to one of the Latin players, Rizzo will do that too.
“He’s not afraid to say anything to anybody,” Castro said. “I tell him, ‘If you see me do something wrong, tell me.’ I’ll do the same thing.
“When he’s a little bit struggling at the plate, he’ll tell me, ‘I can’t hit right now.’ In San Diego, he went 0-for-4 in the last game [of a late-May series], and he said, ‘Man, I can’t hit right now.’ I said, ‘Don’t tell me that. You’re the best hitter here.’ I said, ‘If you tell me that again, I’ll get mad at you.’ We wake up every day with one goal—to come here and have fun and help the team. We know that together we can do some special things with this team.”
Rizzo and Castro dismiss the idea that their importance to the club is somehow based on the contract extensions they both received in 2013.
“It’s more the comfort. I feel this is my home,” Rizzo said. “It feels good. It feels good to be part of something where you feel they’re committed to me, and I’m committed to the team and the city.”
Learning on the fly
Years ago, when Lester was coming up with the Red Sox, he would shadow older players and talk to them about preparation. That’s where he learned about the ups and downs of the game.
“Then, when you get put in situations where you’re depended on, whether it’s leading or performance or whatever, you know who you are as a man, you know who you are as a baseball player,” Lester said. “It makes those things easier.”
During his first few years in Chicago, Rizzo didn’t have many proven veteran players to lean on. Now, the first baseman finds young players looking to him as a leader on an upstart Cubs team.
“[Rizzo and Castro] didn’t have anybody [to guide them], and, at the same time, there’s a lot of expectations,” Lester said. “I definitely wouldn’t want to have been in their shoes, but saying that, they’ve done a great job. Riz has done a great job of commanding the respect, commanding everybody’s attention as far as what he does on a day-to-day basis.”
Lester first met Rizzo shortly after the first baseman was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2008. Rizzo, the Red Sox’s sixth-round pick in 2007, was playing for Single-A Greenville at the time and was in Boston to be examined. But Lester said that meeting didn’t give him a clear impression of who the youngster really was.
“Just the little I’ve seen and the little I saw back then, there’s a huge jump,” Lester said of Rizzo’s growth as a player and as a person. “It was one of those deals where you either swim or you sink. I know we’re talking about Riz, but I go back to [Castro] too, because they are kind of in the same boat. There was no, ‘Help me, help me.’ It was, ‘I’ve got to figure this out, or I’m going to go home.’
“Riz has done a great job, and to see where he’s at now as far as being the central figure in this clubhouse, that’s a lot for a 25-year-old. He’s done a great job with it, and he continues to do a great job with it.”
While even the veteran players view Rizzo as a leader, he laughs at the idea that Ross could have anything to learn from him.
“Anything he learns from me, it’s one-fifth of what I’m learning from him,” Rizzo said. “I constantly ask him stuff and pick his brain. He holds me responsible for the infield, and I take that responsibility. It’s little things that no one notices, like turning routine double plays.”
Maddon has said some of the Cubs’ mistakes are a product of youth. Look at the infield—Rizzo, Russell, Castro and Bryant are all 25 years old or younger. But no Cubs player, Rizzo included, is willing to use that as an excuse.
“The cool thing about our game is when we’re not playing, we can talk about age, but when you get on the field, nobody really cares,” Lester said. “It’s all about performance. It’s all about numbers. You look at Mike Trout. He’s 21, 22, and back-to-back runner-up [Most Valuable Player] and then wins an MVP. Age doesn’t define you as a player.
“I think Riz has learned a lot over the last couple years playing here. You can see it. It’s fun to see guys mature on their own. As they mature, they get plans and they believe in their plan, whether it works or not. They’ll still have that plan the next time. It’s not a superstition. It’s not all these weird baseball quirks. It’s his plan and what he wants to do and what he thinks is right.”
Rizzo does have a daily routine. He’s not eating chicken before every contest à la Wade Boggs, but he will work out in the morning prior to night games. He calls the sessions “therapeutic” and said they help him “get the blood flowing.” He also plays a little game at first base during batting practice with coach Mike Borzello that helps him work on his throws. And Wrigley Field fans know Rizzo always ducks into the batting cage less than two hours before game time so he can take some late swings.
Those things help him stay on track for the physical part of the game, but what Lester and others really praise is his mental maturity.
“You can see his confidence,” Lester said. “Obviously, when you have Addison and [Bryant] coming up and a lot of hype on this team, now he gets to be one of those guys who gets to go play. It doesn’t seem like he has the everyday pressure like Kris and Addy do. I think that’s nice for him, and he gets a little break.”
Rizzo is still learning, which means he has plenty of room to grow. For example, watch when Maddon goes to the mound to make a pitching change. Rizzo does.
“When Joe comes out—and I’ve noticed this—he’s so calm,” Rizzo said. “He comes out, [it’s] no big deal, even if we’re in a tough jam. He comes out, says we’re going to do this and this and get the win. It’s comforting to see how he handles it.”
There was an early-May game in St. Louis in which Ross was catching. In the late innings, the Busch Stadium fans were roaring and the music was blaring, and Rizzo noticed Ross happily bouncing and bobbing to the tune.
“That made me feel loose, and I tried to feed that to Addy,” Rizzo said.
If there is one thing the Cubs don’t always agree on, it’s music. Rizzo seems to favor house music before games, and he’s involved in creating the batting practice mix. But he’ll also put on some mellow Motown hits on Sunday mornings.
“I’m a fan of all music,” Lester said. “I like [Rizzo’s picks] occasionally, and we’ll leave it at that. He’ll say the same thing about mine. He’s not the biggest country fan. Every once in a while, he’ll listen to some.”
Remember, Rizzo is still young and learning. He can only get better.
Monday was photo day at Cubs camp in Mesa, Arizona, so the players and coaches spent the morning running from station to station getting their pictures taken and doing interviews. The day includes everyone from team photographers to Topps to MLB.com to, well, us.
But just as the gauntlet was coming to an end, the skies opened up and washed out most of the training day in “sunny” Arizona. The players did their work in the batting cages, and they should be back at it on the practice fields Tuesday, when sunnier skies are expected. The Cubs open their Cactus League slate on Thursday with split-squad games against the Athletics at Sloan Park and the Giants in Scottsdale.
All spring long, watch for our video series with players and coaches here on the blog.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
It could be argued that a trade made three years ago today was the first move toward making the Cubs the dark-horse division contender many view them as heading into the 2015 season.
In an effort to reclaim a first basemen they originally selected in the 2007 draft while with Boston, the recently hired President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer acquired first baseman Anthony Rizzo and right-hander Zach Cates from San Diego in exchange for right-hander Andrew Cashner and outfielder Kyung-Min Na.
Initially, it looked like the Cubs may have surrendered the better portion of the deal in Cashner, a power arm with ace potential who, despite dealing with arm issues in 2011 that caused him to miss most of the season, showed promise in his 2010 rookie campaign. The bulk of the Cubs’ return rested in a 21-year-old power hitter who hit a mere .141/.281/.527 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with one homer in 49 games in his major league debut season in San Diego after enjoying a successful minor league campaign.
Rizzo rebounded in 2012, hitting .285/.342/.463 with 15 homers in 87 major league games. Meanwhile Cashner pitched in just 46.1 innings, as a strained lat kept him out for a large portion of the year.
By many accounts, the Cubs’ first basemen regressed in his first full season in the majors in 2013. His average plummeted to .233, and he hit only eight more home runs than he hit the previous season in 73 more games. That didn’t deter the Cubs from giving him a team-friendly, seven-year, $41 million extension in May of that year.
Cashner on the other hand, enjoyed his finest season, pitching 175.0 innings in 26 starts for San Diego. He struck out 128 batters and finished with a 1.13 WHIP and a 10-9 record.
The debate over who got the better end of the deal shifted back in the Cubs’ favor during the 2014 season. Rizzo made his first All-Star team and hit a career-best .286/.386/.527 with 32 home runs, which ranked second-best in the NL. His .913 OPS ranked third in the league.
Cashner also enjoyed a successful season—when he wasn’t on the DL. Shoulder issues limited the 28-year-old to just 19 starts, but he did post a 2.55 ERA, a 1.127 WHIP and 93 strikeouts over 123.1 innings.
When discussing two players who haven’t even exited their respective team-controlled years, it’s difficult to determine which organization “won” the trade. But based on Rizzo’s efforts in 2014, it’s safe to say that’s the kind of production the Cubs expected when they pulled the trigger on the move.
With so many variables, debating whether one player is better than another is a difficult proposition. And there few numbers that properly correlate when arguing hitter versus pitcher. However, based solely on the statistic WAR (wins against replacement), it looks as if the Cubs have enjoyed more productivity out of their return in each of the past three seasons.
According to Baseball-Reference, Rizzo recorded a bWAR of 5.1 in 2014, 2.8 in 2013 and 2.2 in 2012, while Cashner’s bWAR totals were 1.9, 2.4 and -0.1 in those same seasons. While the lofty total Rizzo accumulated last year should come as no surprise, the most interesting comparison might be in 2013.
To date, this is the cleanest single-season sample size we have of Cashner. After recovering from an early-season thumb issue, the oft-injured right-hander was never on the disabled list, pitching a career-high 175.0 innings and finishing with a 3.09 ERA (11th in the NL) and a 1.13 WHIP (12th). In a mid-September game against Pittsburgh, Cashner faced the minimum in a complete-game one-hitter. The only thing that slowed the then 27-year-old was an organization-sanctioned pitch limit.
Opposite those statistics were Rizzo’s numbers: .233/.323/.419 with 23 homers and 40 doubles. Though not bad, it left some to question whether his strong 2012 was just a flash in the pan or if the first baseman reaped the benefits of opposing teams not having seen him. Despite all the concerns, according to WAR, Rizzo was still a more valuable player than Cashner, a player enjoying the finest season of his young career.
Even though WAR embodies a variety of stats, it’s only one measurement to determine a player’s worth. On that same note, it is a stat that embodies a variety of stats and one of the quickest ways to quantify a player’s value. Only time will tell as to which of the super-talented players finishes with a better career, but three years after the transaction, early signs point toward the Cubs’ slugger. As the Cubs continue to be a trendy postseason pick, look no further than the move made three years ago today as that belief’s ignition.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Every baseball season is filled with memorable moments, and this year’s Cubs campaign was no exception. Cornerstone players had bounceback seasons, newer additions stepped up, and top prospects made their big league debuts. To wrap up the year, we asked you to pick your top 10 moments of 2014. From now until the end of the year, we’ll be unveiling one moment per day.
Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo are named to the 2014 All-Star Game—July 10
Prior to the 2014 season, the Cubs’ biggest question mark was whether their two cornerstone players, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, could bounce back from disappointing 2013 campaigns. By midseason, Castro and Rizzo had put those fears to rest, rebounding to capture well-deserved All-Star honors, their third and first selections, respectively.
Rizzo, who was chosen via 8.8 million fan votes for the final roster spot, headed into the Midsummer Classic with 20 homers (good for third in the NL), 49 RBI and a .275/.381/.499 (AVG/OBP/SLG) slash line, while playing solid defense at first base. His .879 OPS at the break ranked 14th in the National League, and his 53 walks ranked fifth.
Castro pulled into the break with 11 homers and 26 doubles (seventh in the NL), to go with his .276/.326/.440 line. He also improved his defense, a part of his game that had been viewed as a weakness in previous seasons. At just 24 years old, Castro joined Ernie Banks and Don Kessinger to become only the third Cubs shortstop to make three All-Star Games.
(Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
Every baseball season is filled with memorable moments, and this year’s Cubs campaign was no exception. Cornerstone players had bounceback seasons, newer additions stepped up, and top prospects made their big league debuts. To wrap up the year, we asked you to pick your top 10 moments of 2014. From now until the end of the year, we’ll be unveiling one moment a day.
No. 10: Anthony Rizzo ends a scoreless game with a walk-off home run—Sept. 15 vs. Cincinnati
After sitting out nearly three weeks due to a back injury, Anthony Rizzo returned to action in mid-September and made an immediate impact.
Lower back stiffness caused the power hitter to miss 18 games, but he certainly appeared healthy when he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning with the game knotted at 0-0 and launched a Pedro Villarreal pitch into the center-field bleachers for a walk-off home run.
The first baseman was greeted at home plate by his teammates, who doused him with water before piling on in celebration. While running away from the exuberant scrum, the slugger jokingly grabbed his back.
“I did it on purpose, just messing around with the guys,” Rizzo told MLB.com. “I definitely thought about [my back] the whole game. To get through the game tonight was nice.”
It was Rizzo’s third walk-off hit of the 2014 campaign, following a homer against Miami on June 6 and a single versus Tampa Bay on Aug. 10. His 32 homers in 2014 ranked second in the National League.
Anthony Rizzo is one of the most valuable assets in baseball. (Photo by Stephen Green)
For the third year in a row, ESPN-based website grantland.com created its annual MLB Trade Value top 50. The full piece by Jonah Keri is a fun read and dives into further detail as to how the rankings were compiled using 2014 statistics, contract status, age, health and position scarcity.
The story is not assuming all the players listed are going to be traded, but simply aims to determine which players are more valuable than others. Here’s Keri’s explanation of the ideal candidate:
“The perfect Trade Value player is an established star who’s still young enough to carry growth potential, has no significant injury history, and has an affordable contract that brings numerous years of team control. Ultimately, this is a thought experiment: If every team made every player available via trade, which guys would fetch the greatest return?”
A trio of young Cubs found their way onto the list, with Anthony Rizzo checking in at No. 7, Kris Bryant at No. 18 and Jorge Soler at No. 44.
The White Sox get to employ [first baseman Jose] Abreu — the reigning rookie of the year and MVP candidate — for the next five years for just $51 million. The Cubs have an even better deal with Rizzo, whom they’ve got for five years at $35 million, plus a pair of $14.5 million club options in 2020 and 2021 that look supremely reasonable for a 25-year-old slugger who just batted .286/.386/.527 (the NL’s third-best park-adjusted line) while flashing a solid glove. Right now, there’s nothing to dislike about either player.
Bryant, however, is fresh Trade Value fodder. Admittedly, this is an aggressive ranking for a player who’s never seen a pitch in the big leagues, but several factors work in his favor. For one thing, Bryant isn’t a pitcher, so his risk of major injury or sudden skill erosion is comparatively low. For another, he’s a damn beast. No amount of park adjusting or number manipulating can douse the .325/.438/.661 beating he laid on Double-A and Triple-A pitchers last season, when he launched 43 homers in 138 games. He’s an all-world talent, he doesn’t turn 23 until January, and he’s one of the biggest reasons to start fearing the Cubs.
Soler was never rated as highly as [Pirates outfielder Gregory] Polanco (let alone [Twins outfielder Byron] Buxton), even getting overshadowed by flashy prospects Bryant, [Javier] Baez, and [Addison] Russell within the Cubs system. But he made it to the Show at age 22 last summer and punished the ball, belting five homers, eight doubles, and a triple in just 89 at-bats, with three of those five long balls traveling 420 feet or more. He doesn’t quite have the well-rounded tool set that Polanco and especially Buxton do, but at a time when power is at a premium throughout the majors, the Cubs have a player with major pop who’s ready to be their Opening Day right fielder four months from now — and take aim at Waveland Avenue for years to come. In 2012, the Cubs signed Soler to a nine-year, $30 million contract, with a clause that would allow him to opt out of the deal and into arbitration when he became eligible. If he continues to hit at anywhere near the level he did in his first brush with the bigs, that’ll surely happen after the 2017 season. In either case, the Cubs control his rights through 2020.
Javier Baez got his first taste of major league action this summer. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
When Theo Epstein sat in front of the assembled media last October and announced, “The story [around the league] is that the Cubs are coming fast, and the Cubs are coming strong,” many had trouble stifling laughter. How could Epstein suggest a team fresh off its third-consecutive 90-loss season was on the rise—especially during a press conference announcing the firing of the club’s manager, Dale Sveum?
It seemed preposterous at the time, but Epstein was hardly joking. He knew what he and his staff had built over the previous two seasons, and he believed it wouldn’t be long before that lofty statement was accepted as fact—even by those not paying close attention to what’s been happening in the Cubs system.
Sure enough, while the 2014 season didn’t produce a dramatic increase in wins, the media and fans finally got a chance to see what the Cubs have been building, as the first wave of prospects finally funneled into Wrigley Field.
It all began with Arismendy Alcantara and Kyle Hendricks, two somewhat under-the-radar prospects, but intriguing players nonetheless. Next, one of the best power hitters in the minors, Javier Baez, arrived in the big leagues—along with the corresponding media maelstrom. Finally, the Cubs called up Cuban slugger Jorge Soler toward the end of August.
Not every one of these young players immediately took the National League by storm. There have been ups and downs. But each has provided a spark and shown the potential to be a big contributor to the next Cubs playoff run—which is exactly how the front office drew it up.
“It’s a lot of fun, and there’s definitely a lot of energy,” Hendricks said. “I’m just glad a lot of us have been able to perform well. I think that’s a testament to the coaching we have in the minor leagues. The guys got us ready for this level.”
Epstein understands that this process, which has included many losses, has been tough for both the players and the fans. That’s why finally being able to display the fruits of the front office’s labor has been so rewarding.
“These are players who have been part of our plan, part of our vision, for a while now,” Epstein said. “Now that they’re up here, people can get excited about it. It creates a little bit of momentum, which is nice to have around the organization.”
So what exactly is the Cubs’ vision, and what has the organization been doing to realize it?
When Epstein was first introduced as president of baseball operations in late October 2011, he laid out his plan for how he wanted to rebuild an organization that had gone from being the toast of the National League to 91 losses in just three years.
“Our goal will be to build the best scouting department in the game—one that makes an annual impact in the draft and internationally,” Epstein said at the time. “As far as player development goes, we will define and implement a Cubs Way of playing the game, and we won’t rest until there is a steady stream of talent coming through the minor league system trained in that Cubs Way making an impact out here at Wrigley Field.”
Epstein didn’t waste much time in following through with those promises. A week after his introduction, he sat in front of the media yet again, this time introducing Jed Hoyer as his new executive vice president and general manager and Jason McLeod, a man Epstein referred to as the “rarest commodity in the industry—an impact evaluator of baseball talent,” as his senior vice president of scouting and player development.
The three men spent the next year evaluating what they were working with from the bottom of the organization all the way to the top. After a year, they made a few tweaks to the scouting department, and completely revamped the player development side. Brandon Hyde was brought in as the farm director, but has since moved on to become manager Rick Renteria’s bench coach, while Jaron Madison has transitioned from amateur scouting director to Hyde’s old position.
Under Hyde, the Cubs hired four new minor league coordinators and had one of their better developmental seasons throughout the system in 2013.
Of course, it certainly helped that so much talent had been added to the mix—and continues to be added to this day—through astute trades, the amateur draft and international signings.
“In order to have success in this game, the foundation has to be through scouting and player development,” Hoyer said when he was introduced as general manager. “There’s no shortcut. There’s no magic bullet. All three of us believe in the philosophy wholeheartedly.”
Hoyer acknowledged the ultimate goal is to win a championship, so the baseball operations department first had to build a team that went into Spring Training every season with a realistic shot at making the playoffs. Less than three years later, it appears the Cubs are on the verge of achieving that goal.
And it’s not just the players who have reached the majors this year that have so many people both inside and outside the game optimistic about the Cubs’ immediate future. While the influx of top-notch talent is undeniable, it’s quite likely the best is yet to come.
Last year’s top draft pick, Kris Bryant, dominated every level of the minor leagues, making it all the way to Triple-A Iowa in his first full professional season. His otherworldly stat line of .325/.438/.661 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 43 home runs and 110 RBI has pushed the third baseman to the top of the national prospect rankings. Shortly after the season, he was named both USA Today’s and Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year. Addison Russell, a consensus top 10 prospect in the game, was acquired in early July via trade and has continued to excel, hitting for both power and average while playing strong defense at shortstop.
Kyle Schwarber was the fourth pick in June’s amateur draft and has already shot up two levels in the Cubs system. So far, he has displayed an impressive combination of power and patience at the plate and appears to be on the fast track to the majors.
And that’s not all. The regime’s first draft pick from 2012, Albert Almora, made it to Double-A at the tender age of 20, and the international scouts flexed their muscles in 2013, as the Cubs spent more money than any other organization. Thanks to those efforts, they added big-time prospects like Jen-Ho Tseng, Eloy Jimenez, Gleybar Torres and Jefferson Mejia, all of whom are proving advanced for their age and are ranked as top 20 organizational prospects by MLB.com.
The system is not only loaded with talent, it’s also deep, ensuring that as the Cubs continue to graduate players to the big leagues, the cupboard won’t suddenly be left bare. It looks like Epstein and Hoyer have built the scouting and player development “machine” they promised to work toward when they were first brought into the organization.
CALL TO ARMS
Of course, since the majority of the Cubs’ young players grabbing headlines are bats, there are still questions about where the organization is going to find the right combination of arms to lead the charge. But even on that front, the team is better off than most people realize.
The front office has now divested the organization of the many onerous contracts from the Hendry regime—meaning there is money to spend—and has proven quite adept at identifying and acquiring undervalued pitching talent. Names like Paul Maholm, Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel, who all excelled under the tutelage of pitching coach Chris Bosio, have been used to acquire players who fit into both the short- and long-term plans.
Feldman, in particular, netted a huge piece in pitcher Jake Arrieta. A former top prospect, the 28-year-old underwhelmed during parts of four years in the majors with the Baltimore Orioles. Though Arrieta was perhaps at his lowest value at the time, the Cubs were bullish about the struggling righty. After missing the first month of the 2014 season with shoulder soreness, Arrieta went on to make the move look like a stroke of genius, putting together a season that rivals those of some of the best pitchers in the game.
Hendricks, acquired from the Rangers in the 2012 Ryan Dempster deal, also opened eyes with a strong run of starts to begin his major league career. Though many had the 24-year-old pegged as a fringe major leaguer and back-end starter at best, his poise and control are making some wonder whether he can exceed expectations and become a big part of the rotation’s future.
“He’s doing exactly what he did in the minor leagues,” Epstein said. “He’s as polished and prepared as you’ll see with any rookie. We speculated that he might even take it to another level when he got to the big leagues because he uses all the tools available to him as well as anybody.
“We have video in the minor leagues, but we don’t have this much video. We have scouting reports in the minor leagues, but we don’t have scouting reports this extensive. He just attacks the video and attacks scouting reports. They’re a huge weapon for him. You see the confidence he has. No matter how good a hitter he’s facing, he’s likely to have identified one area he can attack and put [himself] in a good position to have a chance to get him out. I think that’s been big for him. We’re awfully proud of how he’s adjusted.”
Epstein has acknowledged that while he doesn’t think the Cubs’ position player group is a finished product, he certainly feels great about the nucleus the organization has built. Even with Arrieta, Hendricks and the surprisingly impressive Tsuyoshi Wada (who will be 34 next season, but could still find himself competing for a spot in the Cubs rotation), the obvious focus becomes how to build up the front five.
“I like some of the pitchers we have coming along in the minor leagues, and I think our big league staff has done sort of an underrated job this year,” Epstein said. “There are some bright spots. But we’ve been open about the fact that it would be nice to add an impact pitcher or two. When you look over the next 18 months or so, that’s certainly a priority for us. Whether we develop one from an unlikely spot like might be happening with Arrieta or acquire someone who’s already at those heights remains to be seen.”
FINISHING THE JOB
Surprise success stories like Arrieta and Hendricks, coupled with bounce-back years from Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, have certainly boosted the optimism around the team as the prospects are rising to the big leagues.
“It’s good for the fans,” Hendricks said. “They’ve needed some winning the last few years, and unfortunately we haven’t been able to give it to them. I think with a lot of us young guys coming up—a lot of young hitters especially—they’re doing an unbelievable job. And there’s more to come.”
While the narrative may have recently changed as far as the media and average fans are concerned, nobody within the Cubs organization considers the work done.
“Our fans deserve to get excited. I’m happy for them,” Epstein said. “Ultimately, the only thing that matters is winning. That’s what’s on our mind, and we’re working hard to get there. Having young players that are worth following and at-bats you can’t miss, we’re human and that makes us feel good that our fans have something like that in their lives at this point, because certainly there’s been some tough times that they’ve had to endure.”
Epstein and company know they’ve still got work to do. They’re aware that pitching is a need, as is a veteran presence in the clubhouse to lead by example. But they strongly believe they’re on the right path and have felt that way for some time now. Still, the ultimate goal has yet to be accomplished.
“We’ve felt really good about it for a period now, and we also feel like there’s so much more work to do that we don’t deserve any kudos or pats on the back,” Epstein said. “On the other hand, we’re all human, and we feel the optimism of our fans and our players. It only makes us want to work harder and finish it off. We’ll feel like it’s finished when we win the last game in October.”
—Sahadev Sharma, Baseball Prospectus
Photo by Stephen Green
On Tuesday, Major League Baseball announced that Anthony Rizzo was named the Chicago Cubs’ 2014 nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award, given to the major leaguer who best represents the game of baseball with contributions both on and off the field.
“We are pleased that Anthony has once again been selected as a national Roberto Clemente Award recipient,” said Cubs General Manager Jed Hoyer. “His commitment to the community and his teammates the last three seasons with the Cubs has made a tremendous impact within our organization.”
Each club nominates one player who truly understands the value of helping others for the Roberto Clemente Award in an effort to pay tribute to Clemente’s achievements and character.
Rizzo started the nonprofit Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation in 2012 to raise money for cancer research and to provide support to children and their families battling the disease. As a cancer survivor, he understands the impact cancer has on the entire family. Through fundraising for research and providing support for pediatric cancer patients and their families, the foundation aims to help give every family a fighting chance against the disease.
Since its inception, the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation has hosted two annual events, including the Walk-Off For Cancer held during the offseason in Anthony’s hometown of Parkland, Fla., and the Cook-Off For Cancer in Chicago, which raised close to $140,000 this year.
Together, these events have raised more than $500,000 for cancer research since 2012. Currently, the organizations selected as beneficiaries of this fundraising include Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, Bear Necessities Pediatric Cancer Foundation, Family Reach Foundation, Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital and The Lymphoma Program at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Health System.
In addition to these fundraising efforts, Rizzo makes monthly visits to Lurie Children’s Hospital. He has become a welcomed and familiar face to those in the pediatric oncology floor, where he spends much of his time talking with patients and their families, signing autographs, taking photos and handing out Cubs memorabilia.
Wednesday marks the 13th annual Roberto Clemente Day, which was established by Major League Baseball to honor Clemente’s legacy and to officially recognize local nominees of the Roberto Clemente Award. The 15-time MLB All-Star and Hall of Famer died in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1972 while attempting to deliver supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
Rizzo will be recognized for his nomination before the team’s Sept. 17 home game vs. the Cincinnati Reds. He will be presented a $7,500 grant to the charity of his choice, Cubs Charities, as a result of his nomination for this award.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
The following story can be found in the August issue of Vine Line.
Of course Anthony Rizzo has seen the video. Like so many others who saw it happen live or viewed the highlight replay with mouths agape, Rizzo has watched the home run he hit off the Reds’ Alfredo Simon on June 23.
The blast (pictured on our August cover) was ridiculous—and nearly impossible. Simon threw Rizzo a high, hanging breaking ball that was so far off the plate the Cubs’ first baseman almost needed the proverbial 10-foot pole to reach it. But he did more than just reach it. He hit it well out over the left-field wall at Wrigley Field.
If Rizzo was impressed with himself, it wasn’t for the reasons you might think. Sure, it was a home run, but more important for the slugger, it was a piece of hitting that summed up how things have been going for him this season.
“The biggest thing is if I was trying to hit a home run there, I would have rolled over to the second baseman,” he said. “I just saw the pitch and went with it. That’s really all I need to do is just put a good swing on the ball. Good things have been happening. Fortunately enough, it was lifted in the air.
“I saw the ball well. I saw it up, out.”
At this point, bells should go off, heads should nod, and hallelujahs should be sung to the rafters, for therein lies the key to Rizzo’s success. Despite the fact that he is one of the Cubs’ veteran players, he just turned 25 years old this month, which means he’s still learning to be a major league hitter. And this season, it seems like he’s taken a big developmental step forward. Though he hasn’t necessarily altered his approach, the results have changed dramatically for the better.
As Monday’s 4-1 win over the Mets—one where he ripped a go-ahead home run—Rizzo’s on-base percentage was nearly 40 points above his career norm. His .376 OBP ranks ninth in the NL.
Through his first 122 games, Rizzo had a hitting line of .276/.376/.507 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 28 home runs, 67 RBI, 64 walks and 100 strikeouts. If you extrapolate those numbers over an entire season, they’re pretty darn good, which is why some are now grouping the 2014 All-Star in with the elite first basemen in the game.
But before you start talking about him having a bounceback season after “struggling” in 2013, know this: Anthony Rizzo carries a quiet defiance about the kind of season he had last year, when he hit .233/.323/.419 with 23 home runs and 80 RBI.
“I think last year was a good year,” he said. “I drove in a lot of runs. I walked a good amount (76 times). I had a lot of doubles (40). But the average obviously wasn’t there, and some people look at average. Some people don’t. In my opinion, it wasn’t a bad year. It wasn’t a great year, but it was kind of a baseline year.”
That said, this year has felt completely different from last year for both Rizzo and shortstop Starlin Castro. Right or wrong, fair or unfair, the spotlight has been laser focused on the Cubs’ young cornerstone players. If the team plans to contend soon, it needs both—each signed to team-friendly, long-term contracts—to show better than what they did last year.
To help that along, President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer hired new manager Rick Renteria to surround the Cubs’ young players with an aura of positivity and encouragement. Along with the new manager came a new hitting coach in Bill Mueller. While Renteria and Mueller knew all about Rizzo, they arrived with fresh perspectives and no preconceived notions.
“Coming in, you just go on what you’ve seen from video watching or from when they came in and played the Dodgers, seeing a glimpse,” said Mueller, who was with Los Angeles’ front office last year. “So there was nothing I had really built up until getting here and getting to know the guys personally and then seeing them before that relationship [started] to grow.
“He’s a very talented player, first off. I think with the new breath of fresh air with Ricky and the staff, that’s been a nice complement to come into the season. The whole staff has handled this group in a very positive way. That type of atmosphere has led some of these guys to have good starts.”
Renteria said he noticed the positive vibes emanating from Rizzo from the beginning of Spring Training. The new skipper also had time to visit with his first baseman during the Cubs Caravan and the Cubs Convention in January.
“He came into this season—to the spring, actually—with an idea that he wanted to improve on using a little bit more of the field, having better at-bats, not chasing pitches in off the plate,” Renteria said. “He’s done a really nice job of adjusting to doing that. I think he made a very big, conscious effort of working on his approach.
“When you have guys that are learning how to hit and have power, I think your approaches can pay big dividends because when you start squaring up the ball, the strength, in and of itself, gives you an opportunity to drive the ball out of the ballpark. That’s been really, really good. We’re really happy with the way he’s progressing, and hopefully it continues.”
Unlike the Cincinnati Reds’ Joey Votto—a player many compare Rizzo’s abilities to—who is willing to talk swing mechanics and hitting all day long, Rizzo is generally content to let others analyze his approach. In fact, he doesn’t really appear to like talking about himself when it comes to hitting.
“I kind of have the same mindset every year,” Rizzo said. “I work pretty hard in the offseason with my trainer. Really, it was no different this past year. [It was] the same things we’ve done the last five or six years in the offseason. It was getting ready for the season. At the same time, I didn’t hit more or less. I just stayed with it. I came to spring and wanted to get confident again.”
The comparisons between Rizzo’s combination of power and patience and Votto’s might be more apt than people realize. This winter, Rizzo was able to spend some quality batting-cage time with the 2010 NL MVP while the pair, along with Padres pitcher Casey Kelly, worked out together in Florida.
Like Rizzo, the Reds’ standout is a left-handed batter—and if there’s anyone a young player should want to emulate, it’s stat geek darling Votto, who gets on base at a dizzying rate. Given Major League Baseball’s grinding schedule and a rash of injuries, Votto hasn’t been able to watch much of Rizzo in 2014, but he likes what he has seen.
“I haven’t been able to see him enough, but I definitely see improvement in performance—more home runs, obviously, and a guy who seems to be walking a little bit more,” Votto said. “He’s a cool guy. He’s a nice guy. He’s a very, very easy guy to get along with. I can see why he’s having the type of success he’s having. He’s very talented.”
It can be difficult at times for left-handed hitters to hit left-handed pitchers, but that’s been another marked improvement for Rizzo this year. After going .189/.282/.342 with just seven of his 23 homers against left-handed pitchers a year ago, Rizzo put up a .302/.407/.516 with eight homers against lefties.
“For me, it’s just seeing the ball,” he said. “It’s never comfortable facing left-handers, especially the relievers who are just nasty. I just focus on seeing the ball. I feel if I see it, my hands will be good enough to put the bat on it.”
Generally, when left-handed hitters have success against left-handed pitchers, it’s because they try to go with the pitch, and by doing so, they “see” it longer on its path to the plate. But for a hitter as naturally gifted as Rizzo, it also has a lot to do with confidence.
“The general key might be that you have a lot of confidence in yourself right against left, and when you have things in your mind that you can attach your confidence to when you get in that box, those things sometimes translate,” Mueller said. “I think that’s what’s happening to Riz. He’s very confident in spots, and those translations are happening whether it’s a lefty or a righty, whether it’s a starter or a reliever. He’s putting together some really good approaches and some good at-bats. Sometimes when things are really starting off on the right foot, that carries over a little bit. You can gain some momentum with that.”
Given the preponderance of advanced stats and information available these days to even the casual fan, it’s easy to analyze—and overanalyze—a player’s performance. Whether or not you think Rizzo had a down year last year, whether or not you think his new approach is here to stay, whether or not you think he’s on pace to become a perennial All-Star, it’s important to remember failure is a big part of the sport, and the best players are able to learn from their struggles. Ultimately, baseball is a game, and it should be fun.
“I always tell myself, even now when I struggle, that it’s a process,” Rizzo said. “You look at guys throughout the year who have progressed every year and have gotten better, and that’s all you really want to do is just get better every year. The more at-bats you get, the more you feel like you’re going to learn in this league. It’s just a process.
“It was fun last year. It was. What’s fun about it is you put all this work in and when you do get results, it’s nice and rewarding. But it’s still fun. It sounds weird, but when you struggle, you appreciate the game too because it’s so hard. You have to have fun here. It’s too long of a season not to have fun whether you’re going good or bad. It’s about staying even-keeled whether you’re going good or bad. You have to come in and be the same person.”
—Bruce Miles, Daily Herald