Peter Gammons: The Foundation of the New Cubs

anthony rizzo cubs

Anthony Rizzo is 25, and as the Wrigley week unfurled—from the four game sweep of the Mets to Eddie Vedder to Friday’s 11-10 win against the Pirates—the view of the young Cubs’ rise to the forefront of the baseball landscape became something far greater than an Old Style at the Seventh Inning Stretch or a singalong with “This Year We Go All the Way.” This is now dead serious.

Oh, there is pitching depth to be determined and maturation experiences unforeseen, but driving the forces of extraordinary young players like Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Jorge Soler—with waves to come—has been Rizzo. It’s easy to start with his emergence as one of the most dominant offensive forces in the game at a position that features six to eight star-level players.

It is that because he is but two years older than Bryant and is a cultural contemporary to the young players that are storming the National League Central Bastille, his leadership is really more meaningful than that of a presence in his mid-30’s. And he is that leader. He’s the guy that last season challenged the entire Reds dugout. He’s the voice that echoed Eddie’s “all the way.”

Not that Cubs VP Jason McLeod is in the least bit surprised. McLeod drafted Rizzo in the sixth round of the 2007 draft, went above “slot” to sign him, and said to watch the 17-year-old kid from Southeast Florida “because he might have the best makeup of anyone I’ve ever signed.” The next year, Rizzo was diagnosed with lymphoma, as Jon Lester had two years earlier, and like Lester, he came back. And a little more than a fifth of the way through the 2015 season is the most valuable player in the National League as the Cubs have clearly climbed on a back that’s strong.

McLeod is the constant in the rise of Anthony Rizzo, Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein his wingmen. McLeod went to the Padres with Hoyer in October, 2009 as assistant GM. A year later, Hoyer teamed up with a trade with their former boss and friend Epstein that sent Adrian Gonzalez to Boston for two former first round picks—Casey Kelly and Reymond Fuentes—and Rizzo.

In retrospect, the Red Sox clearly wish the deal hadn’t happened and that they had a 25-year-old Rizzo leading their band of 23-year-old regulars, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Blake Swihart. But that isn’t fair. Gonzalez was eventually sold off to the Dodgers in the disaster that was Boston’s 2012 season and never really caught the spirit of New England, but in 2011-2012, up to the trade on Aug. 24, 2012, Gonzalez’s 282 games for the Red Sox produced 42 homers, 203 RBI and a slash line of .321/.382/.523. His perception in Boston rankles him (“I’m told I couldn’t play in Boston,” he says). He was good. In Los Angeles, he has been a production metronome.

Then when Hoyer and McLeod joined Epstein in Chicago after the 2011 season, they traded Andrew Cashner for Rizzo, the flipcard of Brock/Broglio.

Look at Rizzo’s three year maturation: OBP .323 to .386 to .486. Slugging .419 to .527 to .611. OPS+ from 103 to 153 to 193.

Then awaken Saturday morning in the midst of an important series with the Pirates. He leads the league with a .468 OBP, placed in a critical second hole by Joe Maddon between Dexter Fowler and Bryant. Rizzo is hitting a ridiculous .467 with a .590 OBP and .700 slug against lefthanded pitchers, which, since Fowler and Bryant are on base at .387 and .407 rates against lefties essentially eliminates the tic-tac-toe specialization of opponents’ bullpens against the heart of the Cubs’ order.

He has 20 walks, 17 strikeouts. He is tied with Bryce Harper atop the offensive WAR leaderboard, tied for third in WAR among all major league position players.

There will come a time when Kris Bryant is an MVP, Addison Russell and maybe Soler and/or Kyle Schwarber are, as well. For now, Epstein talks only of the joy of watching Rizzo and Bryant in the heart off the Cubs order for seven years. Cubs fans embedded in history will revel in Bryant, not Mark Appel, in the bold move of Jeff Samardzija for Russell (and Billy McKinney), but in many ways they will remember that this all started weeks after Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod reunited on The North Side and they traded for Anthony Rizzo.

Jason McLeod was right back when Rizzo was 17 when it came to the makeup. Eight years later Anthony not only is the cancer survivor whose worked his way to the status of superstar, but the back on whom this generation of Cubs stars have climbed.

Comments

  1. Katherine says:

    I became a fan when my Dad who work at Wrigley in the 60’s decided this was a team and atmosphere he wanted us to see. It has been grueling at times, but I never lost the belief that we would compete when we got the right team. My father is still around (88) and still listening to the Cubs (no cable). I’m 55, with 2 sons and a husband who are pragmatic Cub Fans. We will see a Championship soon and as a daughter I hope my father will too.

  2. bluelaws says:

    Rizzo was almost a throw in by the Red Sox to get Adrian Gonzalez from San Diego. The main piece of that trade was Casey Kelly, the first round draft pick who was a shortstop turned starting pitcher (remember Frank Rodriguez?) and now a career minor leaguer.

  3. Stephen Curtis says:

    i always loved gonzalez. he didn’t hit hr;s at clip he did with padres but had just come off shoulder surgery. sox loved him to trading him was the price to get rid of crawford who couldn’t play in boston and ripped the fans and media for his hitting below 250 and beckett and others that had to go. it is to bad because boston has no 1b ready to step in take over for napoli and napoli isn’t hitting.