Cubs

Who is Anthony Rizzo?

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Who is Anthony Rizzo?

The biggest indicator of who Anthony Rizzo is cannot be found from looking at the back of his baseball card. Statistics don't tell the whole story.

Rizzo, a first baseman and former sixth-round draft pick of Jason McLeod (as well as Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer) in Boston, struggled early in his career with cancer. Limited-stage classical Hodgkin's lymphoma to be specific.

He underwent chemotherapy for six months after the diagnosis in 2008 and resumed his playing career in 2009.

"He's got a fantastic makeup," Hoyer said on a conference call following the trade. "He obviously went through a lot by overcoming cancer when he was 19 years old. He's a very strong individual. Certainly acquiring him in San Diego, I got to know him even better than I knew him when I was with the Red Sox.

"He makes a big impression on his teammates. He's an incredibly hard worker. He's a very strong person. I think he's a leader. He's someone that can really help put this organization or our team on the right path as far as our culture."

Rizzo may have been drafted by Hoyer and Co. with the Red Sox in 2007, but he only spent a couple of years there before being traded to San Diego -- where Hoyer was the GM at the time -- as one of the main pieces in a deal that sent superstar Adrian Gonzalez to Boston.

Now, he's on his third HoyerMcLeod organization.

"We're very excited to acquire Anthony Rizzo," Hoyer said. "He's a player Theo, Jason and I know very well. This is now the third organization that Jason and I have been with with Anthony, which speaks to how much we speak to his ability and his character.

"We believe Anthony has the potential to be a middle-of-the-order run producer for the Cubs for a long time. He still has some development left, but we feel like what he's done at age 20 at Double-A and 21 at Triple-A was remarkable. He did struggle in the big leagues a little bit last year when he came up, but we feel like that's just an adjustment period and that he has a bright future."

Rizzo, whom McLeod once described as having the best makeup of any player he's ever drafted, has certainly torn up the minor leagues lately. In Triple-A last season, he raked to the tune of a .331.404.652 slash line with 26 homers, 34 doubles and 101 RBI in just 93 games and 356 at-bats.

Of course, he was playing in Tucson, Ariz., which is a great place to hit.

"That Triple-A enviornment he was in was a bandbox," Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus said. "It was just a pinball machine. And that created some bad habits...He ended up getting loopy with his swing and getting pull-conscious."

Those bad habits were part of the reason he struggled in his first stint in the majors late in 2011.

In 128 at-bats with the Padres, Rizzo batted just .141 with only one homer and nine RBI. He also had a whopping 46 strikeouts. But that didn't deter Hoyer and his staff from wanting to acquire Rizzo, who just turned 22 in early August.

"It's really hard for a player to make adjustments before they fail," Hoyer said. "One of the things you talk about with young players is you actually want them to fail. Because once they fail, they can make adjustments. For Anthony, it took him getting to the big leagues at age 21 to have that failure, which is impressive."

Some around baseball may be wary of Rizzo's future. After being voted the Padres' top prospect last season, San Diego went out and traded Mat Latos for several prospects, including first baseman Yonder Alonso. That fact suggests the Padres organization holds Alonso higher than Rizzo.

Obviously Hoyer and his staff don't necessarily believe that and Goldstein isn't buying it either.

"I disagree with that notion," Goldstein said. "If I was starting a team and they said you could either have Rizzo or Alonso, I would take Rizzo."

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.