Cubs: What is Rizzo getting himself into?


Cubs: What is Rizzo getting himself into?

Jeff Baker didnt know Anthony Rizzo all that well when he extended the invitation to go golfing with some teammates on the only off-day the Cubs had during spring training.

But one thing became crystal clear as they rode together in the cart across the course at Troon North in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The guy cares, Baker said of Rizzo. The questions he was asking wasnt like nickel-and-dime questions. He was asking big questions about playing in the big leagues, staying in the big leagues, how to have consistent success, how do you make adjustments.

I was kind of blown away because it was an off-day (and) he was going into some deep stuff. I was really impressed.

The Cubs think Rizzo will be prepared for the media storm once he arrives on the North Side, that he wont be blown away by all the expectations. Even insiders are left guessing whether the 22-year-old prospect will be promoted from Triple-A Iowa this weekend, the next homestand or the beginning of July. This decision is being kept under wraps.

At any given moment, the ratio of media-to-players inside the visiting clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field was roughly two-to-one before Wednesdays 7-0 loss to the White Sox. Even Tony Campana did multiple rounds of television interviews in front of his locker.

It made you wonder: What is Rizzo getting himself into?

The Cubs believe Rizzo can handle the hype because he already got a taste of it last season with the San Diego Padres and learned from his struggles there (.141 average, one home run in 128 at-bats). They say hes mature beyond his years after beating Hodgkins lymphoma as a prospect in the Boston Red Sox system.

The Cubs feel like there is an infrastructure to deal with the demands. They have turned their clubhouse into a distraction-free zone by getting rid of several polarizing personalities. Its filled with glue guys like Baker and Reed Johnson and a no-nonsense coaching staff.

Team president Theo Epstein has taken a three-dimensional view of prospects, bringing in experts from Northeastern Universitys Center for Sport in Society to educate players on how to handle themselves off the field. Those seminars in spring training werent a direct response to the allegations against Starlin Castro, though the meetings took place while the sexual assault case still hung over the organization.

The Cubs are also planning to run a rookie-development program for two weeks in January that will be modeled after what they did in Boston.

Its almost a finishing school of sorts for some of your prospects who are getting close to the big leagues on how to be big leaguers, Epstein said. (Its) certain things on the field, a lot of stuff off the field, so when they get up here, theyre familiar. Even simple things like dress code and how to tip the clubbies and how to talk to you guys (in the media), how to say and do the right things around veteran players, how to relate to the coaching staff.

Epstein felt like the Red Sox had to be thorough, because they were going to be dropping their young players into the heat of a pennant race and demanding they perform in front of sellout crowds and national television audiences.

The thing that strikes you while talking to people inside the clubhouse is how patient theyve been with questions about Epsteins master plan and Rizzo, specifically Bryan LaHair, whos already moving away from first base.

We understand how it is, Baker said. As a fan, when things arent going well, you want the next up-and-coming young guy and theres always hope in the future.

It generates a lot of interest and a lot of excitement, but the way the game is at the major-league level, its not that easy. Its not always the most talented guys that stay or stick around or even play every day.

Theres a lot of other stuff that goes into being a big-leaguer. Thats one of the things that me and Reed talk about all the time. The way theyre doing things here now we know it was kind of corny at the beginning to talk about The Cubs Way.

But its good, because theyre implementing ways to help guys on (and) off the field and help guys with the media. Theres a lot of pitfalls playing in the big leagues, the amount of money you have, to the amount of free time that you have, to being in the spotlight, the whole nine yards. I think its good to kind of get a manual and establish ways to do things and how this organization wants to stand out.

Between last year at San Diegos Triple-A affiliate, and this season so far in Iowa, Rizzo has produced 49 homers and 160 RBI in 158 games. As this season slipped away, the Cubs showed no urgency in calling him up, while also factoring in the extra year of club control.

With young players, Epstein said, you do everything you can to develop them, until youre confident that theyre ready and then you let them go and see how long the adjustment period is. But if you trust the players ability, you know if given an opportunity, theyll eventually find their level.

You still have adjustments. You still have Dustin Pedroia coming up and hitting a buck-60 for his first few weeks in his first full season. But if youre confident that youve checked all the boxes, as many as you can, down in the minor leagues, then it gives you a good feeling about committing to that player and letting him play every single day.

The Cubs have put Rizzo front and center in their rebuilding plans. He has said that nothing is guaranteed in this business, because hes shown up to camp as the future first baseman for the Red Sox, Padres and Cubs the past three years. The future is almost here.

Hes a smart kid, Baker said. The biggest thing is for him is just to relax. Hes going to have a lot of expectations on him and obviously last year he struggled in San Diego and its a different beast in Chicago. He knows that, and I think if anybody can handle it, he can. The organizations going to count on him.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. One big reunion.

The Blackhawks will square off with the Blue Jackets for the first time since Oct. 7, which was the second game of the season. In that game, they won 5-1 led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, each of whom scored a goal and added an assist.

Of course, that was the first game since the offseason trade that sent Artemi Panarin to Columbus and Saad back to Chicago, along with Anton Forsberg. Artem Anisimov, of course, was part of the original deal that sent Saad to Columbus in 2015, so there are a lot of emotional ties between the two teams.

Forsberg didn't get a chance to face the Blue Jackets in the first meeting, but there's a chance he will this time with it being the second of a back-to-back and Jean-Francois Berube getting the start in Friday's 3-1 win over San Jose.

2. Panarin and Kane bromance.

The emotions of a difficult break-up have probably died down by now, but Panarin and Kane gave us this moment at center ice during pregame warmups in their first game against each other and it hit Chicago right in the feels:

Panarin has spent enough time apart from Kane for people to realize how big of a star he is in his own right, leading the Blue Jackets in all three scoring categories: goals (17), assists (32) and points (49).

He hasn't gone more than three games this season without recording a point, and is looking to extend his point streak to four games, which would tie a season high.

3. Struggling Blue Jackets special teams.

The Blue Jackets got off to a great start but are barely clinging onto a wild card spot going into Saturday's game, and a big reason for that slide is their lack of success on special teams. Usually one can pick up the slack for the other, but they've been brutal in both departments.

The Blue Jackets are 0-for-9 on the power play in their past five games and are ranked 31st overall, converting on only 14.1 percent of their opportunities. They also have own the 27th-ranked penalty kill with a 76.3 percent success rate.

So if there's an area the Blackhawks can exploit, it's that. But, you know, still be mindful of that Russian winger's one-timer from the faceoff circle.

Jean-Francois Berube impressed in his first Blackhawks start


Jean-Francois Berube impressed in his first Blackhawks start

Jean-Francois Berube got his first start of the season on Friday night, and it couldn't have gone any better.

The 26-year-old goaltender stopped 42 of 43 shots, a career-high for him in saves, in the Blackhawks' 3-1 win over the San Jose Sharks at the United Center.

Since Corey Crawford went down with a head injury last December, the Blackhawks have been searching for consistency in the crease. 

The pair of Anton Forsberg and Jeff Glass — who was assigned to Rockford on Feb. 15 and replaced with Berube — have had their ups and downs since then. With the Blackhawks out of the playoff picture, Berube had an opportunity showcase his skills, and he didn't disappoint.

"We were very happy with him," said coach Joel Quenneville. "I thought he did a great job. He was comfortable. I thought he was very patient in his net. Absorbing a lot of pucks with people in front of him was good. Closed some gaps and got … of the top of the paint. Rebound control was effective. Nice response from a long absence."

Berube's last — and only — appearance with the Blackhawks prior to Friday's game came on Dec. 6, relieving Forsberg in a game against the Washington Capitals. He recorded 12 saves of 14 shots. 

When Crawford got injured, Berube was the primary candidate to become the team's backup goaltender. The only problem? He was injured too, so the Blackhawks promoted Glass.

"I didn't want to sit and think about it," Berube said of his injury. "At the same time, it was great for Glasser. He was one of those guys that probably deserved it earlier in his career and he finally got his chance. Sometimes you need a guy to go down to have your chance. So I was mostly happy for him.

On Friday night, he got his chance.

"You always want to have a good impression for your first game," Berube said. "I know what I can do at this level, so it was just a matter of getting the opportunity to play and showing people what I can do."

Celebrating his 22nd birthday, Nick Schmaltz also had a goal and an assist. Artem Anisimov scored an empty-netter.

"It's a lot more fun coming to the rink when you're winning, enjoying each other, playing well as a team," Schmaltz said of the Blackhawks' win, which have now won three of their last four games. "Hopefully we can keep that good energy and bring it to the rink every day, and build off of that.

"You never know where this team can go, a lot of great players, lots of guys that have had a lot of success. Hopefully we can continue to put together solid efforts."