Cubs

Cubs getting their money's worth with Anthony Rizzo

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Cubs getting their money's worth with Anthony Rizzo

WASHINGTON – While the Cubs tried to pretend Kris Bryant had a chance to make the team in spring training, a reporter brought up the service-time issue and mentioned to Anthony Rizzo that 2021 would line up with the final club option on his contract.

“I have no idea,” Rizzo said. “I don’t know where I’m at on that.”

Rizzo doesn’t like to overanalyze things while standing at his locker, usually declining to break down his game in detail and writing almost everything off as “just baseball.”

But Rizzo can also be very engaging and surprisingly unfiltered, whether it’s ripping management for the Wrigley Field renovation delays or predicting the Cubs will win the division this season.

When it came to the seven-year, $41 million contract extension Rizzo signed in May 2013, the All-Star first baseman didn’t look back.

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“No, not at all,” Rizzo said. “You know if I go out and play, that will take care of itself.”

Rizzo has gone out and dominated, elevating his game to a new level, joining the MVP race and finding different ways to beat you. Just fast forward to Friday morning and the end of a 2-1 victory over the Washington Nationals that began on a rainy Thursday night. 

With two runners on and closer Hector Rondon struggling with his command in the ninth inning, Rizzo noticed Clint Robinson taking an aggressive secondary lead off first base and flashed a pick-off signal to catcher David Ross.

Ross called for a slider, popped up and turned to fire the ball to Rizzo, who had snuck over to first base and dropped the tag on Robinson. Anthony Rendon couldn’t be the hero at Nationals Park. Game over.

[SHOP: Buy an Anthony Rizzo jersey]

“He’s a stud,” Ross said more than once, describing Rizzo as “one of the best young players in the game. He should be talked about with the best young players in the game.

“He’s a leader. He brings it every day. He doesn’t take an at-bat off. I honestly can’t sit here and say enough good things about him and what he brings to this team.

“He’s our three-hole hitter. He’s dangerous. He has the best two-strike approach I’ve seen in my career. He’s the heart and soul of this team.

“He wants to take this organization to the next level. And he’s doing it.”

The Cubs (28-24) have been years behind the Nationals (29-25) in their rebuild, but they also don’t have the same win-or-else urgency now. 

Washington has a key leadoff guy/centerfielder (Denard Span) and an All-Star shortstop (Ian Desmond) positioned to become free agents. Frontline starters Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister are also in their walk years, while Stephen Strasburg can hit the market after the 2016 season. 

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The Cubs are building this around Rizzo, who’s making $5 million this season and next year, guaranteed $7 million in 2017 and 2018 and owed $11 million in 2019. The club options for 2020 and 2021 are worth $14.5 million apiece.

“We want to make sure we have that window of success,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Knowing ‘Rizz’ is going to be right there with the Bryants and the (Addison) Russells and the other guys we bring up is really important.”

That obviously looks like a team-friendly deal now with Rizzo getting on base around 44 percent of the time, ranking fourth in the majors with a 1.017 OPS, putting up more stolen bases (10) than home runs (nine) and keeping up his face-of-the-franchise image.

At the time, Rizzo’s camp wanted to beat the $32 million the Arizona Diamondbacks guaranteed Paul Goldschmidt, who will stay there through 2018 if the club picks up a $14.5 million option.   

Before the 2014 season started, the Atlanta Braves locked up another All-Star first baseman – Freddie Freeman – with an eight-year, $135 million extension.

You also have to remember that Rizzo is someone who beat cancer and got traded from the Boston Red Sox to the San Diego Padres to the North Side.

Of course, Rizzo said, those experiences will change your perspective. Knowing Cubs executives Hoyer, Theo Epstein and Jason McLeod for years also added to the sense of security.

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“I’m happy where I’m at,” Rizzo said. “I’m just playing baseball now. I don’t have to worry about what people say here and there now. I just go out and play and have a good time.”

Don’t forget Rizzo bombed during his 49-game audition with the Padres in 2011, hitting .141 with one home run and 46 strikeouts. And only a few weeks before the Cubs announced the extension, their manager at the time – Dale Sveum – threatened to send Rizzo and Starlin Castro to Triple-A Iowa.

“There are guys who want to go out every day and earn more money, whether it’s in free agency or in arbitration,” Hoyer said. “There are guys who (believe) comfort is really important. There are guys who – if you give them comfort – they back off the gas pedal.

“Anthony is very proud and he really likes to come out and play. He really loves to hit. I think the contract gave him the confidence that he’s going to be in Chicago for a long time. After two trades, he can just relax and play.

“He’s really taken off. He knows he’ll be here. He knows he’ll be a big part of what we’re doing.”

Rizzo keeps evolving, putting up more walks (30) than strikeouts (25). He’s hitting .429 against lefties. He’s crowding the plate and daring pitchers to hit him (which they’ve done 13 times already). He’s the steadiest defender on the 25-and-under infield (at least until he turns 26 in August).

The Plan means the National League will have to deal with Rizzo and Bryant from here until the end of the 2021 season. Good luck with that.

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 9th homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 9th homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Get ready for an onslaught of Sammy Sosa homers and highlights coming nearly every day over the next month-plus.

After a slow start to his historic 1998 season, Sosa really started heating up in late May. He sent his 9th ball into the bleachers on May 22, beginning a run of 25 longballs in roughly five weeks of action leading up to June 30.

Sosa's 9th homer actually came off Greg Maddux, a solo shot with two outs to give the Cubs an early lead in Atlanta. Chicago reliever Bob Patterson wound up blowing the game wide open late as the Cubs stumbled to an 8-2 loss.

Maddux, meanwhile, tossed 8 stellar innings, allowing only 5 hits and 2 runs - including the 440-foot homer to Sosa.

Fun fact: The Braves leadoff hitter that day was none other than current NBC Sports Chicago baseball analyst Ozzie Guillen, who was in the midst of his first season in the big leagues not in a White Sox uniform.

Fun fact No. 2: Atlanta's No. 2 hitter in the game was Keith Lockhart, who is now a scout in the Cubs organization.

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

It's been nearly 19 months since the Cubs and Indians played what may go down as history as the most important baseball game ever.

Game 7s are always instant classics just because of the win-or-go-home aspect, but the added bonus on that early-November day in 2016 was the fact either one of Major League Baseball's longest championship droughts was going to end. It was just a matter of whether it would be the Cubs' 108-year history or the Indians' 70-year.

Obviously we all know how that played out and for the first time since holding a 3-1 lead in that 2016 World Series, the Indians are returning to Wrigley Field for a brief two-game set beginning Tuesday night.

We're only a little over a quarter of the way through the 2018 campaign so the playoffs are a long way away. But could these two teams be destined for another date in the Fall Classic?

Let's examine the current positions:

STARTING PITCHING

The rotation is the easiest place to look for championship teams. It's really hard to survive a month of high-intensity postseason baseball without a stable of workhorses (even in today's changing world of shorter and shorter outings). 

On paper in spring training, these looked like two of the top rotations in baseball. It hasn't played out that way for the Cubs, though there is clearly reason for optimism with the way Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish pitched over the weekend in Cincinnati.

But the Indians rotation has been absolutely incredible, even including Josh Tomlin who was just bumped to the bullpen with a 7.84 ERA. The Top 4 starters in Cleveland can go toe-to-toe with any in baseball, as Corey Kluber (2.36 ERA, 0.84 WHIP), Carlos Carrasco (3.65, 1.07), Trevor Bauer (2.59, 1.12) and Mike Cleveniger (2.87, 1.16) would create plenty of issues for the opposition in a playoff series.

The rotation is the true strength of the Indians and while the Cubs still boast a starting 5 that could potentially hold its own against anybody in baseball, this one has to go the way of Cleveland.

Edge: Indians

BULLPEN

When you feature Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, it'd be easy to look at that and chalk it up as a Cleveland victory in the bullpen category, but things haven't been so great for the Indians of late.

Miller can't stay healthy and even when he is on the mound, rough outings have dragged his overall numbers (3.09 ERA, 1.54 WHIP) down. We're not used to seeing Miller's ERA even start with a "2" let alone a "3" so this is definitely a cause for concern. Allen, meanwhile, has only blown 1 save in 7 chances, but he also has a 3.32 ERA and 1.26 WHIP, which would be his worst numbers of any season since his rookie year of 2012.

The rest of the Cleveland bullpen is a complete mess, with Zach McAllister (7.16 ERA), Dan Otero (7.47), Tyler Olson (6.08), Nick Goody (6.94) and Matt Belisle (5.06) all struggling.

The relief corps has been an area of major strength for the Cubs in the first quarter of the season. Only Luke Farrell has an ERA above 5.00 in that Cubs bullpen and four different pitchers boast ERAs under 2.00 — Brandon Morrow (1.13), Steve Cishek (1.71), Pedro Strop (1.35) and Brian Duensing (0.61). 

The Cubs' main trick will be managing the workload for all these guys to ensure they don't run full-speed into a wall as they did late last season. But for now, the Cubs bullpen is head and shoulders above the Indians.

Edge: Cubs

OFFENSE

This is the toughest area to evaluate between these two teams.

The Indians' offense is incredibly top-heavy with Francisco Lindor (.933 OPS), Jose Ramirez (.985) and Michael Brantley (.936) providing probably the best Top 3 in an order in baseball. Brantley wasn't around for that 2016 World Series and has missed so much time the last few years with health woes, but he's back and as good as ever right now.

Beyond that, Cleveland is still searching for help. With Lonnie Chisenhall, Tyler Naquin and Bradley Zimmer on the disabled list, the Indians outfield was so desperate for help they had to add Melky Cabrera to the mix as well as needing to rely on 37-year-old Rajai Davis.

Edwin Encarnacion will probably heat up at some point overall, but he's still on pace for close to 40 dingers. Jason Kipnis has been atrocious and Yonder Alonso has also underwhelmed. There's not much in the way of offensive help coming, either, until Zimmer and Chisenhall are healthy.

The Cubs feature a Jekyll and Hyde offense that sometimes looks like the best lineup in the game and at other times, causes their fanbase to pull out hair in frustration. But that's also the way the game has gone in general right now.

That being said, Kris Bryant is making a serious case as the best player in baseball, Willson Contreras is making a serious case as the best catcher in baseball, Albert Almora Jr. is making a serious case as deserving all the Cubs' at-bats in center field and Javy Baez is making a serious case as the starting All-Star second baseman this summer, currently leading the National League in RBI.

Even Ian Happ has utilized a recent hot streak in Cincinnati to bump up his season numbers (now boasting an .870 OPS) and soon-to-be-37-year-old Ben Zobrist has a .382 on-base percentage.

Once Anthony Rizzo gets back to being the hitter we all know him to be and Addison Russell starts depositing baseballs into the bleachers on a regular basis, you'd figure the Cubs offense would stablize.

There's too much potential and talent here to finish anywhere but Top 3 in the NL in runs scored, which cannot be said about the Indians in the AL.

Edge: Cubs

DEFENSE

Another area where the Cubs have been up-and-down, but once again, there is too much talent and potential here not to give Chicago the edge.

Zimmer's return will greatly improve the Indians' team defense and Lindor is still great, but Cleveland still can't match the Cubs' potential Gold Glove contenders at 5+ positions (Rizzo, Russell, Baez, Almora, Jason Heyward).

Edge: Cubs

INTANGIBLES

Both teams have some awesome veteran leadership and even the younger players are plenty battle-tested.

Terry Francona and Joe Maddon are two of the best managers in the game, but Francona may have a longer leash in Cleveland. Maddon's honeymoon period on Chicago's North Side ended the day the Cubs won the World Series, oddly.

The jury is still out on the new Cubs coaching staff, too. Chili Davis looks to be making an impact with the Cubs offense at times and his strategy of using the whole field and limiting strikeouts will take some time to really show strides on a consistent basis. The Cubs pitching staff is still walking FAR too many batters, but that's hardly Jim Hickey's fault.

Both teams should be plenty hungry all summer long as they were bounced from the 2017 postseason in ways that left poor tastes in their respective mouths.

But we'll give this edge to the Indians simply because they are still searching for that elusive championship, so maybe that drive will give them a leg up on the Cubs.

Edge: Indians

OVERALL

The Indians are 22-23, but actually sit in 1st place in the woeful American League Central.

The Cubs are 25-19, yet duking it out with a trio of other teams in their own division.

As such, the Indians' road TO the playoffs seems much, much easier as we sit here in the week leading up to Memorial Day. And the ability to cruise to a division title will allow them to rest and conserve their energy for October, while the Cubs will probably not get to coast to the NLDS like they did in 2016.

That rest and relaxtion may give the Indians an edge, but as of right now, this Cubs roster looks to be better equipped to win it all.