What another strong showing in the MVP voting means for Cubs and Anthony Rizzo’s contract

What another strong showing in the MVP voting means for Cubs and Anthony Rizzo’s contract

Anthony Rizzo understood he handed over an object worth millions of dollars when he gave Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts the Game 7 ball from the last out of the World Series during that Grant Park rally two weeks ago. That type of gesture has made Rizzo a face of the franchise and one of the game’s most camera-friendly personalities.

But beyond that halo effect – and all the marketing opportunities from being a leader of the iconic team that finally ended the 108-year drought – Rizzo will get a well-deserved bonus after his second top-five finish in the National League MVP voting triggered all the escalators in his contract.

Rizzo’s 2019 salary will increase from $11 million to $12 million, according to two sources familiar with the deal, with the club options for 2020 and 2021 now worth $16.5 million instead of $14.5 million.

During a run that has seen the Cubs win 200 regular-season games, Rizzo has finished fourth in the Baseball Writers’ Association of America vote for two straight years, welcoming Kris Bryant into the clubhouse and helping a unanimous Rookie of the Year transform into an MVP

“If it wasn’t for Anthony and his protection and guidance, I wouldn’t have won this award,” Bryant said Thursday night on a BBWAA conference call. “He texted me, and I said the same thing to him: ‘If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have been able to do this.’”

It’s easy to forget now, because Rizzo is 27 and a three-time All-Star who won his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger after generating 32 homers, 109 RBI and a .928 OPS this year. But both sides had to take risks and make compromises when Theo Epstein’s front office and Rizzo’s camp agreed to a seven-year, $41 million deal in May 2013. 

Remember, Dale Sveum, the manager at the time, had publicly threatened to send Rizzo and shortstop Starlin Castro to Triple-A Iowa only a few weeks earlier. Even if the Cubs don’t really admit it now, there were legitimate questions about Rizzo’s maturity and focus, the way it is with many young players. Rizzo had also bombed during his big-league debut with the San Diego Padres in 2011, hitting .141 with one homer and 46 strikeouts in 49 games.

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Rizzo had already been traded twice, from the Boston Red Sox to the Padres in the Adrian Gonzalez deal, and then flipped again to Chicago for Andrew Cashner. Rizzo trusted Cubs executives Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod, who had known him as a Red Sox prospect and watched him come back from a Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis in 2008.

On some level, that cancer scare had to influence Rizzo’s thinking. The Cubs could give Rizzo peace of mind, long-term security, a national brand and the big-market platform for his charitable foundation. 

Rizzo – who’s represented by Sports One Athlete Management – also wanted to beat the $32 million the Arizona Diamondbacks guaranteed Paul Goldschmidt. But before the 2014 season started, the Atlanta Braves reset the market for first basemen by giving Freddie Freeman an eight-year, $135 million extension.

If Rizzo finishes first or second in the MVP voting during any year of the contract – and is subsequently traded – then the 2021 club option is void. But those club options for 2020 and 2021 still look like no-brainers, as Sveum might say, which would boost the total value of Rizzo’s deal toward $73 million, which does not include his extensive off-the-field portfolio.

If the ’85 Bears can still command so much attention in this city, then this Cubs team should be able to draw from a deep reservoir of endorsement opportunities and potential partnerships.

By manipulating Bryant’s service time last year, the Cubs ensured “Bryzzo Souvenir Co.” would remain under club control as a huge Wrigley Field attraction through the 2021 season.

“It says a lot about our team, being so young and being able to win a World Series this year,” Bryant said. “Knowing that we’re going to have this core together for a handful of years, there’s a lot of opportunity in front of us. And it’s up to us to make the most of it.”

'Baby steps' in the right direction for Cole Hamels

'Baby steps' in the right direction for Cole Hamels

Cole Hamels is working on so much stuff mechanically right now, he compared his pitching delivery to a golf swing and how "you're thinking about like 10 different things and you can't hit the ball off the tee box."

The veteran southpaw picked up the win Tuesday night and recorded his first quality start since June 23, but it wasn't exactly smooth.

Two separate times, he failed to come through with a shutdown inning after his offense gave him the lead, serving up a pair of homers to allow the Giants to tie the game. But he came through when they needed him most, throwing up a goose egg in the box score after Jonathan Lucroy drove home Javy Baez with the game-winning run in the bottom of the fifth inning.

Overall, it was a step in the right direction for Hamels as he tries to regain the form he had before he hit the injured list.

"It's just kinda the baby steps and getting back to knowing what I'm capable of doing and obviously not causing any sort of damage for these games that I'm trying to get back to what I know to do," Hamels said after the 5-3 victory and conceded he did have some positive things to build off of. "I was able to get a better line and direction toward home plate, but at the same time, leaving some balls up. That's what I was trying to get away from, just 'cause the past couple starts, I was really getting hurt on the fastballs up. Like I did today, the two fastballs up were obviously hit out of the ballpark.

"It's a game of inches. If I can slowly but surely get to where I need to be, then I can see the type of results I know I'm capable of having and will look a little bit better on TV and in the box score."

Cubs manager Joe Maddon felt like Hamels got better throughout the game, as the lefty started "pitching" more and settling in with his command. 

Hamels was on fire before he hit the injured list with an oblique injury and even after more than a month on the shelf, looked to be picking up right where he left off with 5 shutout innings in his first game back Aug. 3. 

But things have taken a turn since then, as he allowed 12 earned runs on 17 hits over just 5 innings pitched in his next two starts before grinding it out Tuesday night.

The Cubs haven't seen this type of struggle from Hamels, who gave the team a major shot in the arm last summer after coming over in a trade and was the rotation's best pitcher for the first half of this season.

"He's been Steady Eddy for us since he's been here," Anthony Rizzo said. "He's a professional. He's one of my favorite teammates ever. I love when he plays. I love him in the dugout, I love the intensity he brings and it's fun to watch him play."

Assuming the Cubs stay on the same rotation, Hamels will get one more start on this homestand - Sunday afternoon in the series finale with the Nationals.

American Legion Week has come at a perfect time for the Cubs

American Legion Week has come at a perfect time for the Cubs

If this was a movie and not real life, right now would be the montage with some classic song playing in the background while all the players get back in touch with their roots and regain their passion for the game.

Think of Rick Vaughn regaining his "Wild Thing" look and haircut or Billy Heywood and the Twins remembering how to have fun while "Runaround Sue" blares.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs are taking a page out of Hollywood and it just might be what the doctor ordered for this team.

A couple hours after Maddon and Anthony Rizzo and a few other players slid down the Williamsport hill on slabs of cardboard, the Cubs went out and won their first road series since Game of Thrones was on the air.

Sure, it was technically a neutral site, so not really a "true" road series win, but the Cubs will take what they can get at this point. 

Couple that with the beginning of "American Legion Week" at Wrigley Field Tuesday and the Cubs are really hammering home the point: This is a game — go play and have some fun.

That means players are forbidden from showing up to the clubhouse too early during this week and there is no batting practice. This is something Maddon has done every year and the Cubs are now 21-3 during American Legion Week after Tuesday night's 5-3 victory.

"September provides its own energy. August, man, you gotta find it sometimes," Maddon said. "We have taken 5,727 swings each — at least. Maybe it's 10,000, I don't know. I don't know how many throws they've made. I don't know how many videos they've looked at. I don't know how many data sheets they've read. By this time of the summer, it's gotta be at least 80 percent mental, 20 percent physical. Maybe 75/25. You get to this point, it's all mental over physical.

"You have to have that rested mind and body. So I think by picking this time of year to do this, they show up a little bit later, they don't feel compelled to do certain things that they feel like they may have to do to present the right image sometimes. A lot of this stuff is overplayed. A lot of it is eyewash. A lot of it is there to ameliorate others' concerns. Just do what's necessary.

"When hitters aren't hitting on the field, it's also about pitchers not standing in the outfield. It's also about coaches not hitting 1,000 fungoes. It's about when everybody's mind is fresher, you're gonna get a better product. I believe that."

The players agree.

"You get here late and it kinda throws some guys' routines off, but I think it helps this late in the year," Rizzo said. "It's good timing and it's a good win."

Right now, Nicholas Castellanos is the poster boy for a loose/fun approach to the game and he went out and showed that again Tuesday night by homering in the first inning to give the Cubs an early lead. 

That initial lead didn't hold up, but the Cubs prevailed anyways, thanks in large part to big nights from Rizzo (two homers, a single and a walk) and Castellanos (two singles to go along with his first-inning blast). 

But for the newest Cub, it was just another "Opening Day."

After confirming he tells Maddon "Happy Opening Day" before each game, Castellanos refuted a reporter's claim that Tuesday is not Opening Day because the Cubs don't have an 0-0 record.

"That's only if you believe the record," Castellanos said. "It's kind of the mentality — if what has happened is a memory and what's going to happen is a thought, you're taking yourself out of right now. So in that case, every day is Opening Day."

Insert your favorite Bill and Ted GIF here. 

But Castellanos has a point and the Cubs have been feeding off his energy since he arrived at the beginning of the month. 

And it certainly helps to get a weeklong reminder of where these guys came from — the Little League fields to the American Legion ball where they just showed up and played and didn't have to worry about October or money or pressure.

"I wouldn't call it pressure," Castellanos said. "I would call it fun. This is awesome."

For the last couple months, Maddon has been preaching about how important it is for his team to take a deep breath and stop pressing or worrying about making mistakes.

What better way to drive that point home than getting in touch with their inner child?

"I remember American Legion Ball like yesterday, man," Maddon said, while giving props to Post 210 in Danville, Ill. and their trip to the American Legion World Series in North Carolina this week. "That was the summertime. That was coming home after installing fences with Richie and putting your uniform on, going down to 22nd street. There was no video, there was no analytics, there was no BP, there was no nothin'. 

"I mean, your coach couldn't throw BP, so we didn't have that, either. So you just went out and you put it on and you might've had the McDonald's burgers on the bench and you went out and you played baseball and you played it really well."