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."

Cubs bullpen updates: Craig Kimbrel takes a step forward while Brandon Morrow remains a question mark

Cubs bullpen updates: Craig Kimbrel takes a step forward while Brandon Morrow remains a question mark

Before Pedro Strop served up the go-ahead homer to former top prospect Eloy Jimenez in the ninth inning Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, the Cubs got some good news on their bullpen as Craig Kimbrel took a step forward while Brandon Morrow remains status quo.

Obviously the pair of closers are on completely different trajectories. Kimbrel is coming off an elongated free agency period and is just working up to game form while Morrow is still on an injury comeback trail that is approaching the one-year mark.

Kimbrel threw a perfect seventh inning in relief for Triple-A Iowa Tuesday, needing only 8 pitches to get his job done. The Cubs don't have a specific plan for his next step, but acknowledged it would be another relief outing for Iowa probably on Thursday or Friday. 

"He's trending in the right direction," GM Jed Hoyer said Tuesday evening at Wrigley Field. "Obviously he's feeling good, but we're not gonna rush him or make judgment on any one outing. We're just gonna take this process as we planned it out and try to get him ready for the remainder of the season."

This was the first game action of any kind for Kimbrel since Oct. 27 when he appeared in Game 4 of the World Series for the Boston Red Sox. He signed with the Cubs nearly two weeks ago now and threw his first bullpen at Wrigley Field on June 8 before going to Arizona to throw another bullpen and face hitters in live batting practice.

As dominant as Kimbrel was in the one inning — Hoyer joked Kimbrel may have to purposely walk a guy next time out just to get more extended time in the rehab game — don't expect the Cubs to get aggressive and push him now. It's still hard to see any scenario in which he's in the big-league bullpen on this current homestand (that runs through June 27).

The Cubs didn't sign Kimbrel to rush him and risk injury when they want him to lock down the back end of the bullpen down the stretch in September and then in what they hope is a long playoff run in October.

The original plan called for Kimbrel to throw in back-to-back outings in the minor leagues, and the Cubs haven't indicated any change to that.

"[I'm just looking for] good health," Joe Maddon said. "He felt good, velocity was there, the break on the breaking ball was good, the velocity on the breaking ball was very good. It's just about health. If the guy's healthy and ready to rock and roll, you put him in the ninth inning. That's pretty much what we're looking forward to."

Kimbrel would obviously be a huge shot in the arm to the entire Cubs roster whenever he's able to walk through those clubhouse doors, but they could also receive another boost if Morrow is somehow able to get healthy and on the right track.

Morrow — the former Cubs closer — has been out since last July, going on the shelf at that point with what was originally described as biceps tendinitis. It was later revealed to be a bone bruise and he actually had to undergo a minor surgery on his right elbow over the offseason. 

The Cubs knew they'd be without Morrow for at least the first month of 2019, but the veteran then experienced a setback and still hasn't gotten back in a game. But he's been throwing from about 135 feet, Hoyer said, and feeling OK at the moment.

"With Brandon, we've been down this road a few times where he feels good and he has a setback, so I don't want to be overly optimistic," Hoyer said. "I don't want to be pessimistic. This is where he is. Obviously getting him back would be such an incredible bonus for us at this point. 

"We just want him to be healthy. I feel awful for him. No one is more disappointed or more frustrated than he is. Hopefully this time through, it works for him.

"...It's hard — you have to build your way back up. You don't really get a true sense of what it's gonna be like until you throw in games or throw in live bullpens because that's when the real stress pitches come in."

Hendricks, Chatwood, Alzolay and where the Cubs rotation goes from here

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AP

Hendricks, Chatwood, Alzolay and where the Cubs rotation goes from here

Kyle Hendricks' shoulder injury isn't opening the door for Adbert Alzolay to make his way into the Cubs rotation.

Not initially, at least.

The Cubs will hand Tyler Chatwood the ball in Hendricks' normal spot Thursday evening against the Mets at Wrigley Field, keeping Alzolay in the minors for the time being. 

When Hendricks hit the injured list over the weekend, many speculated it could be the Cubs' top pitching prospect who gets the call, as Alzolay has been on fire in Triple-A (1.93 ERA, 40 K in 28 innings over his last 5 starts). But the Cubs have two veteran starting pitching options hanging out in their bullpen in Chatwood and Mike Montgomery and it would send a bad message inside the clubhouse to pass over those guys and call up a starter from the minors to take a turn in the rotation.

The Cubs also felt like Chatwood has earned the chance to start after dealing with last year's struggles and having a resurgent season out of the bullpen and in his one previous spot start.

"He's been pitching a lot better," Joe Maddon said of Chatwood. "We believe he's earned this opportunity to pitch in the situation. ... It's an earned situation."

The Cubs made sure Chatwood was stretched out, as they held him back in case of extra innings Sunday night in Los Angeles and then had him throw in the bullpen after the game to help build his stamina back up to join the rotation.

But even if Alzolay won't be joining the rotation this week, that doesn't mean his opportunity isn't right around the corner. The Cubs have been discussing the potential for a six-man rotation in the near future, as they just began a stretch of 17 games in 17 days before their next break on July 5. 

"That's been something we've talked about a lot," GM Jed Hoyer said. "This is really the third time we've had 2-3 weeks in a row [of games]. No doubt, the starters wear down after 2-3 times through the rotation on four days rest and we're aware of their age and mileage on some of these guys. We want to make sure we take care of them. In general, getting extra rest is something we've talked about going into the break."

The Cubs have gone to a six-man rotation before and after the All-Star Break in past seasons and it makes sense to do so again this year, even with Hendricks on the shelf. Montgomery and Alzolay are both options and then Chatwood, of course, though Maddon insisted the Cubs have not come up with a concrete plan for the rotation beyond Thursday's outing.

The big question looming over the rotation is how long Hendricks will be out. He was in some kind of groove before experiencing shoulder issues in his last start against the Dodgers.

"All the test confirmed what we thought — he's kinda dealing with an impingement," Hoyer said. "I feel like we got ahead of it. We're not sure how much time he'll miss. We'll try to take it slowly and take the length of the season into account."

It's still only mid-June and the Cubs are hoping they're going to be playing baseball for another four-plus months, so they know how important Hendricks is to the overall goal of a second championship. 

They'll practice patience with him in his recovery, but right now, they can't say whether or not Cubs fans will be able to see him pitch again before the All-Star Game.