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."

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

It’s been another quiet offseason for the Cubs.

January is almost over and the Cubs have yet to commit a single guaranteed dollar to the big-league roster. After exceeding MLB’s luxury tax threshold in 2019, Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to get under the figure in 2020 and reset penalties entering 2021.

Barring any major surprises — i.e. a core player getting dealt before Opening Day — the club will return largely the same team from last season. That group has plenty of talent, but there are some question marks, like second base and center field.

A fan made waves at Cubs Convention last Saturday, reciting the definition of insanity to Epstein and Jed Hoyer during a baseball operations panel. With a similar roster in hand, why should fans expect anything different from the Cubs in 2020?

For Epstein, part of the answer lies in the continued development of homegrown players like Ian Happ.

Happ was supposed to be a key cog for the Cubs in 2019, but he was sent to Triple-A Iowa at the end of spring training after striking out 14 times in 52 at-bats. This followed a 2018 season in which he sported a 36.1 percent strikeout rate.

“He was striking out 30 percent of the time and we decided to send him down, because what we were seeing with Ian Happ, in our mind, wasn’t the finished product,” Epstein said Saturday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. “We believe it’s the same way with a lot of our hitters, that’s there’s tremendous talent in there, but it wasn’t manifesting in major league games — which is all that matters — the way we needed it to.”

Happ was reportedly upset with the move, but his strikeout rate dropped to 26.3 percent with Iowa. After the Cubs recalled him on July 26, he posted a 25 percent rate in 58 games (156 plate appearances), slashing .264/.333/.564. He recognizes the demotion was beneficial.

“I got a lot of at-bats. I used it as a learning process,” Happ told NBC Sports Chicago Friday of his Triple-A stint. “To be able to come back and have success, it was a good way to finish the season.

Happ ended the season on a high note, slashing .311/.348/.672 in September with six home runs. He was tremendous over the season’s final eight games: .480/.519/1.200, five homers and 12 RBIs.

“Just being more aware of the ways guys were gonna pitch me,” Happ said regarding his hot September. “There’s some tweaks. For me, it was more about handling different pitches and when to use two different swings — when to be a little bit more defensive, when to put the ball in play. It led to results.”

Cubs players have been criticized in recent seasons for a seeming unwillingness to shorten up at times to put the ball in play. Their 73.8 percent contact rate in 2019 was last in the National League, though Ben Zobrist’s personal absence contributed to the low figure.

Happ posted a 71.7 percent contact rate, up from his 63.5 percent rate in 2018.

“He went through a really difficult stretch in Iowa, making significant adjustments to his approach and his swing and as a person, growing from some failure,” Epstein said. “When he came back up towards the end of last year, his strikeout rate was under much better control, he had much more contact ability.

“He wasn’t driving the ball quite the same, and then by the end of the year, he had maintained that better contact rate, was starting to drive the ball again, and it looked pretty dynamic and pretty promising for the future.”

It’s not a coincidence Happ made strides with Iowa. He got to work on his swing in an environment where he played every day. This wouldn’t have been the case in the big leagues, especially if his struggles lingered.

Happ started each of the Cubs’ last six games; he said it's huge for his confidence knowing he'd be playing every day. 

“It’s huge, it’s huge. I think that’s what everyone’s striving for in this league, is be able to [play every day],” he said. “For me, after that stretch and being able to finish strong and look back on a solid year, that’s big moving forward.”

The Cubs roster may look the same, but there’s plenty of room for internal improvement. Pitchers will continue adjusting to Happ, but he’s a better player for what he went through last season. He can take what he learned and carry it into 2020.

“So now, same player on the roster — and I understand the definition of insanity — but to expect Ian Happ to grow from what he’s gone through and benefit from the coaching that he’s gotten,” Epstein said, “and the lessons that he’s learned and the adversity that he’s gone through, and go out and be a productive player for us next year in a certain role, I don’t think is insane.”

“It’s just about sticking with the process, understanding that that’s what worked and that’s what you want to do,” Happ said. “It’s not always easy at the beginning of the year at Wrigley. It’s cold, it’s windy. The results don’t always show up. But if you’re true to the process and you keep going, by the end of the year you’ll be at a good spot.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

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AP

Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

After the Cubs Convention, fans left still uncertain about the team headed into the 2020 season. Host David Kaplan and NBC Sports Chicago Cubs writer Tim Stebbins discuss what they took from Cubs Con, the culture change that is coming to the organization and a realistic possibility that the Cubs are looking into disgruntled star Nolan Arenado.

Listen to the episode here or in the embedded player below.

Cubs Talk Podcast

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