Cubs

The aftermath of the Anthony Rizzo injury and where Cubs go from here

The aftermath of the Anthony Rizzo injury and where Cubs go from here

One of the most surreal moments of this crazy Cubs season has to be watching Anthony Rizzo scoot away from his locker Monday afternoon, unable to put any weight on his right ankle.

This is the face of the franchise, the guy who spoke to the millions in attendance at the post-World Series rally three falls ago. Rizzo is the heart and soul of this team in so many ways and has really only dealt with minor back injuries throughout his nine-year career.

Now, he's wearing a boot that makes him look more like Robocop and there's no guarantee Cubs fans will see him take the field again in 2019.

But that doesn't mean you should bet against him...

"In my career, I will definitely play another regular season game," Rizzo jokingly responded to a question from a reporter asking if he will suit up again in the final two weeks of this regular season. "My body usually responds well, so certainly not ruling it out. I have every intention of trying to do everything I can with the training staff to get back on the field with the boys.

"I want to play as soon as possible, whether it's now or Game 1 of the World Series."

The results of Monday's MRI absolutely could've been worse, but the lateral sprain to Rizzo's right ankle will keep him in that boot for the next 5-7 days. After that point, he and the Cubs can determine how much movement and stress that joint can take or how much mobility he'll have.

With the Cubs fighting for their playoff lives over these next two weeks and knowing his gutsy nature, don't be shocked if Rizzo forces the issue and tries to make a return of some sort before October, even if it's just in a small pinch-hitting role.

"There's a minimum amount of time when you have to just prioritize healing and let the inflammation die down and let things heal for a little bit," Theo Epstein said. "And then once we get past that period of time, then we can see if there are ways to manage the discomfort and if there are ways through taping to create some stability that gives him at least a chance to consider contributing down the road if things go really well. 

"We're not shutting any doors, but we're realistic that this is a legitimate injury that under ideal circumstances would take some time to heal."

Would Epstein be surprised if Rizzo returned before the end of the regular season?

"I'm just comfortable saying that we're not ruling it out," Epstein said. "Shoot, I was there [in Boston] with Curt Schilling in the doctor's office trying to figure out how to staple his ankle ligament back to the bone so he can go out there and pitch. This is not an analogous situation, but I've learned never to rule anything out. 

"But also injuries like this, you just have to give requisite amount of time to let initial healing take place to even have a better idea of what's possible and what's not possible."

Of course the Cubs are going to miss Rizzo while he's out. But they definitely seem to be in good spirits with the situation, all things considered.

There was Rizzo joking about how he wants to pimp out his scooter with a bicycle bell or maybe some streamers. 

There was Joe Maddon laughing about how he's thankful Rizzo can't move around too much in the dugout during games because of that scooter. The Cubs manager is already worried about finding a buffer once Rizzo is off the scooter and more mobile.

There was Jason Heyward joking about how restless Rizzo will be in the dugout, talking nonstop about "random shit" and how the Cubs players will enjoy ragging on Rizzo to keep things loose during this next week.

"[The scooter] is torture for him," Heyward said. "But at the same time, we kinda love seeing him riding around. He's gonna make a bunch of jokes about it. We're gonna make a bunch of jokes about it and just have fun with it that way. That's all we can do."

Maddon believes Rizzo's injury can be a galvanizing moment for the club, rallying around the injured player much like the Brewers have done since Christian Yelich was ruled out for the season with a broken kneecap.

But the Javy Baez injury and subsequent news of his broken thumb didn't have that same effect on this Cubs team and there have been plenty of "turning points" and "seminal moments" that never materialized over the course of this roller coaster season.

"We don't need any extra rallying points," Heyward said. "We got enough of 'em and we have fun with that. He's gonna add to that. That's what he does when he isn't playing. He brings the rallying points, he brings the fun, he brings that competitiveness and just the randomness as well."

Everybody knows the Cubs can't replace all Rizzo does for the club, from his Gold Glove defense to his steadying presence in the lineup to his two-strike approach to his aggressiveness on bunts and turning double plays. 

Ian Happ took over at first base in Sunday's game when Rizzo left with the injury and Victor Caratini got the start there Monday night. Both guys figure to be in the mix moving forward, with Maddon also mentioning Jonathan Lucroy and Willson Contreras as potential options. 

At the moment, Maddon does not want to move Kris Bryant to play first because he likes what he's seeing from Bryant defensively at third base. Ben Zobrist is also not expected to be a part of the first-base mix.

Caratini will still catch Yu Darvish like usual, which includes Tuesday night's start against the Reds.

As for leadoff (where Rizzo had slotted in the last few games before his injury), Maddon will roll with Zobrist up there as often as he can down the stretch. But the 38-year-old veteran won't be able to play every day and Monday already represented his third straight start.

The Belichickian "next man up" principle applies here and the Cubs know they won't get any sympathy from around the rest of the league even as the injuries pile up.

"Just keep playing," Heyward said. "Keep going. Everybody just do your part. Don't try and do too much. Just be realistic. Play the game, let the game come to you and that's it. Nobody's gonna look back and say, 'Oh, they didn't make it because they didn't have so and so' or 'they made it 'cause they had so and so' or whatever at the end of the day. Especially our group right here. No one's gonna do that. Keep having fun, keep competing."

The Cubs' expectations for how the next two weeks go have not changed one bit, even with their two most important players potentially unable to suit up over these final 13 games. 

"If we play up to our capabilities, we can beat anybody," Epstein said. "It all starts over once you get into the postseason. We're looking forward to doing what we need to do to get in there. 

"We'll see what happens, but we're in a dogfight of a pennant race. One day at a time."

Heyward summed up the team's mindset simply:

"Either we make it where we want to get or we don't."

On and off the field, Nico Hoerner proved he should be a big part of 2020 Cubs

On and off the field, Nico Hoerner proved he should be a big part of 2020 Cubs

Even before his surprise mid-September call-up, things were shaping up for Nico Hoerner to be a big part of the 2020 Cubs.

Now it looks like a certainty after the way he played in his 20-game cup of coffee in the final few weeks of 2019.

The organization's top prospect excelled at every level after the Cubs made him a first-round pick (24th overall) in June 2018. A broken wrist cost him two months this summer, but when he returned to Double-A Tennessee, the Cubs had him playing second base and center field in addition to shortstop, his natural position. That only boosted his value, as the Cubs clearly have holes at both center and second that they need to address this winter.

When he was pressed into duty after injuries to Javy Baez and Addison Russell, Hoerner proved the moment was certainly not too big for him. He hit .282 with a .741 OPS and 17 RBI in 20 games while playing solid defense at shortstop and displaying his great contact skills. 

While it's not unheard of for 22-year-olds to come up and immediately make an impact in the big leagues, Hoerner's case was particularly impressive given he played just 89 minor-league games and had not taken an at-bat above the Double-A level.

And Hoerner didn't just turn in solid production on the field — he was actually credited with helping provide a spark to the rest of the club, even though the season ultimately didn't end up the way the Cubs wanted. 

"He's been a little bit of a spark plug for us," Jon Lester said at the beginning of the Cubs' final homestand. "Any time you add energy like that, especially the naiveness of it — just not knowing what to expect and just going and playing baseball. Sometimes we all need to get back to that. Sometimes we all need to get back to just being baseball players and not worry about what else is going on surrounding us."

His former manager, Joe Maddon, called Hoerner a "differencemaker" down the stretch and felt confident he could stick at shortstop long-term.

It was also Hoerner's attitude and temperament that really drew rave reviews. Everybody — from Maddon to Theo Epstein to fellow teammates — were blown away by his sense of calm and confidence even while playing in pressure-packed big-league games. Those are the intangibles the Cubs have loved about Hoerner since they drafted him and don't expect that to change anytime soon.

"This is the type of human being he is," Epstein said. "He processes things really well he has strong character, he's in it for the right reasons, he's got a great family. He's really an invested member of the organization, a teammate and a winner."

This is the way he's always been, as his mom, Keila Diehl, explained to Kelly Crull in an interview on NBC Sports Chicago's broadcast on Sept. 14.

"He's just not full of himself," Diehl said. "He could be, and he's just not. ... He's just like this nice, ordinary guy — no attitude. Always brings a lot of energy and positivity to any team he's on."

That's exactly the guy we saw in Chicago in the final three weeks of the season. 

So as he recovers from his first full season of professional ball, Hoerner is in a position to forge a huge role for himself in Chicago next year. At the moment, it's reasonable to expect that to come at second base, but his ability to play shortstop might very well make Russell expendable this winter, especially with MLB Trade Rumors projecting the latter would be due $5.1 million in arbitration in 2020. 

The Cubs made it a point to get Hoerner some playing time at both second base and center field in the final two games of the 2019 season and he could at the very least offer a depth option in the outfield. 

His versatility, intangibles, and competitive drive present an intriguing package and his offensive skillset can help bring some diversity to the Cubs lineup. Hoerner is not really a power hitter at this point in his career but his hand-eye coordination and contact ability provide a refreshing style to this offense.

Simply put, Hoerner is just a good *baseball* player and profiles as the type of guy that can help any winning team in some capacity. 

The only question now is: Will the Cubs stash him in the minors for the early part of the season or let him continue to develop at Wrigley Field?

“We don’t ever draw it up that a player’s gonna skip Triple-A," Epstein said at his end-of-season presser. "It’s not determined yet where Nico’s gonna start next season, but given his mental makeup, given his skillset, who he is as a person, we felt that was something under the extraordinary circumstances that he could handle. I think it’s important that player development continues at the major-league level. 

"These days, it’s becoming a younger player’s game. If you look around baseball, the best teams have young players dominating. Yes, it’s not linear. There’s gonna be regression at the major-league level. But our players have had some real regression that’s taken them a while to dig out from. That’s something that we have to solve — finding ways to finish development off as best you can in the minor leagues, but understanding too that you need to create an environment at the major-league level with players who are expected to perform night after night are still developing, still working on their weaknesses, still making adjustments to the league." 

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Report: Giants interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for manager opening

Report: Giants interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for manager opening

The Giants' search for a successor to now-retired manager Bruce Bochy has led them to the North Side.

According to NBC Sports Bay Area's Alex Pavlovic, the Giants are interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for their own managerial opening. San Francisco's interest is intriguing, as Venable went to high school just outside San Francisco in nearby San Rafael. His father — Max Venable — played for the Giants from 1979-83. 

Venable also interviewed for the Cubs' manager job earlier this month, telling the Chicago Sun-Times that his interest is in the "organization in general." He is one of several internal candidates for the Cubs' job, along with bench coach Mark Loretta and front office assistant David Ross.

The Cubs also interviewed Joe Girardi and are set to meet with Astros bench coach Joe Espada and former Phillies manager Gabe Kapler.

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