State of the Cubs: First base

State of the Cubs: First base

As the Cubs maneuver through a pivotal offseason, we will break down the current state of the team each week by sectioning it off into position groups. Here is the fourth installment on the first basemen.

What is the current state of the Cubs at first base? Simple — Anthony Rizzo.

No other explanation needed.

End of article.

-30- (for your old school journalists out there)

But seriously: Theo Epstein said at the GM meetings last month the only position group the Cubs feel comfortable with at the moment was starting pitching. He was addressing the offense as one big group, but looking more minutely, first base obviously is not an area of need for this franchise.

In fact, it's probably the most secure position for the Cubs through at least 2021 — the last team option on Rizzo's current deal. However, it's not quite as stable as it once was (more on that in a bit).

Depth chart

1. Anthony Rizzo
2. Let's be honest, this isn't needed

Even if Rizzo goes down to injury — like last April with his back issue — the Cubs have plenty of players to slide over and fill in the gap. Kris Bryant could obviously do it, opening up third base for Javy Baez or David Bote. Ben Zobrist could also shift over to first base.

Then there's Baez (who has some experience over there), Victor Caratini (if he's still on the big-league roster), Ian Happ (who started two games at first in 2018) and even Taylor Davis (who figures to spend the year in the minors, but is on the 40-man roster). Willson Contreras could slide over if the Cubs had a reliable option to put at catcher and in a pinch, I'm sure Kyle Schwarber or Bote could cover for Rizzo.

Of course, none of these options are Gold Glove-caliber defenders like Rizzo, but if the Cubs lose their emotional leader and face of the franchise for any extended period of time, they'll be a lot more worried about missing his bat than his glove.

After homering in the first game of 2018, Rizzo got off to a horrible start — hitting .143 with a .250 on-base percentage and zero extra-base hits from March 30 through April 30. But once he put that back injury and slump in the rearview mirror, Rizzo emerged as the best hitter in the Cubs lineup (yes, even better than Baez) — slashing .303/.393/.512 (.905 OPS) from May 1 on, walking more than he struck out 66 vs. 65) and smashing 24 homers with 92 RBI. 

That helped his overall numbers look pretty close to his career line, but it was the first time since 2013 that he failed to hit at least 31 homers.

Like many of the other hitters in the Cubs lineup, Rizzo will look to hit for more power in 2018, but he still has the best approach and consistency among any of the position players on the roster.

What's next?

The only "next" moves the Cubs need to make at first base would be if they want to find a legitimate backup with plenty of experience at the position defensively. Rizzo led baseball in hit-by-pitches in both 2015 and 2017 and hsa been plunked at least 15 times for five straight seasons, 105 in all. Any one of those in a bad spot on his hand or elbow or foot and he could hit the DL for a potentially lengthy period of time.

Then there's the back issue, as Rizzo has experienced back pain that has kept him out of the lineup for at least a couple games a year. He said the April 2018 injury was a bit different than normal, but still, he's 29 years old and the back issues figure to increase over time as he ages.

Beyond that, the only "next" moves the Cubs need to make to address first base is simply picking up the $16.5 million options for 2020 and 2021, though those should be the easiest calls Epstein's front office makes in each respective offseason.

The bottom line

Rizzo is the most reliable hitter in the Cubs lineup and if he can pick his power back up and avoid another month-long slump, he has a very good chance to improve upon his 2019 numbers. 

At a time when the Cubs really want all their talented young hitters to take that next step and put it all together offensively, Rizzo serves as the perfect example with one of the best two-strike approaches in the league.

Depending on what else the Cubs are able to do this winter and how they augment the lineup, Joe Maddon and Co. may consider moving Rizzo up to the leadoff spot on a more regular basis. He's obviously comfortable hitting there (.317/.409/.587 career slash line in 45 starts leading off), it would give the best hitter in the lineup the most at-bats and it would set the table for Bryant and Baez with the team's top OBP guy hitting in front of them.

State of the Cubs: SP
State of the Cubs: RP
State of the Cubs: C
State of the Cubs: 1B

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Andy Green ‘fired up’ to be with Cubs, help David Ross any way he can

Andy Green ‘fired up’ to be with Cubs, help David Ross any way he can

It’s quite fitting Andy Green’s introduction to Cubs Nation came at the team’s annual fan festival this weekend.

Green, whom the Cubs officially hired as bench coach in December, grew up a Reds fan in his native Lexington, Ky. It wasn’t long before his allegiances changed to one of Cincinnati’s geographic neighbors, however.

“I went to [former Reds ballpark Riverfront Stadium] as a kid at like 5, 6, 7, first time I saw big-league baseball,” Green told NBC Sports Chicago on Saturday. “But my mom took me up to Wrigley at 12 or 13. I was like ‘This is big-league baseball.’

“I switched over allegiances that time as a Cubs fan, watched Ryne Sandberg — Mark Grace was somebody who jumped off the page to me at that point in time. It was late 80s, early 90s.”

After four years managing the Padres, Green’s childhood fandom has come full circle. Now, he’s David Ross’ right-hand man, brought in to use his own experience managing to help the first-year manager adapt to his new position.

When Green took the helm in San Diego in 2016, the Padres were in the thick of a full-scale rebuild. He holds a 274-366 won-loss record, but that isn’t indicative of what he’s bringing to the Cubs dugout.

“Andy so far for me probably [has been] the biggest help for me in directing my thoughts, getting things organized, getting prepared,” Ross said Saturday at a coaching staff panel. “This guy has been through the season, the National League, knows the details of what it takes to lead.

“Obviously, his resume and what he’s done building a young group over in San Diego speaks for itself. Who he is as a person, Andy right off the bat probably [has] been the biggest help for me. Sends me text messages, emails about leading, about coaching. I can’t say enough about this guy, and I’m very blessed to have him next to me in every game. You guys are gonna see a great product, and a lot of my big decisions, I’ll have a great mind next to me helping me make those.”

Green said he’s spent the last few months learning what Ross’ vision is as a manager and how he intends to execute it going forward. Managing games and preparing for them are different beasts, but Green can already see the intangibles that could make Ross successful.

“He’s fun to work with, he’s hungry to win, he can hold people accountable and smile at the same time, which is an unbelievable skillset that I don’t have,” Green said of Ross. “People feel it when I come down on them. They feel love when he comes down on them. He just has that [relatability] that very few people do, and that’s incredibly impressive to me.”

Accountability has been the word of the offseason for the Cubs. After five seasons with Joe Maddon as manager, the club felt it was time for a new voice in the dugout. They hired Ross not only to try and make the team greater than the sum of its parts, but also hold players accountable, putting them in their place and using tough love when needed.

Ross will have a lot on his plate this season, so he'll rely on Green to lead in areas as needed and take a load off his plate.

“For [managers], there’s a large number of tasks that if you have a capable staff, you can just delegate and not even think about,” Green said. “I want to take that kind of stuff off his plate, stuff that doesn’t have to have the manager’s attention, because you can get some decision fatigue, because it’s amazing what comes at you in that seat.

“I know what that feels like, so every now and again, it’s nice to have somebody who doesn’t just have the answer but has the feelings that come with the answer. I’ve enjoyed it, and honestly, it’s a whatever he needs type thing. My vision on him is I’ve watched him do so much prep work this offseason getting ready for game decisions. He’s going to be great. He’s going to be great.”

It also helps that Green has four years of managing under his belt. Ross can learn from his successes in San Diego, but also learn from Green’s failures to ensure he doesn’t make the same mistakes common in new managers.

“It takes a little minute to know where the best answer is on the bench, and he’ll figure that out pretty quickly,” he said of Ross. “Executing the game decisions, you have to find out in time how he processes those things.

“I made a lot of mistakes. He can learn from my mistakes without having to make them himself. If you can share things in humility, a lot of times it keeps somebody else from repeating your mistakes. There’s things I messed up on, things I did well too. Kinda share those visions along the way and make certain the whole way that this is David Ross’ team and he’s leading this team and all I’m here to do is support and help him and help the players perform at their top level.”

Green spent four years with a losing club. He’s joining a Cubs team full of star players — which, as functioning infield coach on a team with Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, excites him. He wants to win now and believes Ross is the man to lead the way.

And, again, the lure of being a Chicago Cub was strong.

“The fan base is one that you’re fired up to go to work for and bring a winner to,” he said. “Whatever part I can play in that, I’m fired up to do it.”

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Willson Contreras, expert at going viral, tells hilarious profanity-laced story from 2019

Willson Contreras, expert at going viral, tells hilarious profanity-laced story from 2019

Willson Contreras and viral moments at Cubs Convention go hand-in-hand.

At the team’s annual fan festival in 2018, Contreras stole the show with a story from the 2017 season. During a mound visit against the Cardinals, the Cubs catcher gave profanity-laced advice to Jon Lester, the Cubs starter who rarely throws pickoffs due to a serious case of the yips.

"I went out there and I said, 'Hey motherf--ker, throw the f--king ball to first,'” Contreras recalled in January 2018.

Contreras stole the show again Saturday, telling a story about a moment against the Cardinals — this time from the 2019 season.

“So last year, we were facing the Cardinals and I started talking to [Marcell] Ozuna,” Contreras said. “He told me ‘Just call a fastball right down the middle.’ [And I said] ‘Yeah okay, I will.’ Then I called the fastball and he took it.

“I told him ‘What the f— are you talking about? Just hit the ball, just hit it.’

“He asked me ‘Just call it again.’ And I did it. He took it. Swing the [bat]. I called a third pitch and it was a strikeout. And then next time it was like just ‘Shut up,” or something."

Warning: graphic language

How Contreras will top this at 2021 Cubs Convention is uncertain, but considering he now has two viral moments on his resume, we can be sure the next one will be just as amazing.

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