What if Rizzo had been here all year with the Cubs?


What if Rizzo had been here all year with the Cubs?

ATLANTA This is what Theo Epstein would categorize as external noise, the stuff the Cubs front office has vowed to ignore.

The newspapers, cyberspace and talk radio have been trying to measure the Anthony Rizzo Effect since the organizations top prospect was promoted from Triple-A Iowa last week.

But on this level, even manager Dale Sveum can identify with anyone on the message boards, or any other first-time caller, long-time listener.

Have you thought about what this team would look like if Rizzo had been here the entire season?

Well, Id be lying if I said I didnt, Sveum said with a laugh before Thursdays 7-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves left the Cubs at 31-51. Its obviously a more dynamic offensive team.

Were getting to that plateau a little more of scoring four or more runs. (That) gives you a heck of a lot better chance, especially (since) when we score four or more we our records pretty good (23-15).

Sure, you think about it. You think about if (Luis) Valbuena was here all year, (how hes) produced and played the defense he has. But thats not how baseball usually works.

Actually, the Cubs have hit that mark in only four of the nine games since Rizzos arrival. And even Sveum will tell you that everything revolves around starting pitching, and any bounce (six wins in nine games) has as much to do with standout performances by Paul Maholm, Travis Wood and Jeff Samardzija.

But its hard to ignore the numbers Rizzo has put up: .314 average, three homers and six RBIs. He became the Cub to ever have three game-winning RBI in his first five games with the team.

Factor in the plus defense that had the staff thinking Rizzo would have made that play in the beginning of April, and you begin to understand why people are getting carried away.

It definitely hasnt hurt, Samardzija said. Rizzos presence in our lineup is big. Any time you add a big lefty bat to your lineup, it strengthens it big-time. He plays great defense at first, (so) hes definitely been a big part of it, no doubt.

We expect big things out of him every day. And I think the best thing about him is he expects that out of himself.

There is something to be said for an infusion of youth and energy into the clubhouse, which cant be quantified. Even Bryan LaHair who had to move to the outfield but might wind up starting at first base for the National League All-Star team said of Rizzo: Im going to push him, and hes going to push me.

To be clear, even Rizzo, 22, has said that he benefited from the extra time at Iowa. The Cubs have insisted that player development drove the decision. Between this season and last, he played 163 games at the Triple-A level, essentially a full season to make sure he never goes back there.

General manager Jed Hoyer has repeatedly said that he made a mistake while running the San Diego Padres, rushing Rizzo to the big leagues last summer and watching the kid hit .141 with one homer and 46 strikeouts in 128 at-bats.

Of course, there were financial incentives to preserve an extra year of club control and make sure Rizzo doesnt become a free agent until after the 2018 season. It didnt stop the Cubs from positioning him to be a Super Two player eligible for arbitration after the 2014 season.

Obviously, he was hyped and hes living up to it, Maholm said. But I think the thing that impresses you most is he comes in every day (and) he works hard. (Hes) prepared for the games.

A lot of young guys that come up, you can see them up there just hacking at the first pitch and not wanting to get into deep counts and strike out.

Whenever they groove him one first pitch, hes ready for it, but hes willing to grind it out. Hes willing to take a walk. Hes willing to get the guy over.

Hes obviously matured as a hitter since his struggles last year in San Diego. Hopefully, you continue to see him do that and relax and just let the talent work and not think that he has to put us on his back.

Rizzo had a reputation for tinkering, but the Cubs feel like he solidified his mechanics at Triple-A. You certainly notice the difference in those split-screen shots between San Diego and Iowa. The hands are lower, and the swing is more compact.

The new swing he has is going to play at this level, Sveum said. Everything is just playing way more into the ability to hit a major-league fastball.

Would Rizzo have been a game-changer the first two-plus months of the season? Maybe it could have made things interesting, or he could have fallen into the same bad habits. Well never know the answer, but no one should pretend this team was one piece away.

For all the cameras and microphones that have surrounded Rizzo, and the buzz he generated on Twitter, he comes across as low-key and even-keeled. He certainly isnt asking for the attention.

Reading everything will just make your head go crazy, Rizzo said. (With) all the clamor about a month ago, I was still getting away with things at the Triple-A level that you cant get away with here. I think staying down for an extra couple weeks really helped me out.

Thats a good, politically correct answer. For Epstein and his crew, it was never about this year or next year. Its supposed to be playing baseball in October year after year after year, with Rizzo the calm at the center of the storm.

Rob Gronkowski "highly unlikely" to play Sunday against the Bears

Rob Gronkowski "highly unlikely" to play Sunday against the Bears

Sunday's game against Tom Brady and the Patriots will be a tough test for the Bears, but it looks like they're going to receive a big break.

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski didn't travel with the Patriots to Chicago and is "highly unlikely" to play Sunday.

Avoiding Gronkowski, who is one of Brady's favorite targets, would be a huge break for the Bears' defense. In six games this season, the tight end has 26 receptions for 405 yards and a touchdown; in 14 games last season, Gronkowski had 69 catches for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns.

Meanwhile, Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday after despite dealing with an ankle injury. Between having Mack on the field and Gronkowski off of it, good news keeps coming for Bears' defense.

Final thoughts: Cody Parkey quickly moves on from missed game-winning kick

USA Today Sports Images

Final thoughts: Cody Parkey quickly moves on from missed game-winning kick

There’s, probably, only one position in sports that can match the you-had-one-job scrutiny of a placekicker attempting a critical field goal late in a football game. As in: If you make the kick, it was expected; if you miss it, well, you didn’t do the one thing you were brought on to do. 

The comparison here is a closer in baseball. The expectation is whoever is called upon with a one-to-three-run lead in the ninth inning will convert the save and win his team the game. 

But when a closer blows a save and is in the spotlight during baseball’s regular season, there’s always a game the next day or, at worst, in two days. The immediacy and pace of a Major League Baseball team’s schedule lends itself to closers having to “flush” a bad outing and move on to the next one, since it might be tomorrow. 

For Bears kicker Cody Parkey, though, he’s had to wait a week until he gets his next “meaningful” chance at making a field goal after missing a game-winning 53-yard attempt last weekend against the Miami Dolphins. But moving on from a critical missed kick has never, and is not, a problem for the fifth-year veteran. 

“(It takes) five minutes,” Parkey said. “You kick the ball, and if it doesn’t go in you’re not going to sit there and cry on the field, you’re going to continue to move on with your life. I don’t think there’s really much to it other than knowing you’re going to have to kick another one sometime throughout the season, next game, in the next week, you never know. You stay ready so you’ll be ready for the next week.”

Not allowing those missed kicks to fester is an important trait for a placekicker to possess. What helps Parkey quickly work through his misses is focusing on having a good week of kicking in practice, and also an even-keel mindset that’s been instilled in him since a young age. 

“I think I’ve always been pretty mellow,” Parkey said. “At a young age, my coaches told me never let the highs get to high, never let the lows get too low. And I’ve kind of taken that to heart. If I miss a game winner, make a game winner, I’m going to have the same demeanor. I’m just going to be super chill and knowing it’s a game, it’s supposed to be fun, we’re supposed to go out there and try our best. I put in a lot of work and I try my best on the field.”

That’s something, too, that special teams coach Chris Tabor sees in Parkey. 

“He's always been like that,” Tabor said. “He hit a good ball, his line was just off. In his career going in he was 7-of-8 over 50 yards. I'll be honest with you, I thought he was going to make it. And next time we have that situation, I know he will make it.” 

Age is just a number

Sunday will mark the 6th time in Tom Brady’s career that the 41-year-old has faced a head coach younger than him, but the first time it’ll be a coach other than Miami’s Adam Gase (who’s 40). Brady is 3-2 against Gase’s Dophins. 

Matt Nagy, meanwhile, is also 40. Brady just missed playing Kyle Shanahan (38) and Sean McVay (32), facing the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams in 2016, a year before both those youthful coaches were hired. 

Meanwhile, the youngest player on the Bears — 21-year-old Roquan Smith — was three years old when Brady made his unassuming NFL debut on Nov. 23, 2000. 

They said it

A couple of amusing one-liners out of Halas Hall this week…

Nagy, when it was brought to his attention that Mitch Trubisky (105.6) has a better passer rating than Brady (98.2), chuckled: “You want to say that one more time?” 

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, when asked if he’d ever heard of “Baby Gronk” Adam Shaheen: “(long pause)… Sometimes.”