Cubs first-base prospect Anthony Rizzo will make his highly anticipated debut for the Cubs on Tuesday against the Mets. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
RIZZO’S ROAD TO THE MAJORS
The first baseman was drafted in 2007 by the Red Sox. Theo Epstein sent him to Jed Hoyer’s Padres before last season. Now, working together, Epstein and Hoyer acquired Rizzo during the offseason.
Yr Team(s) League G HR RBI Avg OBP
07 GCL Red Sox Rookie 6 1 3 .286 .375
08 Greenville A 21 0 11 .373 .402
09 G’ville/Salem A/A+ 119 12 66 .297 .368
10 Salem/Portland A+/AA 136 25 100 .260 .334
11 Tucson AAA 93 26 101 .331 .404
11 San Diego Majors 49 1 9 .141 .281
12 Iowa AAA 35 11 34 .351 .416
Updated: June 16, 2012 8:15AM
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Anthony Rizzo had no reason to be wearing such a big smile in the 95-degree frying pan that was the batting cage at Raley Field.
While most of the rest of the Iowa Cubs still were grousing about the three-hour bus ride from Fresno that had dumped them in the capital of California at 2:45 a.m., Rizzo was modeling the kind of carefree attitude that made it clear he wasn’t long for this Class AAA world of decaying Holiday Inns and stinky buses.
This is exactly what a ripe prospect looks like right before he is picked for major-league stardom.
Watch him around the cage. Rizzo, a lefty-swinging, power-hitting first baseman with Gold Glove potential, displayed as much cockiness with his lopsided smile as he did with a bat that kept parachuting balls into the right-field seats.
That’s the confident Rizzo we see on the field. Back in the clubhouse or in a booth at Denny’s, there’s another side to Rizzo, a still-maturing, anxious kid wise enough to pick the brain of anyone who has spent a chunk of time in the big leagues.
‘‘He has a good head on his shoulders,’’ said teammate Randy Wells, fresh off a 31/4-season stay in Chicago. ‘‘He asks the right questions: What do you have to do to stay and be successful there?’’
This seems to be the only baseball mystery Rizzo hasn’t solved.
‘‘It’s just staying with your team,’’ Rizzo said, as though he already knows the answer. ‘‘We all talk about it. It’s no secret: We all want to be in the big leagues. No one wants to be in Triple-A.’’
Back in Chicago, few fans want Rizzo in Triple-A. He represents the future — and that’s all Cubs fans have this season.
When Rizzo is summoned by president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer — and that time might come in the next couple of weeks — it will represent the beginning of a new era of Cubs baseball.
And what happens next will say as much about Epstein and Hoyer as it does about Rizzo, a sixth-round draft pick in 2007 playing for this third organization in three years.
Rizzo’s numbers suggest he’s ready: He entered Iowa’s game Monday against the Sacramento River Cats hitting .351 with 11 home runs and 34 RBI, all numbers that lead the team (the next-closest player in homers had four and the next-closest in RBI had 18).
There’s not much more for Rizzo to prove at Class AAA.
The Cubs have been discussing ways to put Rizzo at first base and move Bryan LaHair to the outfield to pump more muscle into their lean lineup.
All that’s left is for Rizzo to prove he can handle adversity. It’s the general rule in baseball when priming a prospect for life in the big leagues: Slip into a slump and show us how you’ll survive. Making adjustments is the final course before graduation. It’s where the Felix Pies and Corey Pattersons got exposed and eventually were stripped of their can’t-miss statuses.
We all know Rizzo has faced adversity much more daunting than an 0-for-20 skid. The kid battled cancer (non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) during his first year in pro ball in 2008.
Rizzo doesn’t use that experience as his motivation these days. He’s stuck on a number that still seems too close to his fingertips.
‘‘If hitting .130 and bouncing back doesn’t do it,’’ Rizzo said of his stint last season with the San Diego Padres, ‘‘I don’t know what will.’’
That was his first taste of the big leagues. And Rizzo, who was promoted in June after dominating at Class AAA Tucson, proved one thing: He was overmatched.
His defenders in the Cubs’ organization — the same group of executives who drafted him with the Boston Red Sox, traded for him with the Padres and traded for him again with the Cubs — suggest Petco Park’s pitcher-friendly confines were mostly to blame for that depressing number, which was actually a .141 batting average with one homer, 18 hits and 46 strikeouts in 128 at-bats for the Padres.
Rizzo won’t play along.
‘‘It’s still baseball; you still have to hit the ball,’’ Rizzo said. ‘‘I mean, there’s no excuse for how bad I did last year. I hit a slump at a bad time in my career, I guess. Pitches right down the middle, I was missing. And those were pitches I never miss. There’s no answer, no explanation. It’s just staying focused and staying positive.’’
So how did he adjust to that crushing experience? This is a key question among Cubs fans who consistently watched Pie dazzle at Triple-A and fizzle in the bigs. It’s the question that has kept the Cubs from plucking Rizzo from Iowa before now.
‘‘There was a lot of thinking about everything in the offseason,’’ Rizzo said. ‘‘The rest definitely helped, just for the mind after a roller-coaster season. I went all the way from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. So looking back on it now, I take a lot out of it — from staying in shape all season to working the same routine every day.’’
Last summer was the last time Rizzo had anything resembling a slump. He has been among the Pacific Coast League’s offensive leaders all season. The worst you can say about him is he went 15 games — a span of 54 at-bats — without a homer. Then he hit four in three games last week to bust out.
Even during the homerless spell, the doubles and singles kept coming.
‘‘Every game’s a challenge,’’ Iowa manager Dave Bialas said. ‘‘Every at-bat’s a challenge. He’s come through in a lot of clutch situations. Has he struggled a lot here? No, he hasn’t; the numbers show it. But there have been some times when he has been able to go through some at-bats where maybe he doesn’t have good swings, then he makes the adjustments.’’
So Rizzo is showing he is ready.
‘‘He’ll be ready when they think he’s ready,’’ Bialas said. ‘‘That’s the key. Theo and Jed have been in town. They’ve seen him play.’’
And they have read the nightly reports from Bialas.
‘‘This guy is really a great defensive first baseman,’’ Bialas said. ‘‘He has a very good swing. He can handle the strike zone well. He can hit breaking pitches. He can hit left-handed pitching. He doesn’t have those kinds of holes that they are going to attack in the big leagues, I don’t think. He has the right mind-set, a great swing, power to all fields and gets his singles, his doubles. He is a great athlete, and he’s going to have great success in the big leagues.’’
But factor in the wackiness of Wrigley Field and all those giddy fans. Rizzo got a taste of that excitement during the Cubs Convention last winter. Suffering Cubs fans can be as distracting as a closer’s nastiest slider.
‘‘In Rizzo’s case, fans should be knowledgeable enough to realize that he’s going to be a huge talent, if not a superstar,’’ Wells said. ‘‘And that if he does get up there and have some growing pains, people need to realize that and not be too hard on him.’’
That’s the one thing Rizzo can’t check off his Triple-A to-do list: The pressure of being the next big thing at Wrigley — especially these days — can’t be duplicated in the classroom.
Which returns us to the key question facing the Cubs: Is Rizzo ready?
‘‘You have to play baseball,’’ Rizzo said. ‘‘If I think about where I want to be and what I want to be doing, that’s the big picture, and you have to keep it in perspective of where you are. I’m in Sacramento tonight, playing for the I-Cubs, and we’re trying to win. That’s all I can worry about.
‘‘If I worry about when I’m getting called up, then I’m not going to have any success down here.’’
Fine. Leave the worrying to us.