MESA, Ariz. – Anthony Rizzo smiled at all the media buzz surrounding the prospects at Cubs Park: “You guys are going to crown them the next Babe Ruth.”
But if Chicago reporters are guilty of overhyping Javier Baez and Kris Bryant, the same thing could be said for Theo Epstein’s baseball operations department, Crane Kenney’s business side and the Ricketts family. The Cubs haven’t exactly diversified their portfolio in this all-or-nothing, kid-centric rebuild.
The problem with that is they will inevitably experience growing pains at the major-league level, just like Rizzo, who already got the Bambino treatment coming up with the Boston Red Sox and San Diego Padres.
“People did for me, (but) that’s part of the game,” Rizzo said Tuesday. “So they’re going to have to deal with that so-called ‘pressure’ of coming up. They’re going to have fun and we’re going to make sure they have fun.”
Did Rizzo have any fun last year? Did he get too comfortable in the big leagues? Did he get overwhelmed being the face of the franchise?
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Stalled player development became a justification for firing manager Dale Sveum. The Cubs executives who’ve known Rizzo since he was a teenager in South Florida have privately made their points. General manager Jed Hoyer declined to get into specifics about those conversations, but he spoke in broad terms about the balancing act.
“You don’t want to take away a player’s personality,” Hoyer said. “You want them to show emotion. But at the same time, you also have a responsibility to your team. If you’re not going well, you’ve got to be able to be unflappable and not show your emotions.
“That’s a fine line. But that’s something that’s learned over years and not something that every player has right away in the big leagues.”
Expectations changed last May when Rizzo signed a seven-year, $41 million contract that could run through 2021 and be worth some $70 million. Body language appeared to become an issue as he hit .191 with runners in scoring position.
Rizzo didn’t have a Bobby Valentine moment on national television, but there were defensive lapses that didn’t draw the same attention as Starlin Castro’s mistakes.
At times, Rizzo struggled in his new role as a clubhouse spokesman, making comments to the media that didn’t have a sense of urgency while Sveum sat on the hot seat and a last-place team finished with 96 losses.
“There’s probably some defensiveness in that,” Hoyer said. “It was different struggling in San Diego as a 21-year-old than struggling in Chicago as a 23-year-old with a contract (who) had success the year before.
“I totally believe in his character. I believe that he’s going to grow up to be the guy that’s leading the young guys. I think he’ll learn from what happened last year and I think those things will keep getting better and better over time.”
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Hoyer – the former Padres GM who acquired Rizzo from the Red Sox in the Adrian Gonzalez deal – defended the production and called him “one of the best defensive first basemen in the game.” Rizzo still accounted for 23 homers and 80 RBI, finishing fifth in the National League in extra-base hits (65) and sixth in walks (76).
“His batting average (.233) was bad and certainly the aesthetics of the end of his year weren’t ideal,” Hoyer said. “But when a 23-year-old guy is playing great defense and has some power and patience, I think there’s a lot of potential there. He didn’t have the year he wanted, but I also think there’s some really nice silver linings that you can build on.”
Hoyer remembered how Rizzo looked lost with the Padres in 2011, hitting .141 with 46 strikeouts in 128 at-bats, bouncing between Triple-A Tucson and San Diego. Rizzo made the adjustments in 2012, impressing veterans with the way he carried himself and putting up 15 homers and 48 RBI in 87 games with the Cubs.
“He understands he’s not a finished product,” Hoyer said. “He understands there’s things he can work on and he’s been really good at doing that.
“Hopefully, he’ll face some adversity from last year and bounce back really strong.”
The Cubs will find out how Rizzo – and Baez and Bryant and Albert Almora and Jorge Soler – handle adversity. This youth movement will force them to grow up quickly.
At the age of 24, Rizzo now has to be The Man for this team.
“It’s over with,” Rizzo said, summing up last season. “It’s in the past. You just learn from things and you move forward, take the positives out of everything. I’m just going to go out and compete (and) have fun.”