PHILADELPHIA – Anthony Rizzo is supposed to be in the middle of this lineup into the next decade, the established veteran when the rest of “The Core” gets here.
At least that’s the plan for Theo Epstein’s front office, sifting through placeholders until Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and those hyped prospects make it.
The Cubs had their backup catcher in the cleanup spot (Dioner Navarro) on Wednesday night at Citizens Bank Park, followed by three players claimed off waivers (Thomas Neal, Cody Ransom, Cole Gillespie) and a utility infielder signed to a minor-league deal in April (Donnie Murphy).
While the Cubs wait for Rizzo to become “The Man,” Murphy hit two home runs in a 5-2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies, including a three-run shot in the ninth inning that made it three bombs in two days after getting promoted from Triple-A Iowa over the weekend.
“All of a sudden, Murphy’s become Babe Ruth,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said.
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Cubs manager Dale Sveum sat Rizzo against $144 million left-hander Cole Hamels, the three-time All-Star and World Series hero in Philadelphia.
“I want to be the full package,” Rizzo said. “No one wants to just be good at one thing or good at the other thing. But it’s a process and it’s about learning from what you do good and what you don’t do well. You just got to bust it every day.”
One day, Rizzo is supposed to lead the Cubs back into October. He entered Wednesday with 18 homers, 63 RBI and a team-high 54 walks. He had been hitting home runs in bunches (eight in April and four in his last six games). He is not hitting with runners in scoring position (.184), dragging his overall average down to .240.
“I’m not concerned with the average as much as driving runs in,” Sveum said. “We need singles and those kind of things to happen when guys are in scoring position. If he’s hitting .300 this year with men in scoring position, you’re looking at probably 80 RBI instead of 63. That’s the stat that’s got to be a little bit better.”
Year 2 has been filled with ups and downs, with Sveum playing up the idea Rizzo could be demoted to Triple-A Iowa in late April, or roughly three weeks before he signed a seven-year, $41 million contract that could run through 2021 and be worth some $70 million. That put him in face-of-the-franchise territory, where the lineup would revolve around him.
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“I don’t think we’re good enough right now to be a contender offensively,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Our starting pitching has been really solid this year (and that’s) the one aspect of the club that I would say has been contender-worthy. Our bullpen hasn’t been – if you hadn’t noticed. I feel like our offense isn’t quite there yet. We don’t get on base enough and we struggle situationally.
“You take those three areas, starting pitching is the one thing we have that we can hang our hat on right now that I think is good enough. The other two areas we need to get better.”
That starts with Rizzo, who has generated 101 hits through 111 games, with 51 going for extra bases. Eight of his homers have come against the Milwaukee Brewers, Miami Marlins, New York Mets and Houston Astros. Four have come later than the sixth inning. He’s a player who’s always felt the lineup will go in whatever direction he’s trending.
“That first month (last year), he was unconscious with men in scoring position,” Sveum said. “He hit the ball the other way a lot and did a lot of good things with men in scoring position. This year, it’s been almost like he’s trying to hit home runs every time somebody’s in scoring position.”