If the Cubs and White Sox are going to bring some buzz back to the crosstown rivalry, they will need Anthony Rizzo and Jose Abreu to become stars.
Rizzo vs. Abreu would be a good debate if the two teams weren’t stuck in rebuilding programs and the city wasn’t so focused on the Blackhawks.
While Abreu has answered the questions about how his game would translate after defecting from Cuba, putting up 12 homers and 34 RBIs in his first 32 games in the big leagues, Rizzo has begun to erase some of the doubts that crept in after a disappointing 2013 season.
“He’s maturing,” Cubs manager Rick Renteria said before Sunday’s 5-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field. “He’s gaining more and more confidence. He’s hitting the ball to all fields now. He obviously has the strength that if he gets a pitch to handle, he can drive it out of the ballpark.”
Rizzo, 24, entered the game with a .421 on-base percentage that ranked fifth in the National League, hitting .304 with runners in scoring position and .394 against left-handers, leading the team in homers (six) and RBIs (16).
“He’s just basically not panicking in those situations anymore,” Renteria said. “He’s just growing up. He worked very hard over the winter, worked very hard in the spring. I think he’s making a tremendous mental adjustment as to how he wants to approach pitchers. He kind of knows what they’re trying to do with him. All those things that come with maturation and growing and learning.”
Theo Epstein and his front-office lieutenants have known Rizzo since the Boston Red Sox drafted him in the sixth round of the 2007 draft. But team officials still had questions about the way he handled a 23-homer, 80-RBI season overshadowed by his struggles hitting with runners in scoring position (.191) and against lefties (.189).
Given the responsibilities that come with a $41 million commitment — as well as the core problems that led to the Dale Sveum firing and a staff shakeup — it will be interesting to watch the relationship between Rizzo and new hitting coach Bill Mueller.
“Bill’s done it,” Rizzo said. “He did it for a long time. He won a batting (title). He knows how to calm myself down, personally, (and) not think it’s just mechanical. He knows the mental side just as well.”