Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Cubs Look to Future with Rizzo Call Up

Every fanbase gets excited when a top prospect gets called up to the majors. Baseball fans have this fascination with top prospects; they represent a bright future and a sign that changes are coming at the major league level. Fair or unfair, whenever a top prospect is called up the expectations are that the kid is going to be instrumental in changing whatever event that precipitated his arrival in the first place. Now, this could involve becoming the final piece of a possible winning team (see Mark Prior and the 2003 Cubs) or being "The Man" who is going to start turning everything around. Regardless, the promotion of a top prospect to the majors places enormous pressure on that young player. And for Theo Epstein and the Cubs, the pressure is two-fold. Not only do they watch Anthony Rizzo arrive in the same fanfare as similar prospects with all of the above that comes along with it - his call up also will be used as a determination of how the new Epstein era is coming along as well.

Rizzo is Theo's pet project. Theo drafted him while he was still in Boston, traded him to San Diego as part of the Adrian Gonzalez trade, and then re-acquired him for Andrew Cashner when he got to Chicago. To say that Theo thinks Rizzo is a future star is an understatement; the way he has gone about the entire promotion process with kid gloves only indicates how the new Cubs regime values his game. That's not to say that Rizzo doesn't deserve it, because he does. In 70 games at AAA Iowa this year, Rizzo shredded the competition, hitting 23 HRs, 62 RBIs, and batting .342 with a .405 on base percentage. This is on top of his 2011 year in the Padres' minor league system, where he hit 26 HRs, 101 RBIs, and bat .331 with a .404 on base percentage. The Cubs pushed back his arrival numerous times, whether to toll his arbitration clock or simply to ensure he was ready for the big leagues. But the fact is, Rizzo has nothing left to prove at the AAA level and it is time to see if Theo's first major prospect with the Cubs is going to pan out.

Can Rizzo handle the pressure?
Whether he makes an inherent difference on the won-loss record of the Cubs is actually not as important as whether the Cubs seem to take a different direction with him in the lineup everyday. Remember, Theo's plan is to build through scouting, both in the draft and internationally, so the success of his first major prospect would be a marked turn of good momentum for the club. If he comes up and struggles, like he did last year in his call up to San Diego, Epstein is going to face real heat for the first time in his short tenure. Perhaps that's why the Cubs took so long to bring him up.

Make no mistake about it, this is a huge deal. The Cubs haven't fared well with top prospects coming to the big leagues, and the last couple anyone can remember was Starlin Castro in 2010 and Mark Prior in 2003. Castro came upon the scene with a fury, with a HR in his first at bat and 6 RBI in an electric debut. Castro hasn't stopped since, and still seems ready and able to fulfill that same kind of potential that Rizzo arrives in the league with. Prior came up that year and took the National League by storm, eventually finishing 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA and third in the Cy Young voting as a rookie. But as Cubs luck would have it, Prior eventually fell victim to a terrible string of injuries and eventually was off the team. Before Prior there was Kerry Wood, who rose to such super-stardom in only his 5th Major League start, striking out 20 Astros in what some called the greatest pitching performance in history. Even so, Wood never lived up to his highest billing even if he did become a good pitcher for the majority of his career.

I bring these two up for comparison not to torture Cubs fans, but for a few legitimate reasons. First, these are the only two prospects in recent memory who arrived with the Cubs under such fanfare. As a result, these are the only two who we can actually compare to Rizzo. Also, both Wood and Prior arrived to the majors in the same fashion as Rizzo - trumpeting that particular prospect's ability to turn around a franchise and lead it in a new direction. The difference here, however, is that Rizzo is the first tangible thing that Cubs fans can point to as a barometer of Epstein's success in a new Cubs era. When Wood arrived, the Cubs were known for being a mess and were expected to continue to do so. Look back at Kerry Wood's 20 strikeout performance. I would bet that there were only about 15,000 people in the stands. When Prior arrived, the Cubs had had success in 1998, but had already fallen off to predictable awful levels. Even under the relatively still new leadership of Jim Hendry at the time, there was no furor at Clark and Addison of a "new era" of Cubs baseball quite like there was when the Cubs added Theo Epstein. Now, with Theo, the Cubs have branded an entirely new direction for the club. New owner, new general manager, new manager, new team. With that, comes a new hot prospect.

I don't expect Rizzo to do what Prior or Wood each did, which was help lead the Cubs to the playoffs in both of their respective debut seasons. But I am hoping that he can mark the path for the implementation of Epstein's grand plan. In effect, Rizzo is the trailblazer of the new Cubs; the prospect who is going to lead the way for all later prospects to have success at Wrigley Field. It's an enormous amount of pressure to be placed on Rizzo, but he should sleep well, and have confidence going into his first at bat, knowing that most of the blame, if he fails, will fall on Epstein. If Rizzo struggles, faith in Epstein's plan could begin to wane. Now, it's entirely unreasonable to deem Epstein's tenure a failure not only before it really begins, but upon the random failures of one prospect, but such is the way with major sports in a major city, especially for a team that has struggled so mightily for over a century.

I hope Rizzo is ready. He gets the privilege and burden of being the showcase of the "Cubs Way." If he comes out and succeeds, the regular fan will rest easy, knowing the fate of their lovable losers is in good hands. And right or wrong, if Rizzo struggles, it won't just be the summer heat that Theo is feeling. I for one can look beyond Anthony Rizzo to see the impact that Epstein is having throughout the organization, whether it be the emphasis on the draft, the signing of international players like Jorge Soler, and the expansion of the Cubs' staff in general, to know that Epstein is well on his way to success here in Chicago. But that doesn't mean I won't be watching Rizzo with deep anticipation. And it doesn't mean that the rest of the Cubs fanbase won't be looking to Rizzo as a beacon of hope on an otherwise dreary season, a sign pointing towards a successful future spearheaded by the likes of Rizzo and Epstein. Good luck to him. He's going to need it.