The 2014 season promises to be a disappointment for the Chicago Cubs in terms of wins and losses at the major league level. However, the early numbers posted by first baseman Anthony Rizzo are encouraging for a fanbase in search of the slightest bit of positive reinforcement.
Rizzo has opened the season swinging a hot bat, featuring a current batting average of .349 to go along with a .948 OPS. His power production has been relatively meager thus far, as the young slugger has only two home runs and eight RBIs. Of course, the RBI total is dependent on the production of others in the lineup, and opportunities to drive in runs have been somewhat scarce. In addition, while the season is still in its infancy, Rizzo has drawn nine walks compared to 10 strikeouts, a ratio that certainly bodes well for his growth as a hitter.
The 24-year-old Rizzo is looking to bounce back from a relatively disappointing 2013 campaign. The Cubs had a pretty miserable season in general and there was no shortage of worthy scapegoats, but much venom was directed at both Rizzo and shortstop Starlin Castro. These two players are considered franchise cornerstones and important pieces of the future puzzle. Castro regressed most profoundly in 2013 and easily had the more disappointing year of the pair, although he has shown signs of life this season.
By comparison, Rizzo’s season was better than Castro’s, but the perception seemed to be that he had regressed as well. While his batting average was unacceptably low at .233, there were mitigating factors at play, including a .258 BABIP, suggesting he was somewhat unlucky. However, the power numbers were not that bad, as Rizzo clubbed 23 home runs and 40 doubles along with 80 RBIs. Expectations for Rizzo may have been unreasonably high, and there was certainly not the cause for alarm that his 2013 season seemed to produce.
Rizzo will be forever linked to Andrew Cashner because of the deal that brought him to Chicago from the San Diego Padres. While Cashner seems to be evolving into a top of the rotation starter, this possibility should not reflect poorly on Rizzo. However, it is human nature to speculate on what might have been, and the merits of this particularly deal will likely be debated for years.
The development of Rizzo appears to be right on schedule. While he will probably never be an elite first baseman, the Cubs don’t necessarily need him to be. In theory, if the pipeline produces a couple of middle of the order bats, which is a realistic expectation at this point, Rizzo can eventually move down in the order where he will hit 25-30 homers a year with an average between .270 and .290 while providing solid defense and consistency at first base. I think most observers would be content with this scenario.