It’s about damn time. In a span of 41 days, the Cubs have called up three of their very best prospects from Iowa: Anthony Rizzo on June 26, with both Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters following suit yesterday. Even in the midst of a five-game losing streak, I have nothing but positive feelings about what has finally come to be: the Cubs’ front office has officially made way for the future of the ball club, giving Jackson and Vitters the opportunity to showcase their talents for the last two months of the all-but-lost 2012 season. Whether or not they’re completely ready for the big leagues remains to be seen, but you’ve got to think that, with nearly negative production from third base and Bryan Lahair struggling mightily since the early part of the season, the two youngsters are here to stay for the rest of the season.
It has been a pretty rough few years in the minors for Josh Vitters, but the former third overall pick in the 2007 draft finally broke out for the Iowa Cubs this season. By sporting .304/.356/.513/ splits along with 17 homers and 68 RBIs, it was only a matter of time until the highly touted third baseman got his number called. Sure, his defense needs a lot of work (23 errors for Iowa), but it’s nothing that can’t be improved upon. Repetition is the most important thing for a young ball player, and Vitters will be sure to get a lot of it over the next two months. Word on the street is that he will only play against left-handed pitchers, but I won’t believe it until I see it. Not only is Luis Valbuena anemic offensively (.198 BA) and won’t have any impact on the future of this team, but Vitters is coming off a successful minor league campaign in which he hit .290 in 279 at-bats against righties at Iowa. Dale Sveum would be making a gigantic mistake if he decided to follow through on this rumor. Vitters wasn’t in the lineup yesterday against the Dodgers, but with lefty Eric Stults on the mound for San Diego tonight, I fully expect to see him make his major league debut as a starting third baseman.
Once Anthony Rizzo left Iowa and never looked back, Brett Jackson became the top prospect in the Cubs organization. He has 20-20 potential at the big league level and has the ability to play all three outfield spots very effectively. His promotion means that we won’t be seeing Tony Campana back in a Cub uniform any time soon, and it also pushes David DeJesus to right field (where he should be) and Bryan Lahair to the bench (also where he should be). Jackson looked very solid in his debut yesterday, going 2/4 with a run scored and a walk.
As promising as Cub fans make him out to be, though, Jackson certainly comes in with some red flags. His huge strikeout rate (158 strikeouts in 407 at-bats this season) is definitely a concern, and his batting average at Iowa dropped from .297 in 2011 (48 games) to .256 this season (106 games). It wouldn’t surprise me to see him start out slowly as he adapts to major league pitching; however, Jackson draws a lot of walks (47 this season with a .338 on-base percentage) and has that rare power-speed combination, which he demonstrated at Iowa by hitting 15 home runs and converting 27 of 32 stolen base attempts, that can help make up for some of his offensive shortcomings. Batting second in front of Anthony Rizzo should also benefit him majorly and give him the opportunity to score a ton of runs in the future (led Iowa with 66 runs scored).
The Cubs youth movement has started to go into full effect. They now have 11 players on their 25-man roster who were not with the team on Opening Day. There will be many growing pains from here on out, but that’s to be expected. It would be wise for Cubs fans to keep their expectations rather low and not be too critical of these young guys, as this is both their first major league stints. Remember, it was only a year ago that Anthony Rizzo completely shat the bed during his first call-up experience in San Diego; look what a little more time in the minor leagues did for him. Jackson and Vitters will use these two months to understand what it takes to be successful in the National League and figure out what they must improve on during the offseason and beyond. It will continue to take time and patience, but soon enough, the Cubs will no longer be considered a rebuilding project. And it will all have started with the promotions of Rizzo, Jackson and Vitters during the summer of 2012.
On June 26, 2012, a national holiday in the eyes of Cub fans was born: Rizzo Day. I woke up as happy as ever yesterday morning knowing that the highly touted first baseman, Anthony Rizzo, was going to be debuting in Cub pinstripes just twelve hours later. My phone contained numerous “Happy Rizzo Day” texts and tweets, and ecstatic fans greeted me face-to-face by with that same phrase. Needless to say, it was unquestionably the most memorable day of the 2012 season thus far (and probably will be), and with good reason. The centerpiece of the Cubs’ exciting future finally got the call and was immediately slotted into the third spot in Dale Sveum’s batting order. How did the call come to be, though? Let’s backtrack a bit.
Right around this time last year (earlier part of June), Rizzo was the “most celebrated Padres call-up since Roberto Alomar in 1988” after making Triple A pitching his bitch for 93 games. Mostly everyone knows what took place after that promotion to San Diego. Rizzo struggled mightily against major league pitching, was demoted back to the minors just over a month later and recalled in September for another shot. He ended the season with a combined .141 batting average, one home run, nine RBIs and 46 strikeouts in 128 at-bats. However, Jed Hoyer, who had taken Rizzo with him from Boston to San Diego, did not give up on him and, after accepting the job as the Cubs General Manager, traded the flame-throwing Andrew Cashner just to get him to the Northside.
Since then, the 22-year-old Rizzo changed his swing and worked his ass off to gain his confidence back. He did nothing but torch Triple A pitching once again, this time in an Iowa Cubs uniform. Through 70 games with Iowa, Rizzo managed to lead the entire Pacific Coast League in home runs (23), total bases (179), slugging percentage (.696) and OPS (a ridiculous 1.101). He was also third in RBIs (62), sixth in batting average (.342) and ninth in on-base percentage (.405). Unbelievable. Cubs fans, including myself, have been desperately waiting for Rizzo’s arrival to the Friendly Confines all season long, but because this season has been a lost cause since day one, the Cubs front office smartly decided to wait to call him up until there were less than 104 days left in the season, making him eligible for free agency in 2018 instead of 2017. If Rizzo becomes what the Cubs are hoping for, that one extra year will be huge and should save them millions.
That leads us to where we are now. While Rizzo has the ability to become one of the best first basemen in the National League some day, he is not going to single-handedly save the current team we have on the field. Fans expect him to become the cornerstone of this franchise, and rightly so, but it will take some time. Rizzo should make an immediate impact in the middle of an anemic Cubs lineup that has been dying for a legitimate run producer, but it is the future we need to be thrilled about. Throw him into a lineup with Starlin Castro and promising young hitters like Brett Jackson, Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, Albert Almora and/or the improved Josh Vitters, and the Cubs offense may develop into one of the best in the big leagues a few years from now. The potential for greatness is certainly there; it’s only a matter of time until we see whether or not that potential pans out.
After going 2/4 with a go-ahead two-out RBI double in his debut last night, Rizzo is here to stay. He seemed to love the pressure of playing in Chicago and the expectations that come with it. After beating cancer and experiencing terrible struggles at the plate in San Diego, Rizzo can handle any adversity that stands in the way of his path to stardom. He knows what it will take to get to that level, so all we can do as fans is stay confident and patient and hope that, sometime in the near future, he can help transform this helpless ball club into a consistent playoff contender. For the first time in four years, I am optimistic about our beloved Cubbies and smell signs of good things to come. If and when the baseball gods do bless us with that wish, I will always remember June 26, 2012 as the day that Anthony Rizzo brought promise and excitement to a fan base that needed it most.
Happy Rizzo Day, indeed.