As the Chicago Cubs prepare to head out to spring training in Mesa, Arizona, Windy City Hardball is previewing each of the positions on the field for the team (and pretending we’re heading to Phoenix ourselves to enjoy the warm weather).
We keep things going with the first base position.
There are only a couple of positions on the Cubs’ roster that are absolutely guaranteed, and their starting first baseman is one of them. Anthony Rizzo went from being a really solid player last season to being a potentially elite one, slugging 32 home runs, racking up an impressing 5.6 WARP and even garnering MVP votes for a last place team.
Perhaps more impressively than his play overall was the fact that he embraced his role as a leader on the team. With precious few veterans on the squad, Rizzo took it upon himself to be the voice of the team, and even though guys like Jon Lester and Miguel Montero will be helping out in that department this season, they aren’t likely to tell Rizzo to quiet down since he’s the guy who’s been around the longest on this particular team.
As for what we can expect from Rizzo in the upcoming year, it’s tough to say. Some advanced metrics suggest he’ll suffer a dip in his home run total but an increase in his RBI total (having guys like Dexter Fowler ahead of you in the lineup will help with that), but it wouldn’t be shocking to still see him hit around 30 home runs and drive in close to 90 runs. That would be a big boost to the Cubs’ offense, and with a guy like Kris Bryant potentially coming up midseason to help provide more protection, Rizzo could really take another step forward in the coming year.
First base is really the only position that the Cubs don’t have a certain back-up for at the moment, but guys like Mike Olt will likely be looked at to give Rizzo an occasional break. Calling up a guy like Dan Vogelbach is off the table (at least we’d assume it is), but other options like Tommy La Stella, Chris Coghlan and Arismendy Alcantara (who is likely shifting into a utility infielder role with Fowler taking over as the full-time center fielder), aren’t exactly palatable.
Even though they aren’t blessed with a tremendous back-up, the Cubs’ first base situation is their second-best position in our eyes. Rizzo is one of the top first basemen in the National League, and with Joe Maddon at the helm and with the confidence of his breakout season still fueling him, the Cubs won’t have to worry about addressing this spot for a while.
With tremendous depth at other positions, the Cubs have a really shallow group of true first basemen in their system. Vogelbach is just about the only guy that immediately comes to mind, and while he’s a solid prospect, he’s likely not a game changer at the position from a defensive standpoint. That’s not a deal-breaker, especially considering how good he is at the plate (he had an impressive .357 OBP and 45 extra base hits in 560 plate appearances in High-A Daytona last season), so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him take a step or two up the ladder this season.
Murphy, who was claimed by the Texas Rangers, had 163 plate appearances last season for the Cubs, hitting 11 home runs and driving in 23 runs on the year. His .255 batting average and .319 on-base percentage were decent, but obviously not anything worth writing home about for the veteran.
Those moves by themselves aren’t exactly significant as the Cubs do some final housecleaning before their 25-man roster has to be finalized, but both moves could have big implications for the team’s third base position. With Murphy out of the picture, it would appear that infielder Mike Olt could be primed to join the Cubs on Opening Day, and he may even get to start ahead of incumbent Luis Valbuena.
Olt, who has been hitting in the clean-up spot for the Cubs at times during spring training, has seemingly fully recovered from the eye ailments that threatened to derail his career. He was acquired by the Cubs in the July 2013 trade that sent Matt Garza to the Texas Rangers, and Olt joined CJ Edwards as the key pieces that the Cubs got back in return.
Olt is hitting .277 in 47 at-bats for the Cubs in Cactus League play, and has slugged five home runs so far on the spring. His 14 strikeouts trail only Junior Lake (16) and Javier Baez (15), but his prodigious power and solid defensive skills have really stood out to the Cubs’ brass.
The Cubs open the season on Monday when they take on the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. Jeff Samardzija will get the ball in that game.
Last season, there weren’t very many bright spots in the Chicago Cubs’ batting order, and even though he cooled off considerably after a red-hot start, Anthony Rizzo was still just about the only bright spot for the team.
Even with a .233 batting average, Rizzo still paced the offense with 23 home runs and 80 RBI on the campaign, and he also racked up 76 walks to boost his OBP to .323. When you add in the 40 doubles and 71 runs he pitched in, it’s not a stretch to say that he was the straw that stirred the drink for the North Siders in 2013.
This spring, Rizzo has shown some signs that he could be rounding back into the form that allowed him to get off to such a hot start last year. He has two home runs and nine RBI in 38 spring at-bats, and he is hitting a healthy .368 for the Cubs. His OPS of 1.073 is obviously inflated by the limited number of at-bats he’s had, but it’s still a great sign for a guy who is going to need to bounce back if the Cubs are going to improve offensively.
That quality play continued on Saturday as Rizzo and the Cubs fell to the Cincinnati Reds at Cubs Park. Rizzo had a great day despite the outcome, racking up three hits and two RBI in the game as the Cubs fell 8-3 to Cincy. He slugged an RBI double, his third of the spring, and also added an RBI single in the sixth inning to cap off a nice day at the dish.
Whether or not you believe in the concept of “lineup protection,” you have to wonder whether or not Rizzo will be able to improve much upon his numbers from last season unless he has someone else batting behind him to take some of the pressure off. Pitchers aren’t going to challenge Rizzo much without a guy like Mike Olt stepping up behind him, because there’s no incentive to keep him off of base if a guy like Nate Schierholtz is batting .250 in that spot.
That negativity aside, it’s good news for the Cubs to see Rizzo hitting that well during spring training. He had a rough go of it last season once the calendar moved into the summer months, so he’s no doubt been preparing like crazy for this season. Hitting 4th in an order that isn’t exactly chock full of talent can’t be much fun, but it appears that Rizzo is eager to rise to the challenge anyway, and if he’s lucky enough, he’ll be able to drive in players like Starlin Castro more often this season.
Mesa – The Chicago Cubs have made it clear all spring long that they would be sending shortstop Javier Baez to the minor leagues for the beginning of the regular season, and the team was true to its word as it assigned the 21-year old to minor league camp on Saturday.
In a wide-ranging interview with Cubs.com, Baez expressed all of the right sentiments about his demotion, and said that he is looking forward to continuing to work on his game as the organization gives him pointers on how to do so.
The Chicago Cubs got a nice look at their future on Wednesday night, as Mike Olt slugged two home runs and Javier Baez added another in an 8-7 loss to the Seattle Mariners in Peoria, Arizona.
Olt is having a nice spring so far for the Cubs, with three home runs and six RBI to his credit in 21 at-bats. He is also hitting .333, and his OPS of 1.095 is one of the top marks on the team in the early going.
When the Chicago Cubs struck out on prying Joe Girardi away from the New York Yankees last year, there was plenty of discussion not only about who Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer would hire to manage the team, but also whether or not they had even made the right decision in firing Dale Sveum in the first place.
After all, firing a guy after only two years doesn’t exactly seem fair when you consider the “quality” of rosters that he had been given. In all likelihood, the 2012 and 2013 Cubs could not have won a championship in AAA, much less in the major leagues. Their win totals for the two seasons reflect that, with only a modest gain in that area in 2013 after a 61-win 2012 campaign.
Amid all of that belly-aching and strife, the Cubs went out and hired Rick Renteria, bench coach for the San Diego Padres. During his introductory press conferences, Renteria said all the right things about wanting to manage this team, and how he felt so positive about the futures of guys like Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, but it’s been his conduct after those press conferences that has been more impressive to Cubs observers.