It may come as a bit of a surprise since the weather outside has been so abysmal lately, but Opening Day is indeed upon us, as the Chicago Cubs will kick off their season on Monday afternoon against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.
The Cubs will be looking to build upon a 2013 season that can only be viewed as a disappointment, even by the measure of where they are in their current rebuilding phase. Several players took big steps back, and the firing of Dale Sveum and the hiring of Rick Renteria to manage the club are an indicator that the front office feels the same way.
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.
After taking a day off Thursday, I resumed my baseball odyssey around Phoenix by travelling to…..Cubs Park in Mesa. Yes, I’d already been there and seen all the sights on Tuesday, but I looked forward to seeing the team take on a very tough opponent in the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Cubs somehow were able to win the game against a lineup that featured just about all of the Dodgers’ hitting threats and Josh Beckett pitching against the North Siders, and after the 5-4 win, I had some reactions to what I saw on the diamond.
Mesa, Arizona – The Chicago Cubs’ roster is full of guys who could potentially be plugged into their outfield spots, and they also have a done of guys in their pipeline that could be contributors on the green grass at Wrigley Field at some point in the near future. So far in Cactus League play though, there is one guy that is standing out, and he is making a strong case to lock down the right field spot for the North Siders.
That player is Nate Schierholtz, and he pleaded his case in a strong way on Friday afternoon at Cubs Park. In six innings of work, Schierholtz reached base all three times that he stepped to the plate, including a double in the bottom of the sixth inning that helped propel a four run Cubs rally that culminated with a Luis Valbuena home run to right-center field.
That inning ended up helping the Cubs to a 5-4 victory in the game, but even without the outcome in mind, it was still clear that Schierholtz was well-suited to batting ahead of Anthony Rizzo in the Cubs’ lineup. He was willing to take pitches (as he did in his first inning walk), but he was also willing to swing the bat when necessary, as he showed when he became the first Cub to hit the ball out of the infield on a fourth inning single.
Overall on the spring, Schierholtz hasn’t had outrageously great numbers, but he has still been consistent. His .375 OBP and .899 OPS are both very solid, and he has three walks to go along with his six hits in 24 plate appearances. He also had a home run and two RBI in Cactus League play.
Schierholtz may not get the adulation that guys like Junior Lake receive, and he may not have the raw potential of players like Albert Almora and Jorge Soler, but he is a player who knows what his role is on the team, and he approaches the game like a savvy veteran. He definitely did that on Friday, and if he can continue to do so, then he is going to be an integral part of the Cubs’ lineup this year.