Despite his talents and being just 22-years-old, Anthony Rizzo is already with his third organization. This is not an indictment on Rizzo by any means, and in fact is more a proclamation of his abilities. The Cubs are the third organization to want him, and for Rizzo, it will finally offer him the change to play full-time.
Of course, if he had produced more in his 49-game stint with San Diego last season, he'd still be a Padre, he would have blown his rookie/prospect eligibility out of the water, and we would already know exactly what kind of player Rizzo is. But he didn't. He didn't produce at all. He didn't even just struggle. He batted about 50 points below struggle.
In fact, the only thing Rizzo did well offensively while in San Diego was walk at a higher rate than he ever had in the minors, which gives us a glimmer of hope that his struggles were a fluke, and for those of us that care about these sort of things, is also the reason he's still rookie eligible for 2012.
What we know: Rizzo is a 6'3" left-handed hitting first baseman with a slightly long swing that leads to above-average strikeout totals. He has an above-average eye at the plate and could hit anywhere from .260 to .300, depending on how he adjusts to the majors. He has good doubles power, and should routinely hit between 30 and 40 per season, and should hit between 25-30 homers per year. He has also struggled against lefties in the minors, no more so than most young left-handed hitters, but enough that he'll have to improve.
How this works: I wrote up the explanation on The Hardball Times website back in 2010
Rizzo's career minor league totals are as follows:
|2009||19||2 Teams||2 Lgs||A-A+||BOS||119||503||445||63||132||37||0||12||66||4||1||50||99||.297||.368||.461||.828|
|2010||20||2 Teams||2 Lgs||AA-A+||BOS||136||602||531||92||138||42||0||25||100||10||1||61||132||.260||.334||.480||.814|
There have been some consistencies and variations with Rizzo throughout his career. For instance, his power has been pretty consistent, with 34-42 doubles for three straight seasons, and homers in the mid-20's for two straight seasons, primarily in the upper minors. The main variation has been in his batting averages, but that can be partially attributed to swings in his BABIP, which was roughly 60 points lower in 2010 than it was in 2009 and 2011. With the truth likely somewhere in the middle, his future batting averages likely are as well, which probably means in the .275-.285 range.
So let's start with the best case scenario. Let's assume that he learns from his poor 2011 and becomes much more like the version of himself that raked in Triple-A last season. I think .331 seems optimistic, but a string of .300/30/100/75 walk seasons in the prime of his career doesn't seem out of the question, does it?
For my first search, I looked for first baseman who were at least 6'2" (remember, being a taller hitter leads to a longer swing and thus more strikeouts), and had the most seasons hitting over .300, more than 30 home runs, and over 75 walks (the RBI's will be a byproduct of the others) since 1961. Here are the results:
That's an impressive list, but don't get too excited yet, Cubs fans. First, we have to eliminate anyone who had a 40-homer season. This is a best case scenario we're looking for, but I don't realistically see Rizzo having a 40-homer season unless global warming is making Wrigley even windier.
Eliminating the 40-homer guys leaves us with just Votto and McGriff. Votto has already won an MVP, batted over .300 three times, and posted on-base percentages over .400 three times...in four full seasons. That seems a little aggressive for Rizzo. We already stretched here to get .300/30/100/75 for Rizzo. Or more accurately, our best-case scenario for Rizzo has been Votto's worst offensive season to date. I'm not comfortable with that.
But let's look at McGriff as a comp. That one is interesting.
First, forget about McGriff's impressive longevity. When predicting player's futures, we could never expect a player to play 19 seasons and come to bat over 10,000 times. McGriff batted over .300 four times, but never above .318. That's not unrealistic, and if Rizzo does manage to play 19 seasons, I'll bet he can get over .300 four times. McGriff hit over 30 homers 10 times. I'd be shocked if Rizzo does that, but McGriff never hit more than 37, so he and Rizzo are in the same class when it comes to power, if not with consistency. McGriff walked over 75 times in 9 different seasons, and broke the 100 mark twice. Rizzo has that in him.
But the best evidence that we're on the right track here is McGriff's 162 game career averages. Per 162 games in his career, McGriff hit .284/.377/.509 with 29 doubles and 32 homers. If I had to venture a guess, I'd say a few more of Rizzo's homers fall just short for doubles, but otherwise I like the comp. From 1992-96, when McGriff made four all-star games in five seasons, he averaged .293/.376/.537 with 30 doubles and 32 homers. That sounds an awful lot like the best-case prime of Rizzo's career, minus McGriff's impressive longevity and Tom Emanski commercial.
If Rizzo emulates McGriff it'll be because his power continues to develop, he continues to refine his swing mechanics to cut down on strikeouts, and his plate discipline continues to be what it was in the majors. That's a lot of ifs. The most realistic possibility is that Rizzo's plate discipline remains at worst above average and more than likely ends up being very good. He will hit for power, but probably won't break 35 homers in a season, and probably won't hit too far over .300 very often. So let's refine our search.
Let's narrow it down to first basemen who hit less than .310 while having on-base percentages of over .380, with between 20 and 35 homers. We get the following players who had more than one such season:
The fact that McGriff came up on top again makes me feel great about our first comp, but since we already used him we can eliminate him for this one. The next group all did it three times. We can remove Olerud since I doubt Rizzo will ever flirt with .400 or win a batting title.
The other two, I love. I was tempted to go with Mayberry (this is Mayberry, Sr., not the one currently on the Phillies), but his three full seasons hitting in the .230's scared me off. For a realistic high-end comp for Rizzo, we're going to assume he hits better than that.
Which leaves us with Klesko. I'll admit that when I saw his name on this list I almost went back and changed the criteria because I didn't think the results reflected he type of player Rizzo can be, but then I took a closer look at Klesko's numbers and I think he gets short-changed because of the era in which he played. Wouldn't Cubs fans be thrilled with a 10-year stretch where Rizzo averages .282/.371/.522 with 26 doubles and 24 homers per season? That was Klesko from 1994 to 2003.
And that's a realistic ceiling for Rizzo. And both were listed at 6'3" 225 lbs., so they're even built the same way. I love when things work out this well.
Now, what happens if Rizzo doesn't quite figure out lefties enough to be a complete hitter? It's enough of an issue to take a .280 hitter and make him a .250 hitter. Just look at Ryan Howard.
So my for next search, I looked for first basemen who hit less than .260 with an OBP of over .340 (we're assuming his plate discipline stays in tact for the time being) and between 20 and 30 home runs to see who did it the most times. Four players did it more than once:
Unfortunately, all of these guys played before I was born. That doesn't mean they don't work as comps. It just means I have to go off of stats alone.
Mayberry makes the list again and I like him better the the others. Boog Powell was by all accounts a bigger guy (and having your name on a Bar-B-Que at Camden Yards doesn't help that reputation any), and Rizzo is a completely different build. Norm Cash doesn't fit real well given that he won a batting title by hitting .361 one year (although oddly enough, it was about 100 points above his next best year), but also hit 41 homers that year. That's just too many things Rizzo can't do. Gentile fits for a short stretch of his career, but he was done by age 30 and out of baseball a year or two later.
But Mayberry is a good comp here. Where as his low batting averages scared me off before, it does serve as a realistic low-end possibility, especially if Rizzo never fully learns how to hit lefties. And Mayberry was a good player who had a very nice career, despite hitting almost 40 points lower off lefties than righties over the course of his career. If the worst-case scenario for Rizzo is a 10-year prime averaging .259/.366/.449 with 22 doubles and 24 homers, the Cubs are headed the right direction.
Thus far we've remained pretty optimistic on Rizzo, essentially disregarding his struggles in the majors last season and basing this off of scouting reports and his minor league numbers as if his time in San Diego never happened. Which I'm ok with for now.
Rizzo was called up to San Diego a few months too early, asked to bat in the middle of a terrible lineup, and hit in the worst hitter's park in the majors. That doesn't explain why he struck out so much, but it doesn't explain the added pressure that players sometimes put on themselves that can lead to disastrous numbers over short periods of time.
But what if Rizzo's struggles can't be dismissed so easily? What if his elongated swing really does create a hole that can only be properly exploited by major league pitching? What if he couples that with never learning how to hit lefties, and the combination of those two struggles take its toll on his plate discipline as well?
Usually when I do these comps, the worst-case scenario is a bit far fetched. I don't think the wheels are going to completely come off of Rizzo the way I described above, but I will say that his extreme struggles in a "small but big enough to worry" sample size bring disaster into play significantly more than with most top prospects.
So let's do one last search. It may be the Bartman scenario of Rizzo's career possibilities, but hey, it is the Cubs.
This time we'll look for first basemen who hit below .250 with an on-base still over .300 (his plate discipline won't go away completely - plate discipline doesn't do that), with less than 20 home runs and more than 120 strike outs. Our result gets two players:
Lyle Overbay and Carlos Pena.
Pena is out because he hit 49 home runs one season and is a three-true outcome time of hitter. Rizzo does not profile as that kind of hitter.
Overbay, on the other hand, works here. Overbay did have a few nice years early in his career, including a three year stretch where he averaged .296/.375/.479 with 44 doubles and 19 homers, something Rizzo too can do and even in a worst-case scenario, I'd be surprised if Rizzo doesn't put together a few good seasons.
But soon after that stretch, something happened and Overbay was never the same again. Ether the league figured him out, he got old, came off the PED's (hey, the timing is right for it) or perhaps the most likely of all, just wasn't that good to begin with and had been outperforming his own abilities for a three year stretch. It happens all the time. Since then, Overbay has averaged .252/.338/.416 with 31 doubles and 14 homers, which might work at some positions but is a virtual black hole offensively at first base. And with his career OPS coming in 119 points lower against lefties for his career, it's not hard to figure out what happened.
So there you have it. If everything falls right for Anthony Rizzo and the Cubs, we could be looking at a Fred McGriff-type prime, although not necessarily his longevity. More realistically, Rizzo could be somewhere between the next Ryan Klesko and the next John Mayberry, Sr., with the black cloud of a Lyle Overbay type career path looming over his time at Wrigley.
The good news for Cubs fans is that these are all players who were at some point well above-average major league players, and I do believe that at some point in his career, Rizzo will have a stretch where he is as well. He still has some holes in his game to fix, and the Cubs have said they're going to start him in the minors in 2012 to help him fix them, but even if only two of the three main aspects of his game (hitting ability, power and plate discipline) develop properly, we're still looking at a borderline all-star first baseman.