With Anthony Rizzo set to make his Cubs debut tomorrow, I talked to Cubs executive Jason McLeod about the former Padres prospect. McLeod drafted Rizzo for the Red Sox, played a role in bringing him to the Padres shortly after joining their front office and, not long after joining the Cubs, endorsed his acquisition last winter for pitcher Andrew Cashner.
McLeod said the chatter surrounding Rizzo's latest debut reminds him of the buzz his promotion to the Padres generated last year. In both instances, Rizzo amassed monstrous statistics in the Pacific Coast League, raising expectations that the lefty first baseman would put up big numbers even as a college-age player.
McLeod drew distinctions, however, when comparing Rizzo 2.0 to Rizzo 1.0.
"I don't want to sound like it's anything drastic, but he's changed some things with his approach at the plate," he said.
Rizzo changed the starting point of his swing, which "allows him to get to some pitches that he wasn't last year," said McLeod. He graded Rizzo more capable against lefty pitchers than he was a year ago, and more prepared mentally "to be consistent, day to day."
The Cubs are encouraged that Rizzo's dominance in Triple-A this year didn't occur in extreme hitters parks to the extent that it did last year, when Rizzo battered pitches in Tucson, Colorado Springs and Salt Lake City. "He's been doing it in the less explosive ballparks in the PCL," McLeod said.
In 49 games with the Padres, Rizzo batted .141 with one home run, eight doubles and 46 strikeouts in 128 at-bats. Scouts described his swing as long, and several pitchers got away with belt-high fastballs clocked at 89-92 miles-per-hour.
Regardless of the ballpark, a hitter will flame out in the big leagues if he's not dangerous against the fastball. Petco Park nonetheless may have hindered Rizzo psychologically, Tony Gwynn told me last winter after the Padres traded him. Watching Rizzo hit at Petco during a prospects orientation program in early 2011, Gwynn decided that Rizzo was trying too hard "to lift the ball."
Josh Byrnes was mindful of Petco Park when he acquired another first baseman, Yonder Alonso, for the starting job, which, in time, would've been Rizzo's if Jed Hoyer and McLeod had stayed with the Padres. "Alonso was appealing because of his solid track record of hitting," Byrnes told Baseball America in spring training. "We also felt he could fit the ballpark and be a consistent, quality-at-bat type of hitter."
At 22, Rizzo is young for someone who's hit 49 home runs in Triple-A.