MESA, ARIZ. – At the far end of the clubhouse here is Kyle Schwarber, and at the near end is Addison Russell, and in between is Kris Bryant, and if you add up all the major league games they have played in their careers, you get 362. A year ago at this time, that total was zero (0). Add their ages – 22, 22 and 24 – and they just outdistance that of their 62-year-old manager, Joe Maddon.
They are the beacons here, the reason the Chicago Cubs are the best bet in terms both short and long, potential stars for the next decade who have already arrived. And across the way, at a locker just outside the showers, sits Anthony Rizzo, the person perhaps best equipped to tell all the Cubs youngsters, “This is how it’s done.”
“Sneaky MVP candidate,” said Theo Epstein, the Cubs president of baseball operations.
How sneaky, though? Let’s get through the numbers before we get to Rizzo’s story. Last year, three players in the National League posted a better on-base-plus-slugging percentage than Rizzo. Their names: Bryce Harper, Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt. Indeed, over the past two seasons, Rizzo’s .905 OPS sits fourth in the NL behind Goldschmidt, Harper and Andrew McCutchen. Only Todd Frazier, then of the Reds, has hit more homers than Rizzo among National Leaguers, and that margin is just 64-63.
He is, by any quantifiable measure, one of the best players in the National League. And yet …
“I feel like he’s overlooked,” veteran catcher David Ross said.
Rizzo is just 26, yet he has played in three organizations. He nearly forgot how to play baseball in his 49-game debut with San Diego in 2011, a disaster for most players, less so to someone who has beaten cancer, as he has. Now, he is the player who so much runs through for the Cubs, whose time in the franchise predates Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta and World Series hero Jon Lester, not to mention Maddon, the manager, and the kids.
“The makeup of this team revolves around him,” Ross said. “He can relate to me – probably one of my best friends on the team. But he’s also attached to those young guys. He’s been a Cub for a long time, and you look at him and the example he sets and the way he acts around them every day. He’s the young veteran. That’s what he calls himself, and it works, because he can go both ways.”
He appears, too, secure in that. When he was 18, a year after he was selected in the sixth round of the draft by the Boston Red Sox, Rizzo had Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosed. Six months of chemotherapy followed. That alone makes his path to the majors different from those of his younger teammates. But when he was declared cancer-free, and he began tearing through the minors again – 100 RBI between high-Class A and Class AA in 2010 – he meandered more. That offseason, he was dealt to San Diego in the trade that brought first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to the Red Sox. And that next year, after he hit .331 and slugged .652 at Class AAA, he made his debut with the Padres.
“I screwed that one up,” said Jed Hoyer, now the general manager of the Cubs, then the GM of the Padres. San Diego, at the time, had no viable first baseman. “He was 21 years old. He wasn’t ready – and we didn’t think he was ready. We thought he would do better than he did, but he really struggled.”
At the time, hitting .141 and striking out nearly once every three times he came to bat couldn’t have been fun. He was getting beat on mediocre fastballs, and his swing had become too long. The entire experience, though, gave him a blueprint about what to tell the teammates he has now who have come up with all the hype.
“These guys that are called up, what I tell them is, ‘Do exactly what you’re doing,’ ” Rizzo said. “I’ve been on a team before where I got called up, and all of a sudden I found myself having to switch what I was doing. Don’t do that. Here, there’s no egos. We want everyone to do what makes them successful. Rookies, we’ll ride ’em because it’s fun and games. But once you get between those lines, I don’t care if you’re a 15-year veteran or you have two days in the big leagues – whatever it takes to win.”
Following the difficulties of the 2011 season, Hoyer left the Padres to join Epstein – for whom he had worked in Boston – with the Cubs. One of the first deals the pair made was to send right-hander Andrew Cashner to San Diego in exchange for Rizzo, who had already been working on shortening his swing over that winter. When he went to AAA Iowa to begin 2012, he raked – hitting .342 with 23 homers in just 284 plate appearances, a 1.101 OPS.
“I think we were the beneficiaries of my mistake,” Hoyer said. The Cubs were in the middle of a complete overhaul. They called Rizzo up that season to be the centerpiece of it. He never returned to the minors – the likely fate of Schwarber, Russell and Bryant.
“I know what it’s like to get called up and have to perform,” Rizzo said. “So I can talk to those guys, because I’m young like them. But then I can also use the older guys to reiterate what I’m saying.”
At this point, though, he needs little by way of reiteration.
“He’s been around in the times when it was a struggle and the times when it was good,” Schwarber said. “I came up in the good. But he was one of the people who put the culture together. For him to step into that leadership role like he has and for him to teach me things here and there off the field, it’s just a pleasure to work with him.”
If this team became Rizzo’s, it may have happened on the afternoon of July 10, 2014, in Cincinnati. The Cubs were 14 games below .500, on their way to an 89-loss season after losing 96 the year before. Aroldis Chapman — who is in the news now for his 30-game domestic violence suspension but has long had a reputation for being unafraid to, uh, pitch inside — was on the mound in a tie game in the ninth. He threw a pair of fastballs – one at 101 mph, another at 100 mph – over the head of Cubs batter Nate Schierholtz, then dismissed jawing from the Cubs by waving his glove at them.
Between innings, Rizzo, in turn, heard chatter from the Reds’ dugout. Incensed, he threw his glove on the field and strode toward them – a potential 25-on-1 battle.
“That was a galvanizing moment,” Epstein said. None of his younger teammates were around to see it. But it lingers still.
“It was just sort of, ‘Hey, we’ve been beat up for the last two-and-a-half years, and we’re done with that,’” Hoyer said. “He just kind of stood up for the team, and I think that meant a lot to his teammates. It probably said something about how he felt about himself at that moment: ‘I’m a player now.’”
He is a player now, one of the best in the National League. But the Cubs know that’s not the only reason he has the gravitas to say what he wants, when he wants it, in their clubhouse. His road, both to the majors and through life, affords him that right.