As much as the Cubs’ lineup needs a jolt, I’m all for the long-term benefits of leaving Anthony Rizzo in the minors until the team ensures maximum control of his arbitration rights.
Rebuilding is painful, and the Cubs’ offense is a prime example. But the operative phrase is controllable years. It might be one of Theo Epstein’s four major food groups.
My guess is, the Cubs are not going to win the World Series this year. Same goes for 2013. That places a premium on developing and keeping talent. Part of building a foundation of sustained success the way Epstein said is maintaining affordable talent for as long as possible. That foundation is not helped by a short-term insertion of a prospect into the lineup of a team that began the week at the bottom of the National League.
After getting shut out by the White Sox on Sunday, Cubs manager Dale Sveum talked of changing the top of the lineup Monday. He changed his mind, but the Cubs did not change their stink.
No, wait, actually they did. They lost to a worse team --- one of the worst teams in baseball --- in Houston. The only offense the Cubs showed came in the ninth inning after they were trailing 8-0. That’s been the pattern of late. The Cubs seem to hit with runners in scoring position only after the game is out of winning position.
If only for the sake of change, Sveum has to change something. That, too, offers a benefit of helping management make a more complete assessment of players already on the roster.
Epstein and his staff probably are confident in their ideas of what’s on this roster already, but seeing those players in different situations is at least some tradeoff for controlling more important talent in which they are more heavily invested.
That list of talent starts with Rizzo, and here’s why: The 6-foot-3 first baseman is killing Triple-A with a .344 average, 14 homers, 39 RBIs, and a 1.095 OPS. In the Pacific Coast League, Rizzo ranks first in homers and OPS, second in RBIs and ninth in average. That’s having a season.
That’s also what a lot of people want to see at Wrigley. But what a lot of people fear is another quick call-up like the one he had with San Diego last season. The Padres were desperate for something just like the Cubs this year. So, the Padres brought up their Next Big Thing, and he was a Big Nothing: .141 average, one homer, nine RBIs and .523 OPS in 153 plate appearances over 49 games.
Rizzo told Comcast SportsNet that he refuses to get wrapped up in the Cubs’ embarrassing season because it hurt him when he did that last year in the Padres organization. Say this for Rizzo: He has that focus thing working.
The two issues are whether the kid can hit major league pitching and when he’ll be allowed to try to do it for the Cubs. Because Rizzo was called up last year, his service time clock that affects how soon he can go to arbitration and eventually free agency started ticking. Rizzo finished with 63 days of major league time, and without making your head hurt with all the math, the Cubs could call up Rizzo for interleague play in June, then return him to the minors and then call him up in September without losing a valuable controllable year.
That would be the smart way to play it. That would seem to be the only way to play it, although one solid reason to sacrifice a year of arbitration is to see whether the left-handed hitting Rizzo and left-handed-hitting Bryan LaHair can be part of the same lineup, with LaHair moving to left or right field.
Truth is, you wonder if LaHair should be part of any lineup himself right now. Coming off a crosstown series in which he went 1-for-9 without driving in a run, LaHair went 0-for-3 against Houston on Monday, including two inning-ending strikeouts, and is hitting only .207 with runners in scoring position.
With numbers like that, LaHair is likely to sit out Tuesday’s game. That would put half of the Cubs’ offense on the bench. Good luck, Starlin. Write if you get to third base.
So, why would any sane person call up Rizzo? Why would you want to move along his service time for a last-place team? Why would you want to expose him to a miserable and inept situation if you don’t have to?
What’s more, if this new Cubs world is all about gathering young talent and letting it develop, then the worse the team finishes, the better the draft choices.
If Rizzo is the prize the Cubs believe he is, then there are a lot of good reasons to wait and no good reason for him to make the Cubs better right now.