Position analysis: Rizzo an anchor at first base

Perhaps Anthony Rizzo’s best moment as a Cub wasn’t seen by fans at the ballpark or watching on TV.

Amazingly, he didn’t even have a bat in his hand at the time.

That moment of truth occurred in the Cubs’ clubhouse in Phoenix after a loss in final road series, when Rizzo stood next to Darwin Barney during a postgame interview.

Barney’s attempt at breaking the major league, single-season record for consecutive errorless games by a second baseman ended with one inning left in the game. Rizzo may have been able to prevent the error by blocking the wild throw so the runner on third didn’t come around and score, which was the reason Barney was charged, since the runner on first was credited with an infield hit.

Rizzo felt he was to blame for the streak ending. That’s debatable. But whether he was or not, the fact he stood by his teammate at that low point in Barney’s season was not overlooked by Rizzo’s manager or the front office.

Now it’s time for Rizzo to take it a step further and lead on a daily basis, at the plate, in the field and in the clubhouse.

“It's just one of those things where I'm trying to lead by example and have fun and backing up my teammates whether it's somebody making a bad throw that I should have caught or making a good play behind them,” he said. “I’ve just got to go from there and build chemistry with everyone. We’re all pretty young so all our relationships are growing. That's the biggest thing — we all have to pull for each other.”

Rizzo was greeted with so much hype this summer he was in danger of being dubbed a failure if he posted only slightly better than average numbers. As it turned out, he got off to a great start and maintained solid numbers throughout his season, while also playing well at first, for the most part.

Rizzo wound up with a WAR of 1.8, third among rookie first basemen behind the Reds’ Todd Frazier (2.8) and the Padres’ Yonder Alonso (2.0), the player who made him expendable in the first place. Rizzo also ranked fourth among rookie first basemen in slugging percentage (.326) and on-base percentage (.342).

“Rizzo obviously struggled (in 2011),” manager Dale Sveum said. “I didn’t get to see him much besides video, knew he had to make some adjustments. He made some drastic adjustments in his swing, and obviously it paid off at the Triple-A level, and he’s done one heck of a job for us in the three months (after the call-up).”

He can still do better, and should. Sveum likely will pencil Rizzo in for 162 games next year, assuming he stays healthy.

Rizzo’s popularity and quick success should instill hope in fans during what’s expected to be another losing season on the North Side. Maybe the biggest fear of Sveum and Theo Epstein is that the marketing department will try to turn 2013 into “RizzoFest,” putting him above his teammates when Rizzo simply wants to be part of the core.

Recall how the Cubs made Starlin Castro, Tyler Colvin and Andrew Cashner the center of a “Three C’s” marketing campaign in the 2010 offseason, before Colvin struggled at the outset in 2011 and Cashner suffered a long-term shoulder injury after his first start. One year later, both Colvin and Cashner were gone.

The Cubs waited until June 26 to bring up Rizzo, insisting they didn’t want to bring him up before he was ready. But everyone knew the real reason he stayed at Triple-A Iowa so long was service time-related.

Epstein wanted Rizzo’s free agency to begin in 2019 instead of 2018 and needed Rizzo to accrue less than 104 days in the majors this season to get that extra year. If Rizzo continues to progress, look for him to sign a long-term extension after 2014, when he’ll be eligible for arbitration. Castro did just that this summer, before his first year of arbitration.

The Cubs took a little heat for waiting as long as they did to call up Rizzo when he obviously was ready. But now that the 101-loss season is over, it’s clear they made a move that made sense financially without affecting a season was obviously D.O.A.

psullivan@tribune.com

Twitter @PWSullivan

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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