CHICAGO – Cubs outfielder Bryan LaHair smiled wide Monday at the memory of playing against top prospect Anthony Rizzo in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League.
“He killed us,” LaHair said. “I saw him for three games, and I think he hit like two bombs and four doubles. He tore it up.”
Somewhere, Cubs president Theo Epstein might have winced.
To Epstein and his front-office cronies, today is the day that a promising 22-year-old will take the next step of his young career.
To many others, today is Anthony Rizzo Day. It’s the product of months of anticipation, hype and hope during a lousy season on the North Side.
Here’s a gentle plea to those affected by Rizzo fever: Be patient.
By all means, enjoy his at-bats and his likely displays of power. But also understand that he is merely one part of a years-long construction project.
The Cubs have done their part by not rushing Rizzo into the spotlight. He spent three months maturing with Triple-A Iowa, where he crushed the competition with a .342 batting average, 23 home runs and 62 RBIs in 70 games.
It’s easy to see how those numbers excite Cubs fans.
You could double LaHair’s RBI total and it wouldn’t match Rizzo’s. Heck, you could double Geovany Soto’s batting average and it wouldn’t match Rizzo’s.
But Rizzo did his damage against teams such as the Albuquerque Isotopes, Nashville Sounds and Omaha Storm Chasers (no, I’m not making that up).
For the most part, the pitchers he pounded were has-beens or never-weres.
Today begins a different ballgame.
Rizzo will play first base and bat somewhere in the middle of the order when the Cubs go up against New York Mets right-hander Dillon Gee. From here on out, he’ll be an everyday player against righties and lefties alike.
Cubs manager Dale Sveum offered simple advice for his newest player.
The gist: Don’t try to hit five-run home runs. You can’t do it anyway.
“He has got to understand that he’s not a savior of this offense right now,” Sveum said. “I think that’s what he’s got to be careful of, that if he comes up here and tries to save a struggling offense, he can’t do it with one swing of the bat all of the time.”
Sveum paused, then smiled.
“It would be nice if he does, but …” he trailed off with a chuckle.
But he won’t.
Last season, Rizzo’s big-league cup of coffee tasted cold. In 128 at-bats with the San Diego Padres, he hit .141 with one home run and nine RBIs.
Ex-Padres GM Jed Hoyer never lost faith. He shipped pitcher Andrew Cashner to the Padres this winter in exchange for the 6-foot-3, 220-pound slugger.
Anyone who claims to know how Rizzo’s story will go from here is simply guessing.
The guess here is that he blossoms into a very good player. Maybe better.
There I go, feeding the hype machine. It’s hard to avoid.
So, let’s enjoy Rizzo today. Let’s give him room to improve for many tomorrows. Let’s wait for the Cubs to develop some more young talent.
Let’s hope this last-place season ultimately serves a purpose.
• Tom Musick covers Chicago professional sports for the Northwest Herald. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.