Led by slugger Anthony Rizzo, the Chicago Cubs team that the Phillies are facing this weekend are charging towards the MLB playoffs, energizing a baseball championship-starved city and bringing playoff fever back to the North Side of the Windy City for the first time since 2008.
The Cubs currently hold an 82-58 record after sweeping the Phils in a doubleheader last night. They are in possession of the second NL Wild Card, ten games ahead of the San Francisco Giants and Washington Nationals in the all-important loss column with just three weeks to play in the regular season.
The 82 wins are the most for the franchise since they won 83 games during the 2009 season, a number they could pass by sweeping the rest of this weekend’s series, not a far-fetched suggestion when considering their talent, and how poorly the Phillies have been playing of late.
By now you’ve heard of all the hot-shot prospects that the Cubs have brought up over the last year. Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, and Kyle Schwarber are all legitimately talented young players.
Having developed one of the richest farm systems in all of baseball over the last few years, the Cubs have been able to develop some of the best young talent in the game. But interestingly enough, it’s been 25-years young Rizzo, now in his 5th MLB season, who has provided much of the fireworks for the Cubbies.
“We’re moving in the right direction. Every day, we’re just getting more confident and more confident.” ~ Rizzo
In 136 games during the 2015 season, Rizzo is batting .282 with 29 home runs and 88 RBI. Barring some devastating season-ending injury, Rizzo will reach the 30-homers mark for a second consecutive year. He leads the club in most major batting categories, including batting average, home runs, OBP (.390), hits (143), total bases (269) and OPS (.921). He’s also been worth 4.6 Wins Above Replacement.
Rizzo has found a home in Chicago after being used as a trade piece by his previous two organizations. The 6’3″, 240 pound first baseman started his career in the Boston Red Sox organization after being drafted out of Stoneman-Douglas High School (Fla.) in the sixth round of the 2007 MLB Draft.
He spent four seasons in the Bosox minor league system before being dealt to the San Diego Padres in a December 2010 blockbuster trade in which Boston received veteran first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.
In San Diego, Rizzo immediately became of the organization’s top prospects. Playing 93 games with their AAA Tucson affiliate, Rizzo batted .331 with 26 taters, 101 RBIs, and a solid .652 slugging percentage. He was called up by the Friars for the first time on June 9, 2011, and would play 49 games total in the bigs that year.
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Unfortunately for Rizzo, Major League pitching wasn’t as kind as AAA pitching. He batted .141 in those 49 MLB games with just a single home run and nine RBIs. He also struck out 46 times in 128 at-bats. So just a little more than a year after being traded to the Padres, they shipped him off to Chicago for starter Andrew Cashner and a minor leaguer.
With his 3rd team in three years, Rizzo immediately made a strong impression. He played 87 games during the 2012 season with the Cubs, slashing .285/.342/.463 and smacking 15 home runs. He looked like a promising part of the Cubs’ future, but the team wanted to see more.
Rizzo returned in 2013 to put up 10 home runs through the first 32 games of the season. Believing that he was the real deal, on May 13th of that season the Cubs locked up Rizzo to a long-term 7-year, $41 million contract, solidifying his spot as one of their future cornerstones. Though Rizzo finished that season with a mediocre .233 average, he posted career highs in home runs (23) and RBI (80).
Over the course of 2014, Rizzo really put together a complete season, and once again saw a boost in his power numbers, becoming a favorite of faithful fans in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. In 140 games, he hit .286 with 32 long balls and 78 RBIs. Fourteen of his homers came in his home park.
Additionally, Rizzo’s .527 slugging percentage and .913 OPS were both career highs, and he led the Cubs in runs, home runs, RBI, OBP, total bases and OPS. He was selected to his first National League All-Star team, and finished 10th in the NL MVP voting. Though his team finished with just 73 wins, things were looking up in the Windy City for an organization that last saw a world championship in 1908.
This season, it’s been nothing but good vibes for Rizzo and the Cubbies. He made his 2nd consecutive All-Star Game, and should once again finish in the top 10 for NL MVP voting. Though just 26 years old himself, Rizzo has become the leader on a team full of players in their low-20’s.
In addition to his big bat, the Florida native has proven to be no slouch defensively, and should win multiple Gold Glove Awards before his career is over. Over five major league seasons, Rizzo has never had a fielding percentage below the .993 mark.
After hitting .298 in the first half of the season, Rizzo has cooled off a bit over the second half, batting just .262 since the All-Star break. However, his bat has begun to regain some life here in September, hitting at a .321 clip in 8 games this month with 3 home runs and 10 RBI. On Wednesday, Rizzo hit his 100th career homer off the St. Louis Cardinals’ Michael Wacha.
He enters the series this weekend at Citizens Bank Park vs. the Phillies with a lifetime .264 average against the club, including three round-trippers. In the three-game series at Wrigley Field in July, Rizzo had just one hit in ten at-bats.
Held to a 1-8 performance in Friday’s doubleheader, Rizzo is set to face the Phils’ Jerad Eickhoff and Aaron Harang in the final two games of this weekend series. It will be his first time facing the rookie Eickhoff, while he has gone 1-5 in his career off Harang.
Thanks to the sweep of that doubleheader, the Cubs now sit just 6 games behind the NL Central Division-leading and arch-rival Cardinals. Rizzo told Patrick Mooney of CSNChicago that he believes his club can catch Saint Louis with just a few weeks left in the season.
“I don’t see why not,” Rizzo said.“We’re moving in the right direction. Every day, we’re just getting more confident and more confident. The group we have up — that could be really scary.”
With Rizzo’s help, Wrigley Field has returned to being the party scene in the North side of Chicago, and for good reason. This group of young Cubs is one of the most exciting the team’s fans have seen in recent memory. With two bona fide starters in their rotation in Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta, who knows how far this team can go in October? One thing is for sure, they team are fun to watch.