Jul 20, 2014; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo (44) hits a solo home run during the sixth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Rizzo, baseball's next great superstar

Right now, Anthony Rizzo looks like a fully fledged big league first baseman, rather than the raw, promising prototype of a SABR-inclined front office. Finally, the hulking slugger is producing tangible returns on his exorbitant potential, which is great news for Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and a Cubs nation placing huge faith in his ability.

At present, Rizzo has an imposing .281/.384/.522 slash line in 2014, with 100 hits and 53 RBI through 96 games. He leads all National League first basemen in home runs and ranks second behind Paul Goldschmidt in on-base percentage. Rizzo, who made his first All-Star appearance in Minnesota last week, plays splendid defense, dominates an otherwise ordinary Cubs offense, and is fantastically entertaining to watch.

On Sunday, the former San Diego Padre, presented as the face of a new era for Chicago baseball since the dawn of Epstein’s reign, matched his previous single-season high in home runs; a mammoth bash to right field against the Arizona Diamondbacks pushing Rizzo’s total to 23 in a campaign which has distinguished him as the next potentially great superstar of Major League Baseball. The ease with which he unloaded on a first-pitch changeup from Josh Collmenter was breath-taking; the resultant moonshot an astounding delight.

At that point, all our suspicions were confirmed: Anthony Rizzo has arrived.

It’s been a difficult, winding, often-tumultuous journey, but he got there in the end. Just twelve months ago, Anthony looked lost, both at the plate and as the pre-eminent figurehead of a very public Chicago Cubs rebuild. Rizzo, an inconsistent prospect forced to work through his troubles at the Major League level, pressed hard, forced the issue, and tried to do too much. He focused on becoming the human incarnation off front office idealism, rather than an emotional ballplayer playing his own natural game.

The result was near-unanimous disappointment. Rizzo struggled to gain any positive momentum and, along with fellow franchise icon Starlin Castro, had many millions of Cubs fans worried. He played virtually everyday, yet was only able to hit .233 and get on-base at a .323 rate. Admittedly, Rizzo blasted 23 homers and mashed 40 doubles but, offset against 127 strikeouts and a dreary 66-96 record for a team he was supposed to help lead, those achievements were somewhat hollow.

However, in 2014, he has rebounded in the most stupendous way, adding 50+ points to his batting average, 60+ to his on-base percentage, 110+ points to his slugging and 170+ to his OPS.

Whereas left-handed pitchers saw Rizzo as only a modest challenge in 2013, they’re now petrified of what he may do their ERA. Last year, Rizzo hit just .189 against southpaws, with 7 home runs and 36 hits in 216 plate appearances. This year? Well, he’s eating them alive; batting .312, getting aboard at a gaudy .409 clip, and whacking home runs off lefties at twice the pace.

Now, Rizzo appears strong, proud and confident at the plate, in control of each at-bat and comfortable with his surroundings. This sensational adjustment is a sign of the perfectionist within; that yearning for self-improvement which separates the great from the greatest.

Obviously, he had the presence of mind and sporting maturity to diagnose a weakness within his game, and has worked tremendously hard to improve it. In this regard, the presence of Bill Mueller as the Cubs’ new hitting coach cannot be overstated, nor can the avuncular positivity of manager Rick Renteria. Rizzo has reacted positively to the approach and instruction of both men, and is thriving on the fresh sense of responsibility afforded by their treatment of players as intelligent individuals capable of making decisions of their own volition.

Here, we see the true genius of Theo Epstein in hiring Renteria, a manager who takes a much more relaxed approach than his icy predecessor Dale Sveum. In making the team atmosphere more laid-back, Renteria has actually inspired from Rizzo and Castro natural leadership tendencies, rather than pre-imposing such duties upon them.

Rizzo is developing into a fierce competitor and, even on a fairly moribund Cubs team, yearns to win and play baseball the right way. We saw this recently when he confronted Reds flamethrower Aroldis Chapman following successive 100-mph brush-back pitches to Chicago teammate Nate Schierholtz; Anthony emerging as a genuine in-game leader in addition to his status as the aesthetic avatar of a prospective Cubs juggernaut.

His evolution is thrilling to watch.

It’s difficult for any heralded phenom to make that leap from hopeful dreamer to consistent contributor, especially in full glare of an expectant audience. However, Anthony Rizzo has finally jumped to the next stage of his development. Rather than tussling with other prospects or fighting with his own role as a Cub, he’s jostling with the marquee stars of other teams. It’s an enlightening experience, as the rationale behind so many people investing so much time into cultivating his talent becomes clear.

Now, we’re seeing why Rizzo so fascinated the Red Sox War Room during the 2007 MLB Draft; why Epstein and his then-assistant Hoyer took the High School first basemen in the sixth round. Now, we’re seeing why Hoyer, as Padres General Manager in 2010, demanded Rizzo in exchange for Boston-bound Adrian Gonzalez; why he was granted a Major League debut aged just twenty-two. Now, we’re seeing why Epstein and Hoyer gave-up prized pitching prospect Andrew Cashner to bring Rizzo to Chicago with them; why he was selected as the bedrock, the linchpin, the darling of this extensive project.

We’re seeing the real Anthony Rizzo, and it’s mighty exciting.

Tags: Anthony Rizzo Chicago Cubs MLB Starlin Castro Theo Epstein

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