Anthony Rizzo Bashing Through Minors, But Cubs Best Off Waiting For Call-Up

MESA, AZ - FEBRUARY 27: Anthony Rizzo #44 of the Chicago Cubs poses during spring training photo day on February 27, 2012 in Mesa, Arizona. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

As 22-year old Anthony Rizzo continues to tear through Triple-A, many Cubs fans are clamoring for the organization's best prospect to join the big league club. Alex Sonty believes the team's best option is to buy time.

There isn't much Cubs buzz, but pretty much all of it surrounds 22-year-old prospect first baseman Anthony Rizzo.

Rizzo is hitting .355 with 16 HRs and 43 RBI through 44 games for the Cubs' Triple-A affiliate in Iowa this season. The advanced numbers are even crazier.

His weighted on-base average was .470 (anything over .400 is great) over 184 plate appearances in his first 43 games, according to FanGraphs.com. In 188 plate appearances through 44, he's only walked 17 times, but 27 of his 60 hits have been for extra bases for a .710 SLG%, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

In short: Rizzo is swinging and crushing; and Cubs fans want him up at The Show, like, yesterday.

Add in the bonus that Rizzo is impressing people with his fielding -- which highly compliments Dale Sveum's defensive strategies -- and baserunning, Patrick Mooney writes at CSNChicago.com:

Rizzo is now listed at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, and he's shown real agility around the bag.

Unprompted, one Cubs official looked back on some of the balls that trickled through the right side of the infield -- think of those two late losses to the Washington Nationals the first week of the season -- and guaranteed that Rizzo would have made the plays.

Those skills should be maximized with Sveum's intricate defensive positioning, which pinches the shortstop and second baseman and tries to take away the middle.

"I think he (could become) a Gold Glove first baseman," Iowa manager Dave Bialas said. "Not only does he have power and is hitting for average, he has good instincts on the base paths. He really does a good job in going first to third, reading the ball off the bat, scoring from second base. He's really a complete player."

The dilemma is between two conflicting situations: one in which every scout and every metric says that Rizzo is ready for the majors and that plate appearances get management to see his ceiling faster; and the other where calling Rizzo up before June 23 will make him a free agent after 2017 instead of 2018, as Dave Kaplan reported Wednesday at CSNChicago.com:

While I understand the interest in seeing the Cubs move incumbent starting first baseman Bryan LaHair to left field and starting Rizzo at first base while rebuilding a struggling team it is important to look at the service time rules as it affects free agency and how it will affect Rizzo. A player receives free agency after six full seasons in the major leagues. There are 183 days of service time possible in a big league season and a player is required to have 172 days to count as a full season. Rizzo accumulated 68 days of service time in 2011 which means he needs 104 days this season to achieve a full year in the big leagues. However, if the Cubs keep him in the minor leagues long enough this season he will fall short of a full year by a few days which prevents him from reaching free agency until after the 2018 season. The date that the Cubs should have circled on their calendars is June 23rd because if Rizzo is not on the big league roster before then he will not have enough days left in the season to reach 172 days.

Another suggestion by many awaiting Rizzo's arrival is calling up Rizzo on June 8 when the Cubs begin a 12-game stint of interleague play over 13 days. The Cubs could then play Rizzo at DH or 1B and even experiment with LaHair in LF to put Alfonso Soriano in the DH slot; after those 13 days, they could send Rizzo back to Iowa and wait until the All-Star break to call him up for good.

Sveum himself hinted at this during Sunday's post-game interview and the team president has said that these financial loopholes "will 'not really' be a consideration", Mooney added.

LaHair is having an outlandish season for the Cubs at 1B, but it's so high above all reasonable projections that the wait on LaHair is for him to regress to the mean.

The Cubs are going nowhere so fast, it's safe to say that they're already there this season. And there's nothing wrong with this. The new management team headed by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer came into their jobs with a project that began with shedding bad money and rebuilding the farm system to become perennial contenders and buyers in the MLB market for the best talent -- a status quo that the Cubs can't build while broke and having an awful farm system.

For this reason, prospects around whom the Cubs want to build are expected to produce for the major league club to rebuild long-term hope in the fan base.

Another question for the Cubs to battle with calling up Rizzo is what to do with LaHair and how to manage Soriano's already diminished trade value. Moving LaHair to the outfield and benching Soriano's dead money against right-handed starters is likely the short-term fix, but it may be the best long-term fix.

Trading LaHair now may maximize his trade value to what pundits are speculating could make the Cubs a top-five farm system. Even though LaHair isn't eligible for free agency until 2018 himself and making only $482,500, he's 29-years-old and pre-arbitration eligible after the season, diminishing what could be the value-per-win other teams will perceive in signing LaHair to a longer deal -- one that will effectively buy him out of 2015 arbitration.

Calling up Rizzo for good before the end of July will likely make Rizzo arbitration-eligible in 2014, at the age of 25, under the "Super Two" Rule -- allowing eligibility for the top 22% of players with at least two seasons of MLB experience. But, as Kaplan added, the Cubs will likely want to lock up Rizzo into a contract before he enters his prime to minimize the years he's on the Cubs payroll in his downfall.

"Free agency is one thing to keep an eye on," Kaplan wrote. "But in this case the Cubs are not concerned with his arbitration status and if he plays as well as they hope, they will not have a problem paying him."

Rizzo has greatly improved his hitting against lefties in a couple of Triple-A months and the strikeout-walk ratio that were the biggest knocks on him. The common speculation revolves around him as an active swinger, something further proved in his brief major league stint that can improve.

What's likely to not improve is turning those strikeouts into hits, so the walks need to rise with the percentage of swinging strikes falling. His walk rate is actually lower at 9.04% than his 2010 Double-A rate of 9.6% and 2011 Triple-A rate of 10.6%. It's that his 18.6% strikeout rate is below the 21.4% and 21.5% rates of those two prior seasons.

Gambling on LaHair in LF with Rizzo at 1B for this season and beyond won't be so bad if the Cubs can't get some deal for LaHair that revolutionizes their farm system. Soriano is dead money anyway, as the money is already guaranteed and no one in the foreseeable future will take him, so LaHair at 1B with Soriano in LF against lefties can aid to maximize Rizzo's production.

It's one thing to have had Rizzo on the opening day roster to disregard when he completes his first official MLB season. But for a franchise marred by futility without postseason prospects in 2012 already, just nearing the end of May, why not wait and have more on which to evaluate Rizzo before committing to him?

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