How quickly time is able to wash away the sands of failure. If you're burdened with the hardship of being a Chicago Cubs fan in 2012, you'd think Anthony Rizzo, the club's 22-year first baseman who was threatening for the triple crown at Triple-A Iowa, was a prospect of unparalleled heights. And why not. As the Cubs made a habit of losing seven out of every 10 games over the first three months of the season, the North Siders' campaign devolved into a bizarre series of stakeouts. After all, it was better than watching the games.
There was Draft Watch, which led the club to Miami-bred high school outfielder Albert Almora with the No. 6 overall pick. There was Jorge Soler Watch, which also went the Cubs' way when Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer signed the 20-year old Cuban to a nine-year deal. All of it was dwarfed by the hype surrounding Rizzo, which reached deafening pitches as the team's top prospect posted a .342 batting average to go along with 23 homers and 62 RBI in the Pacific Coast League. When Rizzo was finally called to the majors to make his Chicago debut on Tuesday night, it felt impossible not to mock the hoopla with some hackneyed pun. It also felt like something special might be starting.
Not all prospects are created equal, to be sure, but both sides of town have been through this game before. In Chicago, it rarely works out. I remember going to U.S. Cellular Field for Gordon Beckham's first game in the big leagues. The group I was with said things like "we'll tell our grandkids about this some day!"
Do future generations really need to know about a second baseman with a .297 on-base percentage? I would hope not.
Indeed, you could fill an entire baseball diamond with much hyped busts just from our fair city. Off the top of my head:
SP Mark Prior
C Miguel Olivo
1B Hee-Seop Choi
2B Bobby Hill
SS Gordon Beckham
3B Josh Fields
LF Felix Pie
CF Corey Patterson
RF Joe Borchard
A much harder exercise? Filling the diamond with ones who panned out. Chicago: where quarterbacks and the optimistic dreams of young highly-touted baseball players come to die. Someone put that on a billboard.
Rizzo seems different. Maybe he is, maybe he isn't. This baseball season is certainly turning into the Year of the Prospect, with 19-year old outfielder Bryce Harper clowning bros left and right in Washington and 20-year old outfielder Mike Trout immediately becoming one of the American League's most dangerous hitters in Anaheim. Is R-to-the-Izzo next in line?
Potentially, though it almost seems unfair. Harper was considered a once-in-a-generation talent. Trout was a consensus top three prospect heading into the season. Take a look at those same prospect rankings from a few months ago, and you'll quickly realize Rizzo was never predestined for Cooperstown in the way some may like to believe.
Baseball America had Rizzo as the 47th best prospect in the game heading into the season. The official website of the MLB had him at 29. I couldn't find a single publication that ranked Rizzo in the top 20. Are we certain all this hype is fair?
Of course, these rankings are always fluid, and production has a way of changing everything. Rizzo hit just .141 in 49 games last season as a member of the San Diego Padres. After being brought to the the North Side in exchange for flame-throwing pitcher Andrew Cashner this offseason, Rizzo quickly decimated minor league pitching, leaving the PCL as the leader in home runs, OPS, slugging percentage and total bases.
His initial failure in San Diego could certainly be beneficial in the long run. In fact, the Cubs are counting on it. But when you've been living and dying with Chicago baseball for a couple decades, you know how uncertain these things are, no matter how ironclad the minor league statistics would appear.
While Internet snark can be grating, it's important to keep perspective. It's important to laugh. Local TV stations played montages of Rizzo taking batting practice soundtracked by music that would be more appropriate for a lightsaber duel. Local bars spelled out his name on the across the marquee. Fans attended his first big league game in Chicago already wearing his jersey. This is all a little ridiculous, particularly for someone who is barely old enough to legally drink.
Lest you forget that Anthony Rizzo is just a kid, it only took one post game interview. With a mound of reporters circling around his locker, asking questions about his Wrigley debut, Rizzo did exactly what I would have done. He dropped a "Rookie of the Year" reference.
"It was awesome," he said. "My first thoughts coming in here was the sight of that green door opening like 'Rookie of the Year,' the movie. I didn't see that. I got lost coming in. But it was a lot of fun today."
After a debut that included a pair of hits and a game-winning RBI double (it was the fourth inning, but still), there's no reason be cynical. Rizzo just might be the real deal. But it's important to remember that baseball is not professional basketball: one player can't make that big of a difference. Even Barry Bonds during his most juiced up, Ruthian phase couldn't lead the Giants to a championship.
Rizzo is a piece, and the first one that really becomes a referendum on Epstein and Hoyer's regime on the North Side. He appears just as unlikely to become Hee-Seop Choi as Roy Hobbs. The truth lies somewhere in between.