Anthony Rizzo has had more defining moments in 21 years than most people experience in a lifetime. In addition to being a talented first-base prospect for the Padres, Rizzo is also a cancer survivor.
Rizzo, a strapping, athletic 6-foot-3, 220-pound 21-year-old left-handed hitter graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. He played high school baseball for four years, hitting .468 with 40 RBI and 11 homers in his senior year. Rizzo had his eye on attending Florida Atlantic University, but that didn't happen. Instead, Rizzo was selected as the 204th player in the sixth round of the 2007 draft. As a prototypical first-base candidate, Rizzo had become a member of the Red Sox's organization. He started his career with 21 at-bats for the Gulf Coast League Red Sox at the end of the 2007 season. His career was off and running.
Rizzo began the 2008 season at Low-A Greenville. He had 31 hits in 83 at-bats and had 11 RBI as the season progressed into May. Then Rizzo's life was altered. After he began to feel sluggish and lethargic, he underwent tests to determine why he was feeling the change in his physical condition. At 18 years old and at the beginning of his professional baseball career, Rizzo was diagnosed with Limited Stage Classical Hodgkins Lymphoma. In May 2008 , Rizzo's career was put on hold.
Rizzo entered a program of chemotherapy that took him to a Miami hospital for treatment every other Tuesday. He has spoken of the nausea he felt even on the way to the chemotherapy sessions he hoped would kill the cancer cells in his lymph nodes. At the time of his treatment program, his grandmother was engaged in her own fight with breast cancer. While she ultimately lost the battle, before she passed away she had learned and was aware that her grandson was declared in remission. Rizzo was cleared once again to continue his career.
Not every person would be able to pick up a baseball career after everything was placed on hold for such a traumatic and critical fight, but Rizzo regained his strength and resumed his career determined and very ready to become a big league baseball player.
In his minor league career from 2007 until the beginning of May 2011,
Rizzo had 1,080 at-bats in 282 games. He slugged 28 home runs, drove in 180 runs and stole 14 bases. He had a composite .284 batting average and a line of .334/.469/.823.
This season at Triple-A Tucson in the Pacific Coast League, Rizzo is having tremendous success. He is hitting .398 with eight home runs, 36 RBI with four stolen bases. His OPS is a whopping 1.185. But let's take a look at what happened just before this season began.
In December 2010, Rizzo's life took another quick turn. It was another defining moment for Rizzo to face. The Padres recognized their organization would have difficulty signing star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to a contract extension. As a small market club, the Padres realized their financial limitations and decided it was better to trade Gonzalez than allow him to leave the club as a free agent without gaining any compensation. The club made an organization changing deal with the Red Sox. San Diego would receive three top Boston prospects that could help speed the renewal project of the franchise. Pitcher Casey Kelly, outfielder Reymond Fuentes and the 2010 Red Sox Organization Player of The Year (Rizzo) were traded to the Padres. All three were defined in the media and by scouts as "legitimate" major league prospects.
With one stroke of a pen authorizing a trade across the country and from one league to the other, Rizzo's baseball life had been kicked into a higher gear. He landed with a franchise that demonstrated a need for a power hitting first baseman. Sometime in the near future, Rizzo should make the big league club. His opportunity may come sooner than later. Rizzo can hit, and hit with power. This time, fate had dealt Rizzo a kinder hand. Had he not been included in the Gonzalez trade, Rizzo would be stuck as a "caddy" to one of the finest hitters in baseball. Gonzalez would be in Boston and Rizzo may have had to linger at Triple-A for awhile.
In this column just two seasons ago, I wrote of another Padres first-base prospect. Kyle Blanks is a big, strong first baseman that the Padres once placed on the fast track to the big leagues. However, Blanks is still recovering from Tommy John surgery and working his way back at Double-A. Blanks flashed power in the minor leagues and came to San Diego a bit out of his normal position. He played in San Diego as an outfielder because Adrian Gonzalez was playing first base at the time. But the Padres needed Blanks' bat. Looking forward, it is possible that Blanks and Rizzo can be in the same everyday lineup with Blanks in the outfield and Rizzo at first, with both players likely to improve the Padres' anemic offense.
Rizzo is a strong, well- coordinated hitter with a selective eye at the plate. His ability to hit for average and for power makes him a prime prospect for San Diego. While many Padres power hitters struggle in Petco Park, Rizzo's ability to spray the ball to the gaps may be a tremendous asset for his team. With all of the room in the outfield gaps, Rizzo's hitting style may be more ideally suited to San Diego than it would have been to Boston anyway.
Currently, the Padres are staffed at first base by Jorge Cantu (.187, two homers) and Brad Hawpe (.165, no homers). Neither is making Padres fans forget Gonzalez and both have seen better days in their careers. The presence of Cantu and Hawpe make a tandem of Blanks and Rizzo much more plausible. A late May or June arrival date for Rizzo would provide another year of club control before Rizzo becomes eligible for arbitration. It makes sense for San Diego to wait a bit before starting Rizzo's major league clock.
Scouts feel Rizzo can be an efficient and effective line-drive hitter that will use the entire field. He won't be strictly a pull hitter. Like many strong, young hitters, his power should continue to develop. At times, Rizzo's swing is long and uncontrolled. High velocity pitches up in the zone have been known to give him some trouble. That's just a matter of adjusting and getting sufficient repetitions against quality pitching. Breaking balls that tail away from his strength could also spell some trouble until Rizzo gains enough experience to lay off those pitches. Strikeouts may mount initially in the major leagues, but I am confident he will adjust and become the contact hitter he showed in every classification of minor league baseball. With an athletic upper body, Rizzo will be able to "muscle" some difficult pitches just from his pure strength alone.
Rizzo has skills beyond his ability to hit for average and power. He's a smart base runner with a quick first step that will allow him to steal a few bases each season. He won't be called a "base clogger" like some other strong and big-bodied first basemen. He has the ability to go from first to third because of his quickness.
On a team like the Padres that will continue to rely on pitching, solid defense is required. Defensively, Rizzo plays average to above average first base with quick, sure hands. As expected because of his quick feet, Rizzo has good range to both sides. His arm is very strong and accurate. Playing Rizzo at first base will enhance the overall approach of the Padres.
In some circles, Rizzo has been compared recently to Freddie Freeman of the Braves. The comparisons make sense, Rizzo and Freeman are one month apart in age with Freeman being a month younger. If Rizzo would not have lost the year to his health issues, he may be at the same stage in his career as Freeman. However, Rizzo's year in Triple-A is making up for the lost time. He's closing the gap on Freeman every day. Both Freeman and Rizzo are solid line-drive hitting first basemen. They both will continue to develop power as they age and gain more experience against quality pitching. Both Rizzo and Freeman are really Mark Grace type hitters. They will use the entire field and keep getting better as they get older.
Having experienced personal health challenges in his career, Rizzo is prepared for challenges and setbacks that may be waiting in the future. He is mature and settled, and Rizzo has a reputation as an excellent teammate. He hustles, he cares and he delivers.
At this point, it looks like the trade to the Padres will give Rizzo a great opportunity to play Major League Baseball as soon as this season. Once he arrives, he'll show that he belongs. He'll fight to make every at-bat count and he'll use the entire field wherever he is playing. It is true that the Pacific Coast League is a hitter's paradise. However, hitters still have to put the bat on the ball with appropriate loft and/or find the gaps to succeed, even in paradise. To date this season, Rizzo is doing just that. I like Rizzo's chances of making an impact for the Padres at the major league level. His opportunity is on the way.
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Bernie Pleskoff is a former pro scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. He is a graduate of the Major League Scouting Bureau's Scout School in Phoenix.