When the San Diego Padres traded away Adrian Gonzalez during the offseason, there was a pall of sadness cast over Southern California.
Indeed, Gonzalez was perhaps the best player the Padres have had since Tony Gwynn. Not only was Gonzalez a great hitter in San Diego, he was also the only great hitter in San Diego. Consider this: His 31 HR last season accounted for 23.4% of all of the Padres home runs. Will Venable was 2nd on the team with 13. In 2009, he accounted for 28.3% of all his teams home runs and his 162 OPS+ was 60 points higher than 2nd place Chase Headley.
Not since Brian Giles in 2008 has Gonzalez had any real help, and that was 12 HR Brian Giles. Since PETCO Park opened in 2004, Gonzalez has been the only Padre to conquer it's dimensions. He's the only Padre to hit over 30 HR since it opened. Phil Nevin is the only other Padre to top 100 RBI during that time, and that happened way back in the Padres first season in PETCO.
Indeed, in the Padres era of "Extreme Pitchers Park", they've had only one true offensive star. It's a place where hitters go to die, and only a true superstar like Gonzalez could really thrive in sunny San Diego.
So when he was dealt to the Red Sox for four prospects, Padres fans knew that they'd be in for a long and boring ride. Their team was just coming off of a surprising 90-win season that saw them just fall short of the playoffs, and now all the wind had been taken out of their sails. Sure enough they sit six games under .500 and are lead offensively by 1-HR Headley, and "superstar" Chris Denorfia. Will the prospect return on Gonzalez reap any offensive rewards?
The interesting part is that the headliner of that deal was starting pitcher Casey Kelly. You can never have enough pitching, even if you're the Padres, but they would need to strike lightning in a bottle to somehow regain the strength and power that Gonzalez gave them for 5 years. By now, if you follow prospects at all, you'll know that another player that was acquired for Gonzalez is so far shaping up to be a potential replacement for the greatest Padre of the last decade, and he just so happens to be a power-hitting first baseman.
So, does Anthony Rizzo stand a chance of taking the Padres back to the promised land? Let's find out.
Rizzo was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 6th round of the 2007 Major League Draft out of high school in Florida. He was a Florida Atlantic University recruit, but instead decided to sign with Boston for $325,000.
Here is one take on Rizzo at the time of the draft:
Anthony Rizzo 1B Sr. L-L 6-3 220 Stoneman Douglas HS, FL 8-8-89
SCOUTING REPORT: Rizzo hit cleanup in 2006 on a California-based summer team that included Josh Vitters, Nick Noonan and Brett Krill, which tells you something about his hitting ability. Rizzo has easy plus raw power and has shown that he can hit high-velocity pitching with no adjustments to his approach. He’s an agile defensive first baseman and an above-average athlete for his size. Rizzo was getting lots of draft attention late as scouts were learning to appreciate his power and smooth, consistent swing.
Rizzo was a good prospect out of high school and fell to the Sox in the 6th round. The bonus money was above slot, something more often seen in the 3rd round, but no surprise that Boston had the cash to get him into the system right away.
You wouldn't say that Rizzo was a supremely interesting, or off-the-charts talented hitter going into the draft, but you would obviously say that he was a very good prospect. To get drafted in the 6th round out of high school when you've got a firm college commitment (his brother played football at FAU) is high praise for the young hitter.
2007 GCL Red Sox
Rizzo signed in August and then got his feet wet with 6 games in the Gulf Coast League. He hit .286/.375/.429, but it doesn't really matter because it was 6 games. But it did happen, so there you have it.
2008 Single-A Greenville
Rizzo played 21 games for Greenville in 2008 as an 18-year-old. He hit .373/.402/.446, 0 HR, 6 2B in 87 PA's. He was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma in May and missed the rest of the season while undergoing chemo-therapy.
There is not much we can really gather from Rizzo's 2008 season. He wasn't injured, he was diagnosed with cancer and became cancer-free in November of that same year. I am not a doctor and I wouldn't pretend to know how this might affect him in 1, 5, or 10 years down the line. Does it show that maybe he's been through a lot and has gained a lot mentally because of that? It might, but I don't know Rizzo personally. The people that do know him say that he is a player with great character and make-up, so that's something. But we can't try and pretend to know if the cancer treatment would be a part of trying to decipher what kind of a player he is or will be. It's just something that happened, and I'm sure we are all happy that it turned out how it did.
The good news is that in his small sample size he hit the ball very well. Though he was short on power, he was very high on contact and was known to hit the ball to all fields. This could have been the breakout year for Rizzo, but it was delayed.
Rizzo returned to Greenville when in 2009, ready to get back on the horse after his ordeal the previous season.
Here is some of what was said about Rizzo going into the year:
Strengths: Rizzo brings an excellent approach to the plate. He works pitchers while he is at bat, seeing a lot of pitches, and his command of the strike zone is advanced for his age. Rizzo seeks out his pitch and has a smooth, fluid stroke from the left side of the plate, producing hard, solid contact. With little movement as the pitch approaches the plate, Rizzo uncoils from a closed stance and hits through the ball very well, producing a lot of line drives. Standing at 6’3’’ and 230 pounds, his power potential is above average and he projects to have good power to all fields. With excellent bat speed, the ball jumps off Rizzo’s bat when he makes contact. His overall skills at the plate are well advanced for his age and he projects as a middle-of-the-order hitter at the major league level.
He mostly picked up where he left off and hit .298/.365/.494, 9 HR, 42 RBI, 21 2B, 40 R in 274 PA's.
In his limited sample size from 2008, Rizzo had an ISO of just .073, which would make him jealous of Juan Pierre's power. But of course, it was a small sample size. That rose to .196 in his time with Greenville in '09, much better for a first baseman, but still far from elite. He walked 9.5% of the time and struck out 21.8% of the time, both of which could stand to improve somewhat, especially if he was only going to have moderate power. He did very well for himself after missing the previous season, and you could still expect that eventually some of those line drives would turn into home runs.
2009 High-A Salem
Promoted to High-A in the middle of the year, Rizzo got 229 PA's in at the High-A level as a 19-year-old. He hit .295/.371/.420, 3 HR, 24 RBI, 16 2B, 23 R. 10.9% BB's, 17% K's, .125 ISO, 30% LD, 123 OPS+
He saw improvement in a number of key areas, including more walks, less strikeouts, a very high line-drive rate, and being well above league average while being young for the league. He did miss 17 games with injury, but hasn't shown any ill effects from that.
On the downside, Rizzo's power went down with just 3 HR and a .125 ISO. However, this isn't too concerning considering his age and his line-drive rate. Rizzo finished 25th in the league in OPS, and there were 2 other 19-year-olds ranked above him: Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman.
2010 High-A Salem
Perhaps in an effort to extrapolate some more home runs out of Rizzo in the Carolina League, the Sox sent Rizzo back to Salem to start 2010. He hit .248/.333/.479, 5 HR, 20 RBI, 12 2B, 11.9% BB's, 23.7% K's, .231 ISO, 8% LD, 124 OPS+
It's a very interesting turn of events really. It seemed as though Rizzo was turning himself from a "High contact, less power" first baseman in the Sean Casey mold, into a "Sacrifice contact for home runs and power" type first baseman in the traditional mold.
The ISO was a career high, the walks went up as did the strikeouts, while he hit just .248. A definite change-of-pace for Rizzo, and while the contact was less than you would like to see, it was good to see him tap into that large frame of his. The lefty was promoted.
2010 AA Portland
Stat Line: .263/.334/.481, 20 HR, 30 2B, 80 RBI, 7 SB, .216 ISO, 9.7% BB, 21.5% K's, 121 OPS+
His line at Portland over 107 games was somewhat of a hybrid between some of the good and some of the bad that he had done in the previous 1 and a half seasons. Walks went down, but K's went down too. The ISO went down, but he had 50 XBH. He even stole 7 bases out of nowhere.
Portlands park factors are generally pretty average and don't lean too heavily against LHB or RHB. He should have been neither hurt nor helped by his home park really. Overall for a 20-year-old, his numbers were impressive. He ranked 35th in the league in OPS and he was more than a year younger than any player ranked above him. The closest to him in age and production was 22-year-olds Dominic Brown and Brandon Belt. Both of those players got more exposure and credit for their efforts, but Rizzo couldn't be ignored. He was the youngest regular hitter in the league and held his own quite well.
For his efforts, Baseball America ranked him as the 75th best prospect headed into 2011. He was then the 2nd headliner that was sent to San Diego (along with Kelly, Reymond Fuentes, and Eric Patterson) and would need to find a way to mentally cope with going from a member of the Red Sox to being a member of the Padres. (Perhaps the 2nd hardest thing he ever had to overcome.)
2011 AAA Tucson
And so it would be that the greatest Padre of the modern era was gone, and there would be nothing left this season but a giant void at first base. How would the pressure of potentially playing in Boston compare to the pressure of filling the shoes of Adrian Gonzalez in San Diego?
Apparently, if there is pressure, it hasn't hit Rizzo yet in triple-A.
As if you didn't already know, the numbers are more than mind-boggling. (What's more than mind-boggling anyway? Mind-googleplexing? His numbers are googleplexing.)
.365/.444/.715, 16 HR, 63 RBI, 20 2B, 5 SB, 42 R, .350 ISO, 11.6% BB, 20.7% BB, 17% LD, .466wOBA, 185 OPS+
Rizzo is absolutely crushing the ball right now. I can just imagine standing in the batters box as the pitch comes towards him and right now looking about the same size as Barry Bonds' head. Never before has he shown such prodigious power, and while the PCL is the notorious hitters league, Tuscons park factors don't show that.
For LHB, Tucsons home park has a 101 Park Factor (100 being league average)
HR for LHB comes out to a 92 Park Factor. Yet Rizzo has hit 7 HR in Tucson and has a .354 ISO there. Basically this season Rizzo is to Tuscon, as Gonzalez was to PETCO. Could Padres fans get any better news than that? It doesn't mean that Rizzo is going to automatically tear up PETCO park. That just doesn't happen with any regularity. But isn't it a nice surprise that Rizzo seems to have the kind of power tool that plays any where?
Some people might point to Rizzo's .419 BABIP as a sign of much regression left to come. However, is this a big deal? For many players, it would be, but in the case of Rizzo, is it any surprise? Nobody expects him to hit .365 all season long, obviously. He's not a combination of Tony Gwynn and Adrian Gonzalez. But that doesn't mean that him becoming "Anthony Rizzo" is going be a bad thing. The power appears real, but how much of it will translate to the big leagues?
Prognostication on Rizzo as a Major Leaguer
As noted in the beginning of this article, since 2004 when Petco opened, the only real offensive star has been Gonzalez. Others have come, others have tried, they have almost universally failed.
I can't speak as to the park factors to PETCO in its entire history, but here is how they stand in 2011:
Almost across the board you can see how hard it is to hit in San Diego. Especially the long-ball for left-handers. All the more reason that Adrian Gonzalez is an amazing hitter and even as a 3-time All-Star was severely underrated.
Consider the players and prospects that have seen their careers set sail off the California coast, never to be seen again:
Brian Giles - 1.018 OPS in Pittsburgh, .815 OPS in SD
Sean Burroughs - Whether his 3 straight years of being a top 10 prospect were warranted or not, he certainly wasn't helped by seeing his 2nd full season in the majors (after posting a .755 OPS at age 22) go in the dumps in PETCO Park.
Khalil Greene - #13 draft pick and top 60 prospect, Greene had 1 good offensive season in San Diego.
Marcus Giles - Only 29 years old in his 1 season with San Diego, Giles posted across the board career lows and was waived during the season. He has not been back to the majors since.
Not that the Padres have had an amazing pool of talent in the last 7 years, but its undeniable that a lot of talent gets snuffed out by the massive park.
The real question for Padres fans and fantasy owners will be if Rizzo is going to be the all-around great hitter that Gonzalez is, the kind of player that can overcome the dimensions of a field not built to please the guys on offense. And I believe that he will.
If the top 100 prospects were to be re-ordered 2 months into the season, I believe that Rizzo would find his name jump from 75, into the top 20 at least. He's very young for his league, and perhaps the best hitter in the PCL. He doesn't play in a hitter park, but his power numbers have been phenomenal. He won't make as much contact as Adrian Gonzalez, but he may actually possess more raw power. Like Gonzalez, he sprays the balls to all fields, and if you want to succeed in PETCO, you need to be able to hit the ball everywhere.
By adding in the power this season, he's become a generational talent. I believe that Rizzo will fill in admirably for Gonzalez in the short-term, and perhaps be a complete replacement of that production in the long-term. It's a lofty goal, but honestly he's the best young hitter they've had since they originally acquired Gonzalez.
It won't be long before Rizzo is up. With the Padres seemingly out of contention this season, there is no reason for them to rush Rizzo to the majors until the Super Two deadline is clearly passed. This could mean an early July call-up and a half-season in the majors if all goes well.
Editors Note: Much buzz today that Rizzo will be called up much sooner than that.
Don't expect the world from Rizzo in 2011. He's still only 21 and he's made a massive jump in one years time. Many players experience hot streaks that don't necessarily mean anything. Just because I believe that he's turned a corner and tapped into his full potential, doesn't mean he necessarily has. We've all been fooled before. But just like Justin Smoak last season, and hundreds of prospects before him, few players succeed in their initial trial in the big leagues. Not even Adrian Gonzalez.
I predict a regular Rizzo season to somewhat resemble this:
.275/.350/.550, 35 HR, 110 RBI, 90 R, 35 2B, 5-10 SB
This would put him right in Adrian Gonzalez territory, which means he'll be really good, loved by geeks everywhere, and eventually get traded to a top 5 market in exchange for another group of prospects.
Another Editors Note: If Rizzo is called up soon, I would expect him to be a good add in deep and NL-Only leagues. He's a must add in Keeper and Dynasty leagues. And a player to watch closely, with a prospective add if you can, in shallow or regular size leagues. Expect good pop, but perhaps a less than kind average and without many players to drive in or to drive him in.