One of the most amazing aspects about Spring Training, is how quickly the opinion of a specific player can change. Late last season, Chicago Cub fans were all a buzz about first base prospect Bryan LaHair as their eyes budged at his very impressive numbers as he played for the Iowa Cubs, as well as his short stint in the majors at the end of the 2011 season. On the tip of everyone’s tongues was how he should have been playing more last year, and how he should be given the nod as the starting first baseman for the 2012 season. As you know, a trade was made for a young first base prospect from the San Diego Padres in Anthony Rizzo. After the deal was made General Manager Jed Hoyer stated that Rizzo would in fact start the year in the minor leagues so he would not be rushed to the major league level and LaHair would start the year as the team’s primary starting first baseman for the 2012 season.
This move upset many fans who were excited to see the young first baseman of the future, especially in a year where there may not be too much to be excited about. Most fans, on the other hand, were happy with the decision for a variety of reasons ranging from not trusting prospects to believing that LaHair deserved this chance based on his performance last year at every stop.
However, with Spring Training being a month old, the two first baseman are headed in vastly different directions which is starting to make fans wonder why the Cubs are being stubborn and cheap, while not doing what is best for the team for the immediate future. Rizzo is lighting up the stat board and opening up eyes with his mammoth home runs while LaHair is struggling just to gather a base hit and is still without a home run of his own. Many fans have changed their mind, and are starting to voice their opinions on how Rizzo should be brought north with the club because he looks like he is ready to show the world what he can do at the major league level.
The reason why Hoyer and Theo Epstein proclaimed that LaHair is the starting first baseman is they feel that LaHair has earned the job based on his performance last year. After all, he was named the Pacific Coast League Most Valuable Player as well as the Joe Bauman Home Run Award (which is given to the player who leads the league in home runs) as well as Baseball America’s Winter Player of the Year. Add in his performance at the big league level at the end of 2012, and you have probable cause to give him the nod going into camp.
Then you have the reasons why they wish to have Rizzo at least start the year in Iowa. As I stated, they do not want to rush him to the majors as Hoyer did with him while with the Padres. They want to make sure that he is absolutely ready before bringing him up to the major leagues. Imagine how shattered his confidence would be if he failed in both stints in the major leagues. But there is likely another reason why they want him to start the year “honing his craft” in the minor leagues, and that has everything to do with money. They want to delay his arbitration years as long as they can, without wasting too much of his youth. So, he will likely start the year in the minors, and depending on how LaHair is doing, will likely not see time with the major league club until at least June.
While I can not say I completely agree with this tactic, I do understand what Epstein and Hoyer are doing. They are all about saving money and capitalizing on cost verse production, so getting an extra year of service time out of the prospects you believe are going to be special falls right in line with everything they do and have done through out their careers. The flaw that I see in the plan, is that Rizzo looks as ready as he can be, and should be in the lead for the job if LaHair had not already been guaranteed the spot on the roster. In any other situation, the battle between two rookies should be going to Rizzo. He has more than earned the right be to named the starting first baseman.
I know I have gone on and on about how you should never look too closely at the statistics or performances in Spring Training, but sometimes that is all you have to go off of. In small sample sizes at the major leagues, Rizzo has failed to impress while LaHair has had moderate success, so the stats they put up in the minor leagues and in Spring Training are all we have to go off of at this stage in their careers. Looking strictly at those statistics, in my mind, Rizzo is in the lead. Hoyer and Epstein should take another look at their plan of attack this coming season and re-evaluate who should make the team out of camp. They should allow Rizzo to grow and learn at the major league level; especially in a year when there is not much more to look forward to. Allow him to learn to hit major league pitching rather than wasting time playing against the inferior pitching of the Pacific Coast League. Bringing him up would also allow him to form a bond with the other young players who are on the team now who will be a part of any potential championship contender like Starlin Castro. There is nothing of any significance blocking his path like there is with Brett Jackson and the Cubs outfield. LaHair should not be the reason why Rizzo gets held down, and neither should the money factor.
What do you think is best for the Cubs for the up coming season and beyond? Do you want the future first baseman starting the year with the club or do you want the player you fell in love with last year?