As studio analyst on Comcast SportsNet Chicago’s Cubs broadcasts, former Cub and 1996 NL Rookie of the Year Todd Hollandsworth brings a solid perspective to the Cubs and the game of baseball.
“Holly” speaks not only from the perspective of someone who has played the game, but also as a fan of the team; just don’t let that lead you to believe he is a homer. He has both defended and argued decisions made by the team, actions of players and how managers and coaches have improved (or not) the makeup of the younger players coming up through the system.
With the 2014 season almost in the books, and as fans get to see a few more of the Cubs of the future, Cubs Insider spent some time with Todd to get his perspectives on some of the players, Rizzo’s back injury, how the pitching stacks up, when this team will realistically contend, the moves they could make in the off-season and how he grades Ricky Renteria in his first year as manager.
CI: How concerned should we be about Anthony Rizzo’s back problem?
TH: It’s one of those things where somebody who uses his body as much as he does, and what I mean by that is an upper-body guy with great extension.
He’s a big player. Bigger than me, and I dealt with back issues throughout my career. It’s something he will have to monitor, as a bigger guy in our sport who uses his upper body, back and legs so much.
Some of the bigger players generally deal with back injuries, flare ups or slipped discs, so you don’t want it to evolve to that extent. It’s in your best interest, and this is something I learned halfway through my career, that if you have problems with your back, make sure that you keep loose and don’t take too many swings too often, which is something I did. When I retired, I ended up having some back surgery.
The advice that was given to me by doctors was: monitor your swings, don’t get too crazy, no overloading or overworking and to make sure your work is productive work and you’re on top of how many swings you’re taking.
Hopefully it’s nothing major, but it’s definitely something he will have to monitor, even when nothing bad is going on. Even when the back is at 100%, he still has to take care of it.
CI: Who do you think is the leader in this clubhouse?
TH: It’s Anthony. He’s the one guy on this team who I believe has embraced the role of not only the expectations that one maintains for themselves as a player, but he doesn’t look to fit in in this clubhouse. He looks to lead. He’s what I like to call a “filler player,” a guy who foundationally you are going to use in a lot of different ways, and certainly they locked him up for that reason with the long-term extension.
There was a lot of up-front money, and the Cubs will benefit if he continues to grow and produce, but at the same time, I believe they are building around him, with the idea that he is going to be a backbone of this organization. To the younger players coming up, he will show them how to play the game in a particular style–the Cubs way.
I really believe he’s going to be that voice, even when other players come along. Take for example Jorge Soler, who has had an incredible start with the Cubs and has great statistics and lots of power. There may be other guys who will develop more attention for what they do, statistically speaking, but I think when it comes down to three years from now when you need a quote from a guy or someone to stand up for his team, it will be Anthony Rizzo.
Speaking of Soler, has anything about him surprised you so far?
I can’t say that I’m overly surprised, but it was something I was looking for in him and, to me, he answered that question very positively. This is a young man with a great amount of ability and upper-body strength, so I felt like he was going to hit. His minor league numbers showed you that: He made contact a lot and could make things happen.
I also felt like we were going to see great results, and we’re seeing that early. The plate discipline he will learn like everybody else does, so that’s not something to be concerned with.
The one thing that really has surprised me in the early going is how well he has handled the pressure. In his big league debut, he came up facing a lot of attention and certainly high expectations.
I don’t want to use the word rollercoaster, but we had seen some outbursts from him early in his career that led me to believe he’s a high-energy guy who is obviously into the game, and he’s very emotional.
He hasn’t had to deal with any kind of failure yet. That’s what you look for and how he reacts to those situations. I have not seen the moment, spotlight or attention get to him yet on any level, to where he’s doing something like reacting to a strikeout in a bad way during a game. He’s really taking things in stride. He’s matured very well to some of those things we saw from him in the minor leagues.
When will we see Baez’s average start to climb?
Baez’s average will start to climb when he starts to consistently believe in his approach. What I see right now is a young player with a great deal of talent and bat speed. He has a multi-layered swing with individual parts to it which have to be on time; his leg kick, everything has to be hitting on time.
When you look at Anthony Rizzo last year, he felt at times like he had to carry the team on his shoulders and be the power threat, so he hit a lot to right field. This year he opened it up, and you can see how much more productive he has been to the entire field. Anthony has also hit for more power using the all-field approach.
When Baez embraces and trusts that, he will find out that he can hit home runs to right field, he has power to center, and when he stays on the ball, he has a chance stay through the at bat.
The thing that concerns me is that he looks like he is on the cusp of being locked back in and then he reverts back to swinging from his heels again and pulling his head off the ball. He has to maintain that approach.
It is very important for a right-handed hitter facing so many righties to stay through the swing. That doesn’t mean you can’t be a pull hitter. I played with tons of pull hitters who batted from the right side, so it is so important for him to maintain his hand-eye coordination and see the ball through the swing.
Do you think Alcantara can play center on a regular basis?
Of all the young players we have seen, I talk about this young man’s poise. I am so impressed with his game. He has really taken everything that has been thrown his way in stride. I wish his batting average was better, but I am really excited for this kid.
I don’t want to say I’m sticking my neck out because the emphasis doesn’t really weigh in his favor with a .219 average, .280 on base and a little higher slugging percentage. Some would say, “Ah, well he’s going through the hiccups that young players go through,” and maybe that’s true, but what I’ve seen in his body language and how handles himself in tight situations at the plate and in center, I’ve got no doubt this kid can play. I think he’s an answer. I think he’s an everyday answer.
I’m just waiting for him to put out the evidence and make that conversation cool itself. Once the numbers are there, I think everyone will see what I see and that is a very polished, mature, under control player who plays the game the right way.
Before Castro’s injury, we saw yet another one of his lapses in Cincy, when he didn’t run out of the box on a long fly he thought was a homer. We’ve seen these lapses a lot in his young career. When do you see them stopping, and what will make that happen?
There were times I wished I was more like Starlin in that I think he’s a cool customer. He’s a very talented athlete. He has great hand-eye coordination. He’s an All Star shortstop with nothing but upside. He’s 24 years old and he’s got gobs of major league experience because he got to the big leagues so early.
This is the one lesson he really has to grasp.
What Starlin has to figure out is how to show up at 2:00 and make it a full-time effort from 2:00 to 11:00 every day, almost like it’s your job. When he realizes that running out of the box is important and that people are looking at him a little differently because of things he did in the past, so he has to do it better, he will figure this thing out.
The problem Starlin has in Chicago is that there is so much put on him as a young player as somebody who is supposed to be a leader or whatever expectations they are. I’ve always felt that they have been a little unfair to Starlin. And now he’s on a team that is struggling, because they are young. He’s 24 years old, and I don’t dismiss that, but he is more mature than that in baseball years.
He’s got more than 700 games under his belt, and he knows what is expected of him. He just needs to go out there and do it. When he lets go, I firmly believe he will get it together. I just hope it’s in Chicago.
He just has to make it an effort every day to remind himself, “From the moment I get to the park, it’s all business, and I have to bust my hump because I know people are watching.”
Stay tuned in the days ahead for part two of the interview, when Todd talks about contending, the pitching staff and his grade for Ricky.