Senior Baseball Columnist

Through adjustments and determination, Rizzo, Alonso on their way to stardom

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Alonso (left) and Rizzo have common backgrounds and seem to be following the same career arc. (US Presswire)  
Alonso (left) and Rizzo have common backgrounds and seem to be following the same career arc. (US Presswire)  

SAN DIEGO -- No quarterback controversy here.

Anthony Rizzo is doing everything the Padres hoped he would do last summer. Only, he's doing it for the Cubs.

Yonder Alonso is doing some of what Rizzo did last year. Learning. A lot. On the job, in San Diego.

Rizzo is the first-generation replacement for former Padres All-Star Adrian Gonzalez. Alonso is the second-generation replacement.

Now Rizzo is the Cubs' hope for the future under first-year Chicago general manager Jed Hoyer, who acquired Rizzo as the Great New Hope for San Diego in the Gonzalez trade with Boston in December 2010.

Then Hoyer left San Diego for Chicago the next winter. Then he traded for Rizzo for a second time in 13 months.

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Got all that?

Rizzo, who will turn 23 on Wednesday, and Alonso, 25, do. They think.

At any rate, as each man blossoms for rebuilding clubs, these two will remain linked to each other by their degrees of separation from Gonzalez for years.

Kevin Bacon would be proud.

Alonso played baseball at the University of Miami. Rizzo is from Fort Lauderdale. They met in South Florida a few years ago, during winter workouts at Miami, and the Cubs' trip to San Diego this week allowed the two first basemen to renew acquaintances.

And guess what?

"This winter in Miami, we're going to hit a little together," Alonso said Tuesday. "He's a good guy. I know his story. It's fun to see him up in the majors and having success."

Rizzo, who batted a lowly .141 with one home run and nine RBI in 49 games for the Padres last year, is hitting .301 with nine home runs and 23 RBI in 34 games for the Cubs this summer. He has become a cult hero, fan favorite, the NL Rookie of the Month for July.

In the Cubs clubhouse, they're already calling him "The Truth."

"Because it's kind of like, 'The Future,' " Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney says. "The Truth.

"He's lived up to that. Now let's see if he can get better and if we can get better, together."

Rizzo became expendable for the Padres when Josh Byrnes, Hoyer's replacement, completed the blockbuster deal last December that sent pitcher Mat Latos to the Reds for Alonso, starter Edinson Volquez, catcher Yasmani Grandal and pitcher Brad Boxberger.

Always, Alonso was going to be traded by the Reds because Joey Votto was going to be their fixture at first base.

So when Alonso came to San Diego in that package, Byrnes moved to re-attach Rizzo to Hoyer on Jan. 6, explaining succinctly that he wanted to avoid a "quarterback controversy" come spring training if Rizzo and Alonso each was still employed by the Swinging Friar, or whomever owned the Padres on that day.

For Rizzo, it freed him from Petco Park, which had swallowed him whole.

"The ballpark could have been a T-ball field and I wouldn't have hit a ball," Rizzo said. "I just wasn't hitting the ball. That was the biggest thing. I was not hitting the fastball, or pretty much anything."

Though he hasn't looked any better for the Cubs in Petco this week (0 for 8 in two games), it wasn't the ballpark so much as Rizzo's swing that doomed him. At Triple-A Tucson, he hit .331 with 26 home runs and 101 RBI. But when he arrived in the bigs, the first thing the Padres noticed was his big, looping swing.

It started up near his ears, where he held his hands, then went backward and down in a half circle loop-di-loo before he brought the bat through the strike zone.

He wasn't going to hit in San Diego, Chicago or in an Iowa Field of Dreams cornfield with that. But given his success in Tucson, the Padres had to allow him the room to fail in the majors before monkeying with his swing.

Because had they immediately changed it, and then Rizzo failed to hit, then what? He could have blamed the club for ruining him, and he would have been right.

So they spoke about it after Rizzo struggled, the kid went home for the winter determined and, whoa.

"He looked like a completely different guy this spring," one veteran AL scout who saw Rizzo last summer in San Diego and then with the Cubs during spring training says. "They talk about how you can't change your arm action and your swing? This guy changed his swing.

"I couldn't believe the difference in the way he looks."

Now, Rizzo is converting new believers every day.

"His hands are lower, and he's taking a better path to the ball," Padres manager Bud Black said. "When he lowered his hands, it created a shorter swing."

"It's been fun to watch," Barney said. "Because he came out and produced early. A situation like his, with the words and the hype around him, it was nice that he got a couple of knocks in his first game and had a big first series."

Alonso's success hasn't been as dizzying as Rizzo's. But he has shown flashes, he works hard, and he's getting it. Hitting .270 with a .340 on-base percentage, six home runs and 40 RBI through 107 games, Alonso also leads all major-league rookies with 31 doubles.

But, like Rizzo, he's far from a finished product.

"Alonso's doing great," Black said. "For a guy with 400 major-league at-bats [499, through Tuesday]. He's still growing. There are some things he and Phil [Plantier, Padres hitting coach] are working on mechanically to help his swing."

Ask Alonso for a self-evaluation, and it's far more negative than it should be.

Has he played up to his own expectations?

"Of course not," he says. "As a player, you get greedy. I feel like I can definitely do more. But at the same time, I'm realistic.

"Hopefully, the game gives you back what you put into it."

Good chance, given how they work, in the end, the game pays both of these guys back.

Hoyer has very publicly taken the blame for rushing Rizzo to the majors last summer, but he's being a little hard on himself. The flip side of that is just as true: Good thing for Rizzo's career he found out so soon that his swing was too long for the majors. It helped expedite his process.

Alonso? Two months left to work on some of those mechanical things with Plantier. Then, he and Rizzo will have plenty to work on together this winter in South Florida. And even more to discuss.

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