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Remembering Anthony Rizzo’s Red Sox origins

06.09.11 at 1:43 pm ET
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The opportunity to acquire Adrian Gonzalez was almost too good for the Red Sox to pass up, and the reason for the club’s longstanding crush on the first baseman is now entirely evident. Gonzalez is a classic middle-of-the-order run producer. He’s a player with power and plate discipline who seems destined to put up huge numbers for several years as a member of the Red Sox.

Even so, the Sox were never under any illusions that they’d pulled a fast one on the Padres in sending four players to San Diego to acquire the superstar. The Sox sent three of their top prospects (pitcher Casey Kelly, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and outfielder Reymond Fuentes) along with utility man Eric Patterson to complete the deal, well aware that San Diego might be acquiring three players who can serve as key future contributors.

That future return starts now for the Padres. Rizzo, who slammed a remarkable 25 homers at two levels for the Sox last year, was off to an outrageous start in the Padres system, hitting .365 with a .444 OBP, .715 slugging mark, 1.159 OPS and 16 homers in 52 games for Triple-A Tucson. He has emerged as one of the best power-hitting prospects in the game and the Padres have summoned him to the majors for his big league debut. Rizzo will be unveiled against the Washington Nationals.

The timing comes as a slight surprise. One member of the Sox organization recently hypothesized that the Padres might wait until after they visit Fenway Park later this month before calling up Rizzo so that he would not have to be subjected to the compare-and-contrast game with Gonzalez (an exercise that would not have been unflattering to either — especially given that Rizzo’s performance in Double-A as a 20-year-old bore striking similarity to Gonzalez’ when he was in Portland as a Marlins minor leaguer at the same age).

Even so, that Rizzo is about to make his debut — even in another uniform — offers grounds for tremendous excitement among several members of the Sox organization on multiple levels. First and foremost, the personal relationship between Rizzo and the team that drafted him runs deep — not only with his teammates, but also with the many coaches, instructors, front-office members and scouts who became close to him when he was being treated in 2008 for Hodgkins’ lymphoma.

Yet while the team’s ties to the prospect deepened as he recovered from his illness — in the process, becoming an inspiring picture of strength — the connection with Rizzo started earlier, and helps to explain how it was that the Sox drafted a player who is now one of the top prospects in the game in the sixth round of the 2007 draft, after 203 other players had been selected.

The discovery of Rizzo, in fact, was somewhat accidental. Area scout Laz Gutierrez, like most scouts, had been more interested in Daniel Elorriaga-Matra at Douglas High School, which produced a somewhat incredible three draftees in 2007. Matra would end up being taken in the 26th round by the Braves.

Gutierrez saw both in the summer after their junior years and again in the fall. Rizzo did not jump out as a prospect.

“[Rizzo] was a bit overweight and he was dead pull. So you had him on your follow list … [but] he was towards the bottom,” Gutierrez recalled last summer. “He was just a big, strong guy who could hit the ball a long way, but didn’€™t have an approach, or didn’€™t display the approach that you would think would be conducive to display that power in game situations consistently.

“I came back in the spring to see him play,” he continued. “I was really going there to see the catcher [Matra], see Rizzo, and possibly eliminate him, or to write up an evaluation report and put him at the bottom of my [preference] list. And just, something clicked for me. The body had trimmed down. Suddenly you saw a kid who was attacking the middle of the field, that was displaying patience of a mature player and was waiting for specific pitches. I just fell in love with his game. Later on that week, I visited with the parents and that was my guy. That was the guy I needed to have ‘€“ him and [Yasmani] Grandal.”

Grandal, a prominent catcher, grew up across the street from Gutierrez’ parents. He was taken by the Sox in the 27th round, but he sought a seven-figure bonus in order to pass on his scholarship offer at Miami. Grandal ended up going to college and was drafted in the first round of the 2010 draft.

Rizzo, on the other hand, had a scholarship offer to Florida Atlantic University, but interest in him seemed limited. Once Gutierrez started to spend time with him and his family as part of the makeup evaluation of the player, however, the scout was sold.

“From day one, you have these relationships that just click, not only with Anthony but his family. It was a relationship that went beyond the professional,” said Gutierrez. “I still remember that first visit that spring, his senior year of high school. When I first visited the home, it just felt different. This kid was different for me, and I’€™m not even talking about on the field.”

Yet on the field, the progress in Rizzo’s game was sufficiently striking in his senior year of high school that Gutierrez was puzzled that he hadn’t become a more evident focal point for rival scouts.

“Every time I kept going back to the games, everybody would line up on the first-base side to see the catcher. I was there with a couple other scouts saying, ‘€˜I must be getting deked. Something is going on here,’€™” Gutierrez mused. “The years of hiding out players, you’€™ve got the internet now, you’€™ve got all these showcases, so you know who is who. But, the game now is not allowing the other organizations to know how much you like a player, and you trying to figure out how much they like him. So I said, ‘€˜I must be getting deked, because to me, there’€™s no question who the best player on that field was.’€™”

That, of course, was Rizzo, whom the Sox ended up selecting in the sixth round and then signing for an over-slot bonus of $325,000 — money in line with a slot recommendation for a third-round pick, but by no means a bank-breaker.

The Sox quickly became aware of the fact that they had a relative bargain. That notion became evident not just in a solid debut in the Gulf Coast League, but also when the team sent Rizzo as part of a group of Sox prospects to the team’s Dominican Academy in the offseason.

“A hurricane had just hit, and he took boxes and boxes of water to help out down there without anyone telling him anything,” recalled Gutierrez. “It goes to show you what kind of kid he is, what kind of family he comes from.”

Rizzo’s exceptional makeup was again apparent the following year, when he approached his cancer treatments with maturity and determination that belied the fact that he was 18 years old. Then, when he returned to the field for the 2009 season, his career took off as he emerged as one of the game’s better power hitting prospects, despite the lost year of development.

And now at 22, Rizzo’s career will move forward at the highest level. A player who was once overlooked by scouts in favor of his high school teammates is now very much in the spotlight. Even though he is no longer with the Sox, it is a moment of great excitement for those in the organization with whom Rizzo came into contact both while being scouted and then as he advanced through the minors.

“The sky’€™s the limit for him,” Gutierrez said last summer. “To see him succeed, and to see what he’€™s been through, the way he handled the illness, going through that, you can’€™t have anything but respect for a person who goes through that. He’€™s going to be a great example for people who battle with illness and cancer. He’€™s going to do great things on the field and off the field.”

Read More: adrian gonzalez, Anthony Rizzo, laz gutierrez, mlb draft
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