Cubs could open the season without first baseman Anthony Rizzo

A lingering back injury could keep Anthony Rizzo out of the Cubs lineup.

What would the start of another season of Cubs baseball be without our first baseman battling a back injury? It seems like an annual rite of passage for Anthony Rizzo, who usually bounces back and puts up his usual numbers with a strong second half.

Even though Opening Day is in late July this year, rather than late March, it’s more of the same for the three-time All-Star in 2020. Despite arriving to Summer Camp down 20+ pounds after a quarantine-fueled weight loss journey, Rizzo is on the shelf with rib head inflammation that’s causing lower back spasms.

“We’re kind of just getting this calmed down and I’ll get back out there as fast as I can,” Rizzo told MLB.com. “I’ve managed through a lot, but we’re going to take it day to day. I’d rather miss a couple games early, if necessary, than a big chunk.”

Of course, last year, we saw full well what Rizzo was capable of in playing through an injury. With his team’s postseason hopes hanging by a thread, he suited up just four days after sustaining what was widely believed to be a season-ending ankle injury, homering in his first game back and going on an absolute tear as he desperately worked to will his team to October.

But this is different. It’s not crunch time – at least not in the same way. It was do-or-die for Chicago at that point. The Cubs have enough firepower, at least in the short-term, to overcome Rizzo’s absence to start the 2020 campaign. I’m with Rizzo – I’d rather he miss a handful of games here early than risk this being a constant issue over the next two months.

There’s no questioning what the offense will lose without him in the lineup, though. We’re talking about one of the team’s top on-base and power threats and the Cubs’ projected 1-2 punch atop the order would take a major hit.

Last season, Rizzo put up a .406 OBP across 147 games, eclipsing 150 hits for the sixth consecutive season. Although he fell short of his usual 30-100 marks, he remained an integral part of the team’s offensive plan, right down to the final days of the season.

But supposing the Cubs play it safe and send Rizzo to the IL, we need to consider what the Cubs lineup will look like in his absence. Victor Caratini and Kris Bryant are the two most likely fill-ins at first base – and depending on which one fills the role, the rest of the order could take on some different looks.

“A lot of these players are used to playing multiple positions and moving around,” Ross said. “We’ve got options all over the place for matchup purposes if we need to move some guys around, if Rizzo is not available to play.”

If it’s Bryant who slides over to first, I suspect we’ll see plenty of David Bote at third base, leaving second to Nico Hoerner and Jason Kipnis. In the interim, that’s not a bad mix. I like Bote a lot and would love to see him be more than a role player for new manager David Ross.

But if Caratini, who put up an impressive .266/.348/.447 line last season, plays first to open the year, then really the only impact will be behind the dish. If we’re thinking Rizzo might miss a week, then I suspect the changes we see are minimal, with Willson Contreras doing his thing behind the dish along with Josh Phegley.

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Right now, it’s a wait-and-see approach. But we’re eight days from the Cubs’ season opener – and all eyes are on their unofficial captain as he works to overcome his back woes.