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Rizzo riding strong finish into new season

Mariners eyeing May return from surgery for top prospect Lewis
Joe Rizzo played 110 games last season with Clinton before moving up to Modesto. (Paul R. Gierhart/
March 22, 2018

PEORIA, Arizona -- For a teenager playing in his first full professional season, Joe Rizzo acquitted himself well in 2017. Then came an unexpected run through the playoffs and a moment in the spotlight.Seattle's No. 6 prospect was promoted from Class A Clinton to Class A Advanced Modesto with just

PEORIA, Arizona -- For a teenager playing in his first full professional season, Joe Rizzo acquitted himself well in 2017. Then came an unexpected run through the playoffs and a moment in the spotlight.
Seattle's No. 6 prospect was promoted from Class A Clinton to Class A Advanced Modesto with just a few days remaining in the regular season and became an unlikely hero in the Nuts' California League championship quest.

"It was exciting," Rizzo said Thursday. "Not being there for the whole season and then coming in the last couple games -- I think I was there for a series plus a game -- and then being able to turn around and go into the championship with everyone and play well as a unit, it was an exciting run."
In 110 games with the LumberKings, Rizzo batted .254/.354/.346 with seven homers and 50 RBIs as a 19-year-old in the Midwest League. At the end of the season, the third baseman headed up to join a Nuts squad ticketed for the playoffs after snaring a California League North Division first-half title. Joining a team in the pursuit of a ring didn't throw him off.
"It wasn't any different because we've been playing in meaningful games forever," he said. "Yeah, the stakes were higher and everyone's adrenaline was pumping, but I wouldn't say that we changed too much."
After going 4-for-20 in the five regular-season games he played for Modesto, Rizzo went 1-for-6 in two North Division semifinal outings. Then in the Cal League Finals, something clicked. 
"It was just exciting to be up there, and I think it was just the positivity and being excited to go out and play baseball every day," he said. "I think that's what got me going those last couple games."
Rizzo led the charge in Modesto's three-game sweep of Lancaster, a team that topped the South Division in both halves and sported the circuit's best overall record in 2017. The third baseman went 7-for-13 in the Finals, homering once, doubling twice, driving in four and posting an overall line of .538/.571/.923. The flourish earned him series Most Valuable Player honors and sent him and his teammates into the offseason in style.
"It was really good, especially coming into this year," Rizzo said. "It was tough being in Clinton. We weren't the best team we could be. I mean, we had a lot of talent. We were a very good team, but we just didn't play every game as we could have. Going up and being able to play in that championship and end up winning it really helped us coming into this year with a lot of positivity and feeling good."
There are questions about his defensive future. Listed at 5-foot-9 and 194 pounds, Rizzo doesn't showcase the type of athleticism that would move him off of third base. He still needs to demonstrate the plus hit tool that made him a second-rounder. But he won't be 20 until March 31, and with time and work on his side, Rizzo and his organization are excited about his future.
"I'd say the biggest thing I worked on was definitely my feet and my hands, getting those together on defense," he said. "It was one of the things I tried to really put together this offseason."
"It was a big leap for him last year," said Mariners director of player development Andy McKay. "He held his own in the Midwest League and then he goes up and played great in the Cal League, obviously the MVP in the playoffs, wins a ring and all those things. He showed up to camp. He was here for six weeks in the offseason. He's really learned how to take care of his body. He's maturing as a person.
"I've never really thought about where he ends up. I'm more concerned with how we do in today's intrasquad games," McKay added with a chuckle. "You kind of let that play out however it's going to play out. He'll play third base for us in Modesto, and we're all excited for him."

Rizzo, who has been rooming with Seattle's 2017 first-round pick Evan White this spring, will begin the year at the site of last year's terrific finish with some ideas of where he wants to end up in the new campaign.
"I have a bunch of stuff that I keep in my digital book, but other than that, it's not really like 'I have to do this,'" he said. "I'm not setting goals that I can't reach. It's stuff that's attainable. I don't just have a set one, and then once I reach it, I'm done with it. If it's -- and I'm just throwing this out there -- if it's 10 home runs, let's say you get there in the first half, then you can change that. It's always flexible."
McKay and the Mariners are happy to let Rizzo be himself for a while and excited about the promise that brings.
"Whether you're just watching with your own eyes or listening with your ears or playing data off of Trackman, the ball comes off his bat," McKay said. "Now it's just a matter of controlling the zone, swinging at good pitches, and when you get those pitches, getting them in the air. From my history as a junior college coach, I always look at those high school kids and think, I've coached this guy many times as a sophomore in junior college. You understand how, between a young Latin player to a high-school signing to a college junior to a college senior, obviously the younger it is, the more growth you're going to see.
"There's a lot of development left in Joe Rizzo."

Lewis on track for May debut

Top Mariners prospect Kyle Lewis hasn't experienced a whole lot of good luck in his career yet, but the organization feels he's on the right path.
Lewis underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in early February, the latest setback in a series of issues that have hampered him since he was taken with the 11th overall pick in 2016. The procedure cleaned up an area around his patella and removed a piece of bone causing irritation in the knee.
"As we sit here right now, we feel like we've probably got it in the best place it's been since the collision at home plate," McKay said. "Right now the trajectory is probably May 1 that he'll be ready to get out of extended and go play."
The collision occurred a month into Lewis' debut season. The outfielder tore his ACL, MCL and lateral meniscus in a play at the plate on July 19 with Class A Short Season Everett and hasn't been fully healthy since. After not getting on the field at all until last June, Lewis then aggravated the injury by running into the wall in pursuit of a catch his first game back with Class A Advanced Modesto. He returned in July and put up a .260/.325/.411 line in the next 36 games. In an attempt to make up some missed time, the Mariners sent Lewis to the Arizona Fall League, but had to shut him down after two games when the knee flared up again. Still, Seattle sees some light.
"The one thing that's been interesting with this whole scenario over the last year-and-a-half is he missed a complete year, walked into the Cal League, and on most nights, was the best player in the field," McKay said. "Then we had to shut it down again because of the injury, walked out into the Arizona Fall League and you thought he'd been playing all year long. Granted it was two or three games, but the one thing that's really helped throughout this process, not only for him but for us, is that when he gets on the field, he's really good. You're not having to wonder, OK, what's it going to be like when he shows up."

Tyler Maun is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter @TylerMaun.