Spring Training: Anthony Rizzo

MESA, Ariz. -- As Ryan Howard, Adam Dunn and numerous other big leaguers can attest, nothing presents a bigger challenge for a left-handed hitter than trying to hang in the box against lefty pitching.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Rizzo
Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsAnthony Rizzo played 160 games for the Cubs in his first full season in the majors last year, but he batted just .233.
Some guys, like Baltimore's Chris Davis, seem to improve with repetition and time. Others, like Howard, find it never really gets better. The Big Piece is making $25 million this year, and his substandard production against lefties has fueled speculation about a possible platoon situation at first base in Philadelphia.

In Anthony Rizzo's first two seasons in Chicago, the Cubs haven't been shy about throwing him out there against the Francisco Lirianos, Madison Bumgarners and Wade Mileys of the world. The numbers were rugged in 2012, when Rizzo hit .208 with a .599 OPS against lefties. His problems continued last season, with a .189 batting average and a .625 OPS.

So it was a positive -- albeit small -- early sign when Rizzo doubled and singled off lefty Tommy Milone in a 6-4 victory over Oakland Tuesday. But he still has a lot of work to do in spring training and beyond with new hitting coach Bill Mueller, who replaced James Rowson in November.

Rizzo made 158 starts at first base last year, and barring a change of plans, the Cubs have no plans to sit him against lefties to protect his numbers or his self-esteem this season. His education on the fly will continue in 2014.

"There's a fine balance in allowing an individual to face the pieces that give him the most trouble," said Cubs manager Rick Renteria. "We think Anthony's opposite-field approach in general should allow him to transition against lefties a little better. He just needs to trust it."
MESA, Ariz. -- Joe Torre, manager of the USA squad in the upcoming World Baseball Classic, believes that players are bound to get a special feeling when they first put on the uniform and embrace the notion that they’re representing their individual countries. Torre received firsthand evidence of that excitement recently when he called Cincinnati second baseman Brandon Phillips to ask him to play for Team USA. Phillips was so overjoyed, he could barely wait to share the news with the world.

“We were about to get off the phone, and he says to me, 'Can I tweet about it?'’’ Torre said earlier this week.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Rizzo
AP Photo/Matt YorkAnthony Rizzo is a big part of the present as well as the future for the Cubs.
Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo is about to experience that same sense of pride, but it will be an ocean and a couple of generations removed.

Rizzo will leave Cubs camp in early March to join Jason Grilli, Chris Denorfia, Nick Punto and others as a member of Team Italy in the third WBC. The Italian squad will compete with teams from the United States, Mexico and Canada in hopes of advancing to the quarterfinal round in Miami on March 12.

Rizzo’s great-grandparents are from Sicily and both his parents are of Italian origin, so he understands the stakes involved in the WBC.

“It’s going to be a good opportunity to throw on that jersey and play on an international level,’’ Rizzo said. “It’s pretty cool. Obviously, there would probably be no other feeling like putting on the USA jersey. But being from an Italian background, it’s just as fun.

“I think it’s going to help me because of the competition I’ll get before Opening Day. It will help with some nerves to be competing at a real level for a few days instead of in spring training.’’

Rizzo lived up to his billing in 2012, hitting 15 homers with an .805 OPS in 87 games after being summoned from Triple-A Iowa. In a typical year, he would have at least received some token Rookie of the Year support. But Rizzo failed to generate a single vote in a crowded field led by Bryce Harper, Wade Miley, Todd Frazier and Wilin Rosario.

This year Cubs manager Dale Sveum has Rizzo slotted into the No. 3 spot in the batting order in front of cleanup man Alfonso Soriano. The Cubs are viewing everything through a long-range prism, and Rizzo is a big part of their future at age 23.

Rizzo's biggest challenge, not surprisingly, will be improving his platoon splits. He hit .318 with an .892 OPS against right-handed pitching in 2012, and .208 with a .599 OPS versus lefties. Welington Castillo, Dioner Navarro and non-roster invite Brent Lillibridge are the three potential first-base backups in camp, so Rizzo can expect lots of at-bats against lefties this season regardless of how he fares against them.

Stability for Jackson

After pitching for Tampa Bay, Detroit, Arizona, the Chicago White Sox, St. Louis and Washington since 2008, pitcher Edwin Jackson is about to enjoy some newfound stability with the Cubs. He signed a four-year, $52 million deal in January.

Jackson said the choice came down to the Cubs and Cleveland Indians, who ultimately decided to invest their money in outfielders Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. In the final summation, Jackson’s contract was the third-highest for a free-agent pitcher this winter behind Zack Greinke’s $147 million deal with the Dodgers and Anibal Sanchez’s $80 million agreement with Detroit.

“It’s always a good feeling to have security,’’ Jackson said. “Once Greinke signed, I knew there would be a snowball effect. I wasn’t really worried. It was just a matter of who, what, where and for how long.’’

Jackson’s major selling point is durability. He has thrown a total of 812 innings since 2009, and is one of 19 pitchers to have averaged 200 innings per year in that span.

The Cubs need all the stability they can get in light of some of their other issues in the rotation. Matt Garza ended last year on the disabled list with an elbow injury and is currently out with a mild lat strain. Free-agent acquisition Scott Baker is returning from Tommy John surgery, and Jeff Samardzija is coming off a career-high 174 2/3 innings pitched. Jackson, in contrast, gives the Cubs a reliable innings-eater every fifth day.

“He’s a guy who’s getting better,’’ Sveum said. “Just look at his numbers. He didn’t pitch a whole lot before pro ball, and he got to the big leagues so quickly he had to learn at the big league level. I think he’s gradually done that. He’s an ultimate professional on and off the field who can help show our young pitchers how to work. That’s huge.’’