Cubs want more from Rizzo as a producer, leader
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter February 18, 2014 10:32PM
Updated: February 19, 2014 2:30AM
MESA, Ariz. — Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija still feels bad about Dale Sveum paying for the ugliness of last season with his job. He feels ‘‘responsible’’ for Sveum and most of his coaches losing their jobs.
‘‘That’s the tough part about it, where you have to kind of look at yourself and see what you can do better to prevent that,’’ Samardzija said, ‘‘to stop that situation from happening.’’
But the players most often associated with the manager change were young core hitters Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, who got seven-year contracts within eight months of each other and quickly fell short of expectations last year.
But Rizzo said Tuesday he doesn’t see it the same way as Samardzija.
‘‘No, I just feel it’s sad to see Dale go,’’ he said. ‘‘He’s such a great guy. But you see good players get released and cut and traded every day. So it’s part of the business. It’s kind of a reality check.’’
Rizzo, of course, isn’t on the same kind of hot seat the previous manager and coaching staff endured late last year, not as he opens the second year of that long-term contract.
But he definitely goes into 2014 with something to prove, whether he believes that or not (he said he doesn’t and that the team as a whole has something to prove).
This is the guy Theo Epstein’s front office acquired to be a key, powerful part of the Cubs’ long-term lineup — a character guy said to have leadership qualities. A guy expected — and paid — to help drive this rebuilding process into the promised next level, if not the promised land of a championship.
Privately, Cubs officials and some in the clubhouse had issues with Rizzo that went beyond the hitting slumps and inconsistency during his first full season in the big leagues. Body language, demeanor and perceived urgency at times — things often associated with youth — are among improvements anticipated in what could be an important crossroads season for Rizzo.
General manager Jed Hoyer alluded to those expectations when asked about the non-hitting issues.
‘‘What we talked about with Anthony stays between us,’’ he said. ‘‘In general, you don’t want to take away a player’s personality. You want them to show emotions. But at the same time, you have a responsibility to the team. If you’re not going well, you’ve got to be able to be unflappable and not show your emotions. I think that’s a fine line, but that’s something that’s learned over the year. And it’s not something that every player has right away in the big leagues.’’
One result of the Cubs’ roster-cannibalizing method of stocking the farm system the last two years is a conspicuous lack of veterans with outside credentials or Cubs tenure — something Hoyer says the front office needs to improve.
Until then, ‘‘I totally believe in [Rizzo’s] character, and I believe he’s going to grow up to be a guy that’s leading the young guys,’’ said Hoyer, who traded for him both as a GM in San Diego and then with the Cubs. ‘‘But I think he’ll learn from what happened last year, and I think those things will keep getting better and better with time.’’
In the meantime, Rizzo got to camp early, joining informal workouts, enjoying an occasional game of H-O-R-S-E with teammates on hoops outside the weight room and trying to avoid overthinking.
Was there anything more he could have done last year, maybe even to help the field staff keep their jobs?
‘‘No, I’ll never say that about anything, because I go out and try to bust my tail every day,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s just the team didn’t pull off enough wins . . .”
Regardless of the wins total this year, Rizzo still will be a focal point during what figures to be an important season for him.
‘‘I think every season’s a big season,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s what I’m going to tell you every year. You just want to keep going. You want to keep progressing in this game and start becoming something great.’’