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Rizzo, Vitters have something to prove with Cubs

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Rizzo, Vitters have something to prove with Cubs

MESA, Ariz. Anthony Rizzo and Josh Vitters were born 19 days apart in August of 1989, one in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the other in Anaheim, Calif.

The Cubs have put Rizzo front and center as they build for the future, while no one seems to be quite sure what to make of Vitters. As teenagers, they were teammates on the ABD Bulldogs at select national tournaments.

That they could go to high schools more than 2,600 miles away from each other and wind up playing on the same travel team speaks to the baseball-industrial complex in this country.

Baseball America loved Vitters before the 2007 draft, rating him as the best pure hitter among high school players, but theres nowhere near as much buzz around him right now. Perceptions began to change once the Cubs made him the third overall pick.

Its a business, and Rizzo knows that after being traded from the Boston Red Sox in the Adrian Gonzalez deal. The San Diego Padres flipped Rizzo again over the winter. The new executives in power at Clark and Addison Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod were involved in both deals.

Its definitely comforting, but this is a game of numbers, Rizzo said. You have to produce, so you can never get too comfortable in any job. You guys (in the media) cant get too comfortable. Neither can we. (But) it definitely feels good knowing they believe in you.

The Cubs looked beyond Rizzos 46 strikeouts in 128 at-bats last season with San Diego Hoyer admitted it was a mistake to rush the first baseman and project him as an anchor in their lineup and clubhouse (after beginning this year at Triple-A Iowa).

Vitters is a player inherited by Epsteins inner circle, and he wont be replacing Aramis Ramirez at third base. Thats where Vitters is most comfortable, but there have been questions about his defense.

The Cubs now have Ian Stewart under club control through the end of the 2014 season. Vitters played some right field in the Arizona Fall League and has taken some ground balls at first base during camp.

Vitters hit .283 with 14 homers and 81 RBIs in 129 games at Double-A Tennessee last year. With a new front office in place, a laid-back SoCal guy feels a sense of urgency.

Oh, yeah, absolutely, Id be lying if I said that I didnt, Vitters said. I feel like everybody really does to some extent. Yeah, I got something to prove. Me, Brett (Jackson), Rizzo, (Matt) Szczur all of us are out here just trying to work hard and show these new guys what were made of and that we can actually handle the big-league level.

People around the Cubs say Vitters has matured, and have reminded you that the 22-year-old would be the next big thing if he had gone somewhere like UCLA instead of turning pro right out of high school.

Vitters who spent almost his entire offseason around the Cubs complex in Arizona is patient with the same questions that follow him everywhere. He doesnt have to believe the hype.

At this point, its just a matter of making the team or not, Vitters said. I feel like the prospect lists are cool for the fans. Thats what theyre for the fans. Theyre not really for any other purpose. Its just about us young guys coming out here, getting a good opportunity and trying to capitalize.

Newer is always better for those lists. Whoevers the new, hot prospect (gets to) the top. It could be true. It may not be true. But its just whoevers hot at the time.

Rizz as Vitters calls him is the guy now. Almost eight weeks ago, they were together at Major League Baseballs rookie development program near Washington, D.C. Now theyll be trying to race to the top together.

The day before he got traded, Vitters recalled, I was telling him how cool it would be if he got traded to the Cubs. And (then) it actually happened. Its awesome.

One MLB executive thinks Kyle Schwarber can emerge as Cubs' best hitter in 2018

One MLB executive thinks Kyle Schwarber can emerge as Cubs' best hitter in 2018

When the 2017 season ended, Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber looked in the mirror and didn't like what he saw.

He was stocky, slower than he wanted to be and he had just finished a very difficult season that saw him spend time back in the minor leagues at Triple-A after he struggled mightily through the first three months of the season.

Schwarber still put up solid power numbers despite his overall struggles. He slammed 30 home runs, putting him among the Top 15 hitters in the National League and among the Top 35 in all of baseball. But, Schwarber was honest with himself. He knew he could achieve so much more if he was in better shape and improved his mobility, his overall approach at the plate and his defense.

Schwarber was drafted by the Cubs out of Indiana University as a catcher. However, many scouts around baseball had serious doubts about his ability to catch at the big league level. The Cubs were in love with Schwarber the person and Schwarber the overall hitter and felt they would give him a chance to prove he could catch for them. If he couldn't, then they believed he could play left field adequately enough to keep his powerful bat in the lineup.

However, a serious knee injury early in the 2016 season knocked Schwarber out of action for six months and his return to the Cubs in time to assist in their World Series run raised expectations for a tremendous 2017 season. In fact, the expectations for Schwarber were wildly unrealistic when the team broke camp last spring. Manager Joe Maddon had Schwarber in the everyday lineup batting leadoff and playing left field.

But Schwarber's offseason after the World Series consisted of more rehab on his still-healing injured left knee. That kept him from working on his outfield play, his approach at the plate and his overall baseball training. 

Add in all of the opportunities and commitments that come with winning a World Series and it doesn't take much detective work to understand why Schwarber struggled so much when the 2017 season began. This offseason, though, has been radically different. A season-ending meeting with Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer led to a decision to take weight off of Schwarber's frame. It also included a decision to change his training program so that he improved his quickness, lateral movement and his overall baseball skills.

"I took two weeks off after the season ended and then I went to work," Schwarber said. "We put a plan together to take weight off and to improve my quickness. I have my meals delivered and I feel great. My baseball work combined with a lot of strength and conditioning has me in the best shape that I have ever been in."

Schwarber disagrees with the pundits who felt manager Maddon's decision to put him in the leadoff spot in the Cubs' loaded lineup contributed to his struggles.

"I have no problem hitting wherever Joe wants to put me," Schwarber said. "I didn't feel any more pressure because I was batting leadoff. I just needed to get back to training for a baseball season as opposed to rehabbing from my knee injury. I'm probably 20-25 pounds lighter and I'm ready to get back to Arizona with the boys and to get ready for the season."

Many around the game were shocked when the Cubs drafted Schwarber with the No. 4 overall selection in the 2014 MLB Draft, but a rival executive who was not surprised by the pick believes that Schwarber can indeed return to the form that made him such a feared hitter during his rookie season as well as his excellent postseason resume.

"Everyone who doubted this kid may end up way off on their evaluation because he is a great hitter and now that he is almost two years removed from his knee injury," the executive said. "He knows what playing at the major-league level is all about I expect him to be a real force in the Cubs lineup.

"Theo and Jed do not want to trade this kid and they are going to give him every opportunity to succeed. I think he has a chance to be as good a hitter as they have in their order."

Watch the full 1-on-1 interview with Kyle Schwarber Sunday night on NBC Sports Chicago.

The low-key move that may pay dividends for Cubs in 2018 and beyond

The low-key move that may pay dividends for Cubs in 2018 and beyond

The Cubs-Cardinals rivalry is alive and well and this offseason has been further proof of that.

The St. Louis Cardinals haven't made a rivalry-altering move like inking Jake Arrieta to a megadeal, but they have proven that they are absolutely coming after the Cubs and the top of the division.

However, a move the St. Louis brass made Friday afternoon may actually be one that makes Cubs fans cheer.

The Cardinals traded outfielder Randal Grichuk to the Toronto Blue Jays Friday in exhange for a pair of right-handed pitchers: Dominic Leone and Conner Greene. Leone is the main draw here as a 26-year-old reliever who posted a 2.56 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 10.4 K/9 in 70.1 innings last year in Toronto.

But this is the second young position player the Cardinals have traded to Toronto this offseason and Grichuk is a notorious Cub Killer.

Grichuk struggled overall in 2017, posting a second straight year of empty power and not much else. But he once again hammered the Cubs to the tune of a .356 batting average and 1.240 OPS. 

He hit six homers and drove in 12 runs in just 14 games (11 starts) against Joe Maddon's squad. That's 27 percent of his 2017 homers and 20 percent of his season RBI numbers coming against just one team.

And it wasn't just one year that was an aberration. In his career, Grichuk has a .296/.335/.638 slash line against the Cubs, good for a .974 OPS. He's hit 11 homers and driven in 33 runs in 37 games, the highest ouput in either category against any opponent.

Even if Leone builds off his solid 2017 and pitches some big innings against the Cubs over the next couple seasons, it will be a sigh of relief for the Chicago pitching staff knowing they won't have to face the threat of Grichuk 18+ times a year.

Plus, getting a reliever and a low-level starting pitching prospect back for a guy (Grichuk) who was borderline untouchable a couple winters ago isn't exactly great value. The same can be said for the Cardinals' trade of Aledmys Diaz to Toronto on Dec. 1 for essentially nothing.

A year ago, St. Louis was heading into the season feeling confident about Diaz, who finished fifth in the NL Rookie of the Year race in 2016 after hitting .300 with an .879 OPS as a 25-year-old rookie. He wound up finishing 2017 in the minors after struggling badly to start the season and the Cardinals clearly didn't want to wait out his growing pains.

The two trades with Toronto limits the Cardinals' depth (as of right now) and leaves very few proven options behind shortstop Paul DeJong and outfielder Tommy Pham, who both enjoyed breakout seasons in 2017.