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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.

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.