Cubs

Rizzo, Wright and the weight of being the face of the franchise

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Rizzo, Wright and the weight of being the face of the franchise

Anthony Rizzo was looking forward to Thursdays off-day, the chance to exhale and relax after the 48 hours or so that may have changed his life forever.

If there was anyone at Wrigley Field who understood what Rizzo was going through and what comes next living inside a fishbowl it was New York Mets third baseman David Wright.

Wright watched Rizzos debut in a Cubs uniform on Tuesday night with interest, and came away impressed that he didnt get caught up in the moment.

Hes got a little more hype than me, Wright said Wednesday morning, before driving in five runs during a 17-1 blowout. I dont remember the crowd influencing scoring decisions for me.

Wright was joking about Rizzos first at-bat a ball smashed to short that was initially ruled an error and called it a hit in all fairness. Rizzo went 1-for-4 and on Wednesday and crushed another ball that slammed off the ivy in right-center field for a double.

Its impressive to see a guy stick to a game plan the way he did with all the hype, Wright said. Its easy to kind of get out of your element and try to do too much, but he just (went with) what looked like his strengths.

Wright carried the weight of being the face of the franchise during the Bernie Madoff scandal, and took the high road when Mets owner Fred Wilpon called him a good kid but not a superstar last year in a New Yorker article.

Wright has appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman and been invited to dinner at the White House. He reportedly made millions years ago by taking an ownership stake in VitaminWater. His image has been all over the back pages in New York.

But at the age of 29, Wright seems to have kept his sanity and reputation intact, and keeps on producing, hitting .357 with eight homers and 47 RBI this season. That will be the challenge for Rizzo.

You try to just be the person that you are, Wright said. I try to understand that my responsibility is (as) a baseball player. I dont want to go out there and try to be a celebrity or be in the tabloids. Im a baseball player, first and foremost.

I get a lot of the perks (and) a chance to do what I love doing because of what I do on the baseball field. And Ive never kind of lost sight of that, especially in a market where its easy to go out and get in trouble and kind of lose focus of what you want to accomplish. Ive been fortunate where I had great parents. I come from a very good family. So I think it was instilled in me at a young age.

By all accounts, thats how Rizzo profiles, and Cubs executives should know, since theyve been with him through three different organizations. Rizzo wont get the Sammy Sosa coverage all season long, but he did media interviews before and after Tuesdays game, and before and after Wednesdays game.

Its part of the gig when youre in a big market and youre highly-touted like that, manager Dale Sveum said. Youre going to have that first day. Thats just the way it is, and obviously he handled it very well.

Hopefully he settles in and plays here 15, 20 years.

The Mets took Wright out of Hickory High School in Virginia with the 38th overall pick in the 2001 draft. Their fans have watched him develop into a five-time All-Star whos won two Gold Gloves and two Silver Sluggers.

Wright made his big-league debut on July 21, 2004, in a ballpark thats been demolished (Shea Stadium), against a team that no longer exists (the Montreal Expos).

This organizations kind of groomed me from early on, Wright said. It was a different situation. When I came up, it was a team full of veterans. With Rizzo, its a very young team. I kind of (got) protected and shielded.

Look over, I had Mike Piazza here and Cliff Floyd here and Mike Cameron (there). It never got to the point where I felt like I had to do too much, because when I got called up, I was hitting seventh. I wasnt put in the three hole. There were different circumstances that allowed me to kind of gradually be moved up into the middle of the order.

Rizzo wont have that luxury, though everyone from team president Theo Epstein to general manager Jed Hoyer to Sveum to teammates think hell be able to handle it all.

Rizzos 22 years old, but acts and sounds much older than that. Even going back to spring training, you could tell that he was a little weary of all the attention and just wanted to go to work.

Wright emerged at a time when Derek Jeter already owned New York. Say what you want about the Yankees shortstop, and you can read about it in the gossip pages, but theres no disputing his priorities.

He goes about his business the right way, Wright said. Hell be the first one to tell you that baseball comes first, and then with winning comes all the accolades, and deservedly so. Hes a Hall of Famer and probably one of the best shortstops to ever play the game. So everything that hes done, hes earned.

New York doesnt want those individual performances. They want winners (and) hes obviously right at the top of that list. (Hes) almost the face of winning.

Its nice to be able to come up through New York when I did, because I got a chance to kind of see Derek from afar and (try to) learn from him, the way he carries himself, the way he approaches the game.

So Wright already likes what he sees from Rizzo, and says hell be rooting for the Cubs first baseman from afar, because of what those types of players stand for. This is a next-generation player who didnt ask for flood-the-zone media coverage, but got it anyway. Whatever youve seen out there, know that Rizzo has already taken back one piece of his personal life.

I did have a Twitter (account), Rizzo said, but I shut that down. Too much for me to handle.

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

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USA TODAY

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

MESA, Ariz. — Ben Zobrist has long been known for his versatility on the field. But it might take a new kind of versatility to get through what’s facing him for the 2018 season, being versatile when it comes to simply being on the field.

Zobrist was among several notable Cubs hitters who had a rough go of things at the plate in the follow-up campaign to 2016’s World Series run. He dealt with injuries, including a particularly bothersome one to his wrist, and finished with a career-worst .232/.318/.375 slash line.

And so, with younger guys like Javy Baez, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. forcing their way into Joe Maddon’s lineup, it’s a perfectly valid question to ask: Has the 36-year-old Zobrist — just 15 months removed from being named the World Series MVP — been relegated to part-time status for this championship-contending club?

Obviously that remains to be seen. Joe Maddon has a way of mixing and matching players so often that it makes it seem like this team has at least 12 different “starting” position players. But Zobrist, ever the picture of versatility, seems ready for whatever is coming his way.

“I’m prepared for that, if that’s what it comes to. I told him, whatever they need me to do,” Zobrist said Sunday, asked if he’d be OK with being in a platoon situation. “You’ll see me at some different positions. As far as at-bats, though, I’ve got to be healthy. That was the biggest thing last year that kept me from getting at-bats and being productive. So if I can be healthy, I think I can play the way that I’m capable of, and the discussion then at that point will be, ‘How much can you play before we push you too far?’

“We’ve got a lot of great players, and there are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench on our team at times. But no one ever rusts because you know how Joe uses everybody. You’re still going to play. Even if you don’t start, you’re probably going to play later in the game. It’s just part of the National League and the way Joe Maddon manages.”

It’s no secret, of course, that when Zobrist is on, he’s the kind of player you want in the lineup as much as possible. It was just two seasons ago that he posted a .386 on-base percentage, banged out 31 doubles, smacked 18 home runs and was a starter for the team that won the World Series.

But he also admitted that last year’s injury fights were extremely tough: “Last year was one of the most difficult seasons I’ve ever had as a player.” Zobrist said that while he’s feeling good and ready to go in 2018, with his recent physical ailments and his advancing age, he’s in a different stage in his career.

“At this point in my career, I’m not going to play 158 games or whatever. I’m going to have to manage and figure out how to play great for 130,” he said. “And I think that would be a good thing to shoot for, if I was healthy, is playing 130 games of nine innings would be great. And then you’re talking about postseason, too, when you add the games on top of that, and well, you need to play for the team in the postseason, you’ve got to be ready for that, too.

“From my standpoint, from their standpoint, it’s about managing, managing my performance and my physical body and making sure I can do all that at the highest level, keep it at the highest level I can.”

Maddon’s managerial style means that Zobrist, even if he’s not technically a part of the everyday starting eight, will still get the opportunity to hit on a regular basis, get a chance to play on a regular basis. Baez figures to be locked in as the team’s No. 1 second baseman, but he’ll need days off. Maddon mentioned Sunday that Zobrist, along with Happ, have been practicing at first base in an effort to be able to spell Anthony Rizzo. It’s the crowded outfield where Zobrist could potentially see the most time. He’ll be a piece of that tricky daily puzzle along with Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and the aforementioned Almora and Happ.

Unsurprisingly, in the end that versatility, combined with how Zobrist has recovered physically and whether he can get back to how he’s produced in the past, will determine how much he will play, according to the guy writing out the lineups.

“I think he’s going to dictate that to us based on how he feels,” Maddon said. “Listen, you’re always better off when Ben Zobrist is in your lineup. He’s a little bit older than he had been, obviously, like we all are. I’ve got to be mindful of that, but he’s in great shape. Let’s just see what it looks like. Go out there and play, and we’ll try to figure it out as the season begins to unwind because who knows, he might have an epiphany and turn back the clock a little bit, he looks that good. I want to keep an open mind.

“I want to make sure that he understands we’re going to need him to play a variety of different positions. He’s ready to do it, he’s eager, he’s really ready. He was not pleased with his year last year, took time to reflect upon it and now he’s really been refreshed. So I think you’re going to see the best form of Ben Zobrist right now.”

Two years ago, Zobrist played a big enough role to go to the All-Star Game and get named the MVP of the World Series. In the present, that role might be much, much smaller. But Zobrist said he’s OK with anything, admitting it’s about the number of rings on the fingers and not the number of days in the starting lineup.

“I’m 36 as a player, so I’m just trying to win championships at this point. It’s not really about what I’m trying to accomplish as an individual,” Zobrist said. “Everybody wants to have great seasons, but I’ve told (Maddon), ‘Wherever you need me, I’m ready.’ Just going to prepare to fill the spots that need to be filled and be a great complement to what’s going on.”

Jose Abreu has already begun mentoring Luis Robert

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USA TODAY

Jose Abreu has already begun mentoring Luis Robert

As the White Sox have added young Cuban stars in the making in Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert, Jose Abreu's long-term role on the team has shifted.

The 31-year-old first baseman has been looked at as something of a mentor for the two young Cubans. He seems to be delivering on that so far.

Abreu picked up Moncada from the airport when he first was called up to the White Sox last July. Now he's helping Robert in the batting cage.

The Cuban trio is expected to play a big part of the White Sox future in the coming years. 

Robert has already stated his goal of making it to the majors this year to join Abreu and Moncada, but that may be an overly ambitious goal. Either way, plenty of eyes will be on him throughout 2018 as he marches towards the White Sox roster and his Cuban teammates.