Cubs

Anthony Rizzo pumped up to play for Italy, make name with Cubs

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Anthony Rizzo pumped up to play for Italy, make name with Cubs

This time last year, even the Cubs executives who knew Anthony Rizzo better than anyone else couldn't be certain that they were getting a core player for the next decade.

Rizzo doesn't have to worry about getting traded anytime soon. He won't be going to spring training to try to win a job. Who knows what the Cubs would do without him now? He's supposed to be a leader in the clubhouse, but will leave camp because he felt he couldn't pass up this chance.

Rizzo - whose great-grandfather is from Sicily - spoke with the front office and manager Dale Sveum and got their blessing to play for Italy in the World Baseball Classic.

"They're fully supportive," Rizzo said Wednesday. "People say: 'Oh, the risk factor of getting injured.' But it's just like spring training. I play every game as hard as I can, so it's not different from that standpoint. Obviously, I would love to play for USA. That was my first choice, but they got all the 'monsters.'

"Italy's a great opportunity. I come from a very strong Italian background and to represent (the) whole country is a pretty cool experience."

Rizzo said his teammates will include Jason Grilli, Nick Punto and Chris Denorfia. He's also looking forward to working with Mike Piazza, Italy's hitting coach. Provisional rosters for the World Baseball Classic will be unveiled on Thursday.

The Cubs see a major difference between a position player participating in the event and a pitcher being thrown into a competitive situation that early in camp. Rizzo also felt better about his decision knowing that Italy will play its games - versus Mexico, Canada and Team USA (March 7-9) - in the Phoenix area, not far from the Cubs complex.

"It certainly is something he's taken pride in and we support the WBC as a whole," team president Theo Epstein said. "Now if he pulls a miracle and is gone all month, that might be another story.

"I have a lot of faith in him, but they have a tough group."

Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and scoutingplayer development chief Jason McLeod have a lot invested in their first baseman, the prospect they once drafted for the Boston Red Sox and packaged in the Adrian Gonzalez deal with the San Diego Padres.

Rizzo has accepted the responsibilities that come with being a leader. He has been patient with the media and stuck to the talking points. He didn't let the big-market hype overwhelm him. But he doesn't want to see himself as the face of the franchise.

"I don't look at it like that," Rizzo said. "I have to go out there and produce, and it's got to be that tunnel vision mentality until I actually really do make a name for myself.

"I've done a little bit, but Alfonso Soriano's made a name. He's done it every single year. The superstars in the game have done it. I'm just coming up and I want to continue to work hard every day, (be) myself and just let it go from there."

The Cubs are eager to measure The Rizzo Effect - how his 15 homers and 48 RBI in 87 games last year will translate across an entire season. He wants to win a Gold Glove playing alongside second baseman Darwin Barney and shortstop Starlin Castro. It will be a little easier going into spring training knowing that he won't have to look over his shoulder, but he's vowed to keep the same mentality.

"I still want to go in and prove that I can be elite," Rizzo said.

Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

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AP

Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

After the Cubs Convention, fans left still uncertain about the team headed into the 2020 season. Host David Kaplan and NBC Sports Chicago Cubs writer Tim Stebbins discuss what they took from Cubs Con, the culture change that is coming to the organization and a realistic possibility that the Cubs are looking into disgruntled star Nolan Arenado.

Listen to the episode here or in the embedded player below.

Cubs Talk Podcast

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Marcell Ozuna signing with Braves rules out potential suitor for Kris Bryant

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USA TODAY

Marcell Ozuna signing with Braves rules out potential suitor for Kris Bryant

When former Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson signed with the Twins last week, one thought was Atlanta could pivot and try to acquire Kris Bryant to fill the void in their lineup.

That possibility looks less likely now, as the Braves announced Tuesday they’ve signed former Cardinals outfielder Marcell Ozuna to a one-year, $18 million deal.

The Braves didn’t have a dire need for a third baseman — 22-year-old Austin Riley, a former top prospect, is waiting in the wings — so much as they needed a bat to replace Donaldson. Bryant would have checked both those boxes, but the path to acquiring him is more difficult.

Bryant has been fixated in trade rumors this winter, but any extensive negotiations won’t occur until his service time grievance case is resolved. NBC Sports Chicago’s David Kaplan reported last week Bryant trade rumors this winter have been “greatly exaggerated” because the lingering grievance.

The Braves have been named a potential Bryant suitor as they hold the top prospects the Cubs would seek in return for Bryant. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman threw cold water on that notion recently.

There’s also the possibility the Cubs don’t move at all Bryant this offseason.

"No, we're not in a position where we *have* to do anything,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said Friday at Cubs Convention. “I think you want to always avoid being put in a corner where you have to make a deal and your back's against the wall and you're gonna take any deal that's out there.

“We’re not at all in that position but looking at the longer time horizon of the next two years, I think you would be wise at some point to do something that looks out a little bit more for the long-term and a little bit less for the short-term, but that doesn't have to happen now. We're not in a position where we have to move anybody."

Ozuna joining the Braves means the Cardinals lost one of their most productive bats from the 2019 division championship club. Like the Cubs, St. Louis' offseason has been marked by low-key moves, outside of the Cardinals acquiring pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore from the Rays, a deal which sent Cardinals slugger Jose Martinez to Tampa Bay.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.