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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.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Ryne Sandberg: Part 1

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Ryne Sandberg: Part 1

Luke Stuckmeyer sits down with Cubs legend Ryne Sandberg for a wide-ranging conversation centered around the infamous "Sandberg Game."

Ryne gives insight into his feelings upon being traded to the Cubs (2:00), and discusses the reason he ended up with the No. 23 (5:00). Plus, how the 1984 season changed everything and raised his personal expectations sky-high (9:00) and the "Daily Double" dynamic between him and Bob Dernier (16:00).

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

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'He belongs here': What to expect from top prospect Adbert Alzolay's first major league start

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USA Today

'He belongs here': What to expect from top prospect Adbert Alzolay's first major league start

A big part of the Cubs’ MO during the Epstein Era has been the team’s reliance on veteran pitchers. Whether it’s Jon Lester’s cutter, Cole Hamels’ changeup, or Jose Quintana’s sinker, it’s been a while since other teams have had to step into the box against a Cubs starter without much of a scouting report. On the surface, uncertainty from a starting pitcher may sound like a bad thing, but it’s that same apprehension that makes Cubs’ prospect Adbert Alzolay’s first major league start so exciting. 

“There’s energy when you know the guy’s good,” Joe Maddon said before Tuesday’s game. “There’s absolutely energy to be derived. But there’s also curiosity. Let’s see if this is real or not. I think he answered that call.” 

The good news for Alzolay and the Cubs is that much of the usual baggage that comes with one’s first major league start is already out of the way. All of the milestones that can get into a young pitchers head -- first strikeout, first hit, first home run allowed, etc -- took place during Alzolay’s four-inning relief appearance back against the Mets on June 20th. 

“I want to believe that that would help,” Maddon added. “It was probably one of the best ways you could break in someone like that. We had just the ability to do it because of the way our pitching was set up, and I think going into tonight’s game, there’s less unknown for him.”

It also helps that Alzolay will have fellow Venezuelan countryman Willson Contreras behind the plate calling his first game. There’s even a sense of novelty from Contreras’ end too. 

“[Catching someone’s debut] is really fun for me,” he said on Tuesday. “It’s a big challenge for me today. I’m looking forward to it. I’m really proud of Alzolay, and I know where he comes from - I know him from Venezuela. It’s going to be fun.”

Tuesday's plan for Alzolay doesn’t involve a specific innings limit. Maddon plans to let the rookie go as long as he can before he “gets extended, or comes out of his delivery,” as the manager put it. On the mound, he’s a flyball pitcher with good control that works quickly. Expect to see a healthy dosage of 4-seamers that sit in the mid-90’s alongside a curveball and changeup that have both seen improvements this year. 

Against the Mets, it was his changeup was the most effective strikeout pitch he had going, with three of his five K’s coming that way. It’s typically not considered his best offspeed offering, but as Theo Epstein put it on Monday afternoon, “[Alzolay] was probably too amped and throwing right through the break,” of his curveball that day.  

It’s obviously good news for the Cubs if he continues to flash three plus pitches, long the barometer of a major league starter versus a bullpen guy. Even if he doesn’t quite have the feel for all three yet, it’s his beyond-the-years demeanor that has those within the organization raving. 

“The confidence he showed during his first time on the mound, as a young pitcher, that’s a lot,” Contreras said. “That’s who he can be, and the command that he has of his pitches is good, especially when he’s able to go to his third pitch.”