Rizzo hoping to make his mark with Team Italy

Rizzo hoping to make his mark with Team Italy

March 4, 2013, 4:30 pm
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MESA, Ariz. – Anthony Rizzo reported for the World Baseball Classic on Monday and posed in his white “Italia” jersey with the blue script.

The day before, Rizzo put on his white pinstripe No. 44 Cubs jersey for a quick photo shoot at HoHoKam Stadium for an upcoming “Chicago” magazine feature.

The jury was still out on Rizzo at this time last year. But those two pictures show how far he’s come in the 14 months since team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer acquired him from the San Diego Padres in the Andrew Cashner deal.

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This spring, Rizzo isn’t trying to open eyes with the Boston Red Sox or working in the shadow of Adrian Gonzalez or fixing his swing after looking overmatched with the Padres – one homer, 46 strikeouts in 49 games – in 2011.

Manager Dale Sveum is projecting Rizzo to be good for 30 homers and 100 RBI and Gold Glove-level defense at first base. The Cubs were comfortable letting Team Italy borrow one of the faces of their franchise.

“I spoke with Jed and Theo and then personally I asked Dale what he thought,” Rizzo said. “Obviously, he wants me to be in camp and I want to be in camp. We have to build as a team. (But) I’m sure I’ll (only) be gone a short time.

“I don’t think it will be much of a distraction at all. As far as playing and getting injured, I’m not ever worried about that (from) a position-player standpoint.”

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As a “Super Two” player, Rizzo will be arbitration-eligible after the 2014 season, meaning he could be in line for the next long-term extension after Starlin Castro got one last summer.

The Cubs have signed all 21 pre-arbitration-level players on their 40-man roster, including: Rizzo ($498,000); Darwin Barney ($562,000); Travis Wood ($527,500); Michael Bowden ($509,500); and Welington Castillo ($503,000).    

Rizzo has been getting text messages in Italian from his family (“buongiorno”). He doesn’t speak the language and hasn’t visited Italy yet, but his great-grandfather is from Sicily.

Growing up in Florida, Rizzo watched the World Cup and the Olympics. The Italians were scheduled to have a workout at Phoenix Municipal Stadium on Monday and play the Oakland A’s there on Tuesday in an exhibition.

After Wednesday’s exhibition against the Los Angeles Angels at Tempe Diablo Stadium, Italy opens up WBC pool play on Thursday against Mexico at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in Scottsdale.

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Italy plays Canada there on Friday before shifting to Chase Field for a Saturday night matchup against the United States.    

“Although it’s not USA, I think it will still be cool to participate in something like this,” Rizzo said. “If the opportunity ever arose (to play for USA), that would be one of the best honors I could do for this country, especially with all the troops overseas fighting for us to allow us to be here in spring training every day and play every day.”

The Cubs have three minor-league pitchers in the WBC: Yoanner Negrin (Spain); Ryan Searle (Australia); and Yao-Lin Wang (Chinese-Taipei).

Italy’s coaching staff includes Mike Piazza and former Cubs manager Tom Trebelhorn. Rizzo’s teammates include Pittsburgh Pirates reliever Jason Grilli and Los Angeles Dodgers infielder Nick Punto.

“It’s going to be a nice challenge,” Rizzo said. “From what I’ve heard, the Italian team is pretty good. Hopefully we can shock some people.”