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.

What Cubs need to see during finals week before playoff test

What Cubs need to see during finals week before playoff test

PITTSBURGH – Winning or losing the final seven games of the regular season won’t change the perception of the Cubs as the on-paper favorites heading into the playoffs. It all goes back to the question president of baseball operations Theo Epstein got during his Opening Day media session: Will this year be a failure if the Cubs don’t win the World Series? 

The final judgments will come in October, but for now the Cubs will be running through postseason scenarios, adhering to Joe Maddon’s keep-everyone-fresh philosophy and trying to avoid any catastrophic injuries during this road trip through Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

Before Monday’s 12-2 win over the Pirates, Maddon confirmed the Cubs are leaning toward carrying 11 pitchers and 14 position players for their first-round playoff series, with a 12-man staff being a possibility that hasn’t been ruled out yet. The manager had already scripted out the lineups for these four nights at PNC Park, beginning with Chris Coghlan as a leadoff guy, Willson Contreras as the cleanup hitter and Albert Almora Jr. starting in center field.   

“That fine balance between being rested and being sharp – we’re trying to thread that needle,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “There’s no guidebook for it.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

With the National League’s No. 1 seed, the best record in baseball and 100 wins already secured, the Cubs can focus on:

• Hoping to copy part of the World Series blueprint the Kansas City Royals used last year, the Cubs have built a dominant bullpen that can shorten games and might roll through October. But that depends on Pedro Strop (knee) and Hector Rondon (triceps) coming back from injuries and performing at full strength.   

After Strop pitched a scoreless seventh inning against the Pirates on Monday night, Rondon gave up back-to-back homers to Matt Joyce and David Freese in the eighth, which the Cubs will hope can be written off as lack of adrenaline coming into a 12-run game. Practicing the playoff script, superstar closer Aroldis Chapman worked the ninth inning with a 10-run lead.

• Maddon dropped into a hitters’ meeting last week at Wrigley Field to send a post-clinch message, stressing the idea of using this time wisely and focusing on the fundamentals the Cubs preached in spring training. That’s grinding out at-bats, understanding a two-strike approach and full-count situations and not relying so much on the home run. 

“That’s the key moving forward for us offensively,” Maddon said. “That’s the little nuance of the game as you get to this part (of the year) that really helps you separate.”

• Keeping a third catcher or not sounded more like talk-show filler than an actual debate around the Cubs. David Ross is locked in as Jon Lester’s personal catcher, but at the age of 39 “Grandpa” plays best in a backup role. Willson Contreras offers the most offensive upside and a rocket arm behind the plate, but the rookie would have to make up for his inexperience with energy and enthusiasm. 

Miguel Montero has caught more than 8,400 innings in The Show and finally seems to have found his left-handed swing – hitting .333 with two homers, three doubles and 10 RBI in his last 18 games – near the end of a disappointing offensive season. 

“It’s really tough to find guys like Miggy,” said Kyle Hendricks, a Cy Young Award candidate and projected Game 2 starter on Oct. 8 at Wrigley Field. “He controls the tempo (and) there aren’t many catchers that can control the tempo of a game. He keeps me in sync. He keeps me on time. He knows when to take a break and give me a breather. He just has a really good feel.    

“We go (in) with a good game plan, but I think his in-game adjustments are probably where he really picks it up the most. He’s been around. He’s seen all these hitters. He can feel when guys are trying to do certain things to you.”   

Getting Jake Arrieta back in the zone that made him the hottest pitcher on the planet last year might require Montero’s presence as a game-caller, pitch-framer and ace whisperer.

• Will wild-card chaos reign? The New York Mets (83-74) and San Francisco Giants (82-74) woke up on Monday clinging to wild-card positions, with the St. Louis Cardinals (81-74) only a half-game behind. The playoff probabilities on FanGraphs project the Mets as a virtual lock (88 percent), making it a coin flip between the Cardinals (57.6 percent) and Giants (54.3 percent).

• If the wild-card winner gets hot and shocks the best team in baseball in a best-of-five series, the autopsy of this season will inevitably involve second-guessing how the Cubs handled success and if clinching by mid-September dulled their edge.   

But in trying to stack the odds in your favor, would you rather be scrambling after the season-ending surgeries (Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom) that have decimated New York’s power pitching? Or worrying about the flammable bullpen (major-league-leading 30 blown saves) that might torch San Francisco’s even-year hopes? And if the Cardinals haven’t put it all together by now, what makes you think the flip will be switched in October?

“As a whole, this gives us a chance to get everybody healthy and on the same page,” Ross said. “Throughout the year, we’ve done a good job of focusing on the day and what’s to come. As long as we focus on being the best team that we can be, I don’t think we’ll have a problem.

“If you want to put a negative spin to clinching early, you can, but I’m pretty excited about it. I think the guys in here are very excited about it. I think there are a lot of other teams that would love to be in our position right now.”

Kyle Hendricks helps transform Cubs into 100-win team

Kyle Hendricks helps transform Cubs into 100-win team

PITTSBURGH – The Cubs have gone from the happy-to-be-here team that crashed last year’s playoff party to a 100-win machine that’s expected to win the World Series or else be remembered as underachievers.  

The evolution of Kyle Hendricks from a fifth starter to a legitimate Cy Young Award candidate helps explain why the Cubs have lived up to the preseason hype and created such expectations for October.

The Cubs won’t be leaving their season up to the coin flip of a wild-card game, the way they did 355 days ago at PNC Park, where it almost looks like the Pittsburgh Pirates still haven’t recovered yet. What once appeared to be a circle-your-calendar showdown that could decide the National League Central is now glorified spring training for the Cubs in late September.   

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Hendricks didn’t have to silence the blackout atmosphere during Monday night’s 12-2 win in front of an announced crowd of 20,519 and sections of empty seats. A quiet, polite Dartmouth College graduate would never troll Pittsburgh fans on Twitter the way Jake Arrieta did last year. But the Cubs are witnessing another historic run that could catapult them through October.  

Hendricks (16-8) lowered his major-league-leading ERA to 1.99 with six scoreless innings against the Pirates (77-79). The Cubs reached 100 wins for the first time since 1935 and that sense of momentum always begins with starting pitching. Hendricks has allowed three earned runs or fewer in each of his last 22 starts.  

“Obviously, we did not anticipate all of this,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s really exceeded, and good for him. This is something I think he can carry on for years. This is by no means a fluke. It’s not an anomaly. This is how good he’s capable of being. So it’s made a big difference that he’s been able to do what he’s done this year. No question.”