Could both LaHair and Rizzo find way into Cubs lineup?

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Could both LaHair and Rizzo find way into Cubs lineup?

The Cubs enter 2012 as an afterthought in the NL Central race after cutting ties with Carlos Pena and Aramis Ramirez who combined for 54 home runs and 173 RBIs last season. Those departures have some in Cubs Nation fearing that the Cubs will be completely devoid of power and have a very tough time scoring runs.

However, some of the newcomers in spring training like Bryan LaHair, Brett Jackson, and Anthony Rizzo can help to make up for that power outage and that combined with better starting pitching, improved defense, and better fundamental play can lead to a better on field performance.

The Cubs may see that Alfonso Sorianos below average defense in left field is greatly affecting their pitching staff and the Cubs' chances for victory. That could open up a scenario that if LaHair and Rizzo both get off to good starts the Cubs could move one to the outfield (most likely LaHair) to take advantage of improved defense and left-handed power.

Both LaHair and Rizzo have tremendous power but neither has ever proven that they can succeed at the major league level. Can either one be the long-term answer at first base? Can both succeed enough that one can make the move to the outfield to give the Cubs two young and left handed middle of the order hitters?

Rizzo has tremendous power and a great approach at the plate but it is his character and makeup that we are most impressed with, said Cubs GM Jed Hoyer. Rizzo was drafted by the Epstein-Hoyer-McLeod regime in Boston, acquired by Hoyer and McLeod from the Red Sox in the Adrian Gonzalez deal in San Diego, and then re-acquired from the Padres in a deal for pitcher Andrew Cashner.

It is great to know that I have people who are in the front office that are obviously in my corner. They believe in me and I am trying to do my very best to prove to them that they were right for believing in me, Rizzo said.

LaHair comes to camp knowing that he already has a job on the big league club after spending most of 2011 in Class AAA where he was named Minor League Player of the Year. He led the minors with 38 homers and set career marks in batting (.331), on-base percentage (.405) and slugging (.664) and was named Pacific Coast League MVP. He was only the seventh PCL player in the last 15 years to garner 300 total bases and his 76 extra-base hits were the most in the league since 2006.

So why do people doubt that he can be a productive major league player? Because he is 29-years-old and the list is extremely short of players that finally became big time major leaguers at such an advanced age. LaHair though believes he is ready for the opportunity. I am in great shape and I had a very good off season in winter ball in Venezuela (LaHair slugged an unheard of 15 HRs in the short winter league season) and I have prepared for this opportunity for my entire life. Now I have to go out and prove I can do the job, he said.

While Rizzo bides his time for a chance on the big league club he knows that LaHair is getting first shot to replace Pena. "Right now it's a concrete plan to just let Rizzo have another season in Triple A and let him be comfortable instead of moving him up and down and all that stuff," manager Dale Sveum said. "It's Bryan LaHair's job. It's not his to lose."

However, should Rizzo make it so difficult on the Cubs front office to keep him in Class AAA where he will begin the season then LaHair could make the move to the outfield. "Of course no one wants to play in the minor leagues, especially when you've had the taste of it," Rizzo said Tuesday at Fitch Park.

I can't control anything. I can go to the minors and do what Bryan did last year and still be there all season. I know that I can play up here but I will just continue working as hard as I can until I get my shot in the big leagues. I have never struggled like I did when I was called up in San Diego but I think that experience will help me when I do finally come up, he said before workouts on Tuesday morning in Mesa.

Whether it is one or both in the lineup in 2012 it does appear that the Cubs finally have some of the left-handed power that they have been searching for. In fact, the last legitimate left-handed run producer that the Cubs developed was probably Mark Grace and he left the organization after the 2000 season. Grace was a solid hitter but he never had a 100 RBI season or a 30 HR season so if you use those measuring sticks the last one that the Cubs had was Fred McGriff in 2002 when he had 30 HRs and 103 RBIs.

Balance in a lineup is essential for success and it appears that finally the Cubs have some power from the hard to find left side. The question is who will that be? LaHair or Rizzo? If both guys find their way into the lineup then the rebuild of Theo Epstein and Co. will go a whole lot quicker. That scenario would be just fine with both LaHair and Rizzo.

After winter of taking heat, Cubs still have Joe Maddon's back

After winter of taking heat, Cubs still have Joe Maddon's back

MESA, Ariz. — It only took 21 minutes into spring training — or the first press conference on the day pitchers and catchers officially reported to Arizona — before Joe Maddon listened to another question about all the heat he took for his World Series Game 7 decisions.

More than 2,000 miles away at Yankee camp in Florida last week, Aroldis Chapman told the Chicago Sun-Times that he "was just being truthful" when he used the conference call to announce the biggest contract ever for a closer — five years and $86 million — to inform the New York media that Maddon misused him during the playoffs. Nothing lost in translation there.

Miguel Montero finally declared a ceasefire on Monday night, getting the sit-down meeting the Cubs felt should go longer than the standard meet and greet after the veteran catcher's jarringly critical comments on WMVP-AM 1000 (if only because it happened on the same day as the championship parade and Grant Park rally).

"It's such an unusual situation," general manager Jed Hoyer said, "because we won the World Series, and theoretically you think that people would be really happy."

As ex-Cub manager Dale Sveum might say: "Ya think?"

Ending the 108-year drought might lead Maddon's Hall of Fame plaque someday, but it also led to waves and waves of second-guessing and speculation about how it might impact his clubhouse credibility. But with Maddon and Montero declaring their Andreoli Italian Grocer summit a success, gonzo strength and conditioning coordinator Tim Buss cruising onto the field in a Ferrari for the first wacky stunt of 2017 and Cactus League games beginning on Saturday, it's time to remember that the Cubs still have their manager's back.

"Everyone says they don't see or read anything," pitcher Jake Arrieta said. "We see and hear a lot of the stuff. But I just think that critics are going to find holes in something always.

"Joe was our leader all year last year. He obviously set the tone in spring training and gives us all these freedoms that help us play the way we played. So the people that matter — and know what Joe's about — are on the same page with his philosophies.

"The way he expresses himself to us is the most important thing. And we stand behind him. We trust that he's going to do what's in our best interest. And we know that any decision he makes is geared towards trying to help us win."

Within the last two seasons, the Cubs have won 200 games, five playoff rounds and their first World Series title since the Theodore Roosevelt administration. Maddon readily admits that the scouting and development wings of Theo Epstein's front office did most of the heavy lifting and credits the strong coaching staff he largely inherited. Spending more than $475 million on free agents like Jon Lester and Ben Zobrist certainly helped.

But all this doesn't happen without Maddon and the environment he created. The Cubs Way absolutely needed a ringmaster for this circus.

Arrieta developed into a Cy Young Award winner. Kyle Hendricks transformed into an ERA leader. Kris Bryant burst onto the scene as a Rookie of the Year and the National League MVP. Addison Russell became an All-Star shortstop by the age of 22. Maddon didn't prejudge Javier Baez, immediately appreciating the dazzling array of skills and super-utility possibilities.

Surprised by the Maddon backlash?

"Yes and no," All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "Because there needs to be a story. But what he did — people who are real involved know that since Day 1, he came in and he set the tone.

"He completely flipped the way people think, the way we believe, and everyone has bought into it. The credit he deserves — he gets a lot of it — but I don't think he gets enough of it. Because he lets me be me. He lets Javy be Javy.

"Willson (Contreras), Kris and Addie — everyone has their different personalities. He understands that. And it's not easy to do."

It's such an impossible job, at times, that even Cubs officials and players have acknowledged their frustrations with some of Maddon's in-game decisions and communication gaps. This can't just be written off as a media creation. But imagine the grumbling if the Cubs didn't have a leader with seven 90-win seasons and three Manager of the Year awards on his resume.

"We have a competitive group of guys," Hoyer said. "Every guy wants to be on the field at the right time. Every guy wants to be on the roster. Every guy wants to pitch in winning games.

"That's not realistic sometimes. It comes from a great place. It doesn't come from a place of selfishness. It comes from a place of: 'I want to contribute to winning.'

"The meetings we've had have been awesome. Our camp is unbelievably focused. We are just as focused as last year. I really don't look at it as a negative."

The last word from Maddon, who turned 63 this month and has a $25 million contract, a wide range of off-the-field interests and the championship ring that will make him a legend in Chicago forever, no matter what kind of heat he took this winter.

"Stuff like that doesn't bother me at all," Maddon said. "Regardless of what people may have thought — like any other game that I worked all year long — I had it planned out like that before the game began. So it wasn't anything I tried to do differently game in progress. Had I not done what I thought I was supposed to do — then I would have second-guessed myself.

"So, no, I have no problem with that. I really don't mind the second-guessing from anybody. I kind of encourage it. Please go ahead and do it, because I'll take that kind of second-guessing after winning a World Series on an annual basis. Thank you very much."

Kris Bryant: Major League Baseball could be going down 'slippery slope' with rules changes

Kris Bryant: Major League Baseball could be going down 'slippery slope' with rules changes

MESA, Ariz. – Kris Bryant has led a charmed baseball life – Golden Spikes Award winner, Arizona Fall League MVP, consensus minor league player of the year, two-time All-Star, Hank Aaron Award winner, National League Rookie of the Year and MVP and World Series champion – all before his 25th birthday last month.

So, no, the Cubs superstar doesn't see the need for any dramatic overhaul to a sport that's desperately trying to connect with Bryant's demographic and keep up at a time when iPhones are killing everyone's attention spans and the entertainment options are endless.            

"I love the way it is," Bryant before Wednesday's workout at the Sloan Park complex.

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred essentially fired a warning shot during Tuesday's Cactus League media event at the Arizona Biltmore, threatening to unilaterally impose pace-of-play changes – think pitch clock, limited mound visits, new strike zone – for the 2018 season if the players' union doesn't cooperate.

The first reported difference is the traditional four-pitch intentional walk turning into a dugout signal, which seems to be more of a cosmetic change than an actual efficiency measure.

"You're in the box, you want to force someone to make a pitch," said Bryant, who remembered Anthony Rizzo’s 10th-inning matchup against Cleveland Indians reliever Bryan Shaw. "Just the World Series, for example, when 'Rizz' got intentionally walked. There were a couple that were low. What if the ball got away? That's huge. Especially in that type of situation – Game 7 of the World Series – you want to put pressure on the pitcher any way you can.

"It seems like it's not stressful at all, but any time you're not throwing at full effort for a pitcher, it seems like there's a chance that we could do damage on that."

That's actually Manfred's agenda in an age of grinding at-bats, specialized bullpens and defensive shifts – trying to create more action and eliminating some of the dead air more than simply cutting the length of games by a few minutes.

"The game's been the same to me since I was young, so I don't think there's anything wrong with it," Bryant said. "I think that's what makes our game great. It is a long game and we play 162 games a year and there's more strategy involved with it. I think it could be a slippery slope once you start changing all these things. 

"The people you really need to ask are the fans. The diehard fans are going to be the ones who oppose more changes. They're the ones who pay to watch us play. Those are the opinions that you need."

In using this power in the new collective bargaining agreement as leverage, Manfred is looking at the future of a $10 billion industry, insisting the game isn't broken when more than 75 million people visited major-league stadiums last season.

But even Cubs manager Joe Maddon – who’s usually open-minded and in tune with these kind of big-picture ideas – doesn’t get the pace-of-play focus.

"I'm not privy to all the reasons why it's so important," Maddon said. "It just appears to be important for the people in New York. My job is not to make those decisions. My job is to ultimately make the Cubs play well again, etc., so there are certain things that I don’t quite understand.

"If I had more interior information maybe you could be more supportive of it. On the surface – I've talked about it in the past – I don't really understand the pace-of-game issues because I don't really pay attention to that. I'm just locked into managing the game. The nine innings go 2 hours and 15 minutes, or 3 hours and 20, as long as you win, I don’t care.

"That's where I come from, but there's something obviously larger than that that's really causing a lot of these discussions. Again, from my office, I don't necessarily know what that is. But I do know new normals may occur."