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.

As Cubs search for answers, Scott Boras doesn’t believe Jake Arrieta is feeling the pressure of free agency

As Cubs search for answers, Scott Boras doesn’t believe Jake Arrieta is feeling the pressure of free agency

LOS ANGELES – It’s harder to find perspective when the lights are flashing all around Dodger Stadium and the techno music is thumping and Adrian Gonzalez just launched a two-run homer 429 feet to straightaway center. 

But that’s why Jake Arrieta pays Scott Boras. The super-agent sat in a front-row seat behind home plate on Friday night, watching his client go through another up-and-down start for a Cubs team that needs Arrieta to pitch more like an ace.

It’s easy to lose sight of this during a 4-0 loss where the Dodgers looked more like the team on a mission after getting eliminated from last year’s National League Championship Series.

But Arrieta is someone who has already experienced the low points that made him think about quitting baseball as he shuttled back and forth between the Orioles and Triple-A – and the intoxicating high from ending the 108-year drought and creating so much joy for generations of Cubs fans.

So Boras isn’t buying the idea that Arrieta might be feeling the weight of his upcoming free agency.

“Coming from Baltimore to here and establishing himself in the big leagues was the major arc of his career,” Boras said, “the most difficult moment of illustrating that he is an everyday major-leaguer. The fact that he has the skills, and what he has up here (in his head), the dynamic of winning two World Series games and things like that, I’d say he’s (been) measured. When you win World Series games, that’s the most important thing.

“If you want me to measure pressure, I’d say that’s World Series cojones.”

To get back into October, the Cubs will need more consistency from Arrieta (5-4, 4.92 ERA), who’s still fine-tuning his delivery and not always getting that extra burst of velocity that made him a Cy Young Award winner and unhittable one night at Dodger Stadium.

Two aging Dodgers crushed Arrieta fastballs. Chase Utley – who began the game hitting .204 – drove one over the center-field wall in the third inning. Gonzalez had gone 131 plate appearances this season before notching his first home run with two outs in the sixth inning.

“I understand how difficult this game is,” Arrieta said. “It’s a work in progress. I’m still not exactly where I would like to be. But it’s close. It really is.”

Even as Arrieta worked through command/mechanical issues last season, he still wound up winning 18 games and limiting opponents to a .583 OPS that ranked second in the majors. It took until the middle of last August before he gave up his 10th home run, or where he’s already at through 10 starts this season. 

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“The one that Utley hit out was on the corner – that’s a good piece of hitting,” Arrieta said. “The one to Gonzalez was too much plate in a 3-1 count. It was elevated. Willson (Contreras) called a changeup. I shook to the fastball. I expected to locate a little bit better than I did. But I feel like if I continue on this progression, I think I’ll be OK.

“I don’t intend to continue to give up as much hard contact, especially balls over the fence. It’s been a little bit of tough luck, but they just flat out beat us.”

There’s some truth to that – Arrieta continued to pile up the strikeouts (nine) and limit the walks (one) – while Dodger lefty Alex Wood extended his scoreless streak to 25.1 innings before handing the game over to a dominant bullpen. But whether it’s an underperforming offense, a defense not playing at the same historic level or those velocity questions, Arrieta doesn’t appear to have the same margin for error anymore.

All those elements could come roaring back, but the Cubs are now a 25-22 team that could be looking to replace 60 percent of the rotation by Opening Day 2018.

“You don’t really think about (it),” Boras said. “When the Cubs come to town, I look at the standings: OK, where are they at? They’re trying to win again. This club’s a good club and you think about what moves they’re going to make to make it better.

“Jake’s total focus has always been about putting himself in a position that few players get to be in – and that is being on a club where you can win more.”

Whatever happens over the next several months, this will be the reservoir of confidence Arrieta draws from, and ultimately his legacy as a Cub.

“When the postseason hits, it’s Jake’s greatest measurement,” Boras said. “I don’t know, I heard winning a World Series in Chicago was difficult.”

Cubs: Is Joe Maddon turning Kyle Schwarber into a platoon player?

Cubs: Is Joe Maddon turning Kyle Schwarber into a platoon player?

LOS ANGELES – Joe Maddon doesn’t want to put the platoon label on a young hitter who became a World Series legend before his 24th birthday. But the Cubs manager also isn’t planning to start Kyle Schwarber against left-handers anytime soon. 

“If people want to say that, I can’t avoid it,” Maddon said Friday at Dodger Stadium, where Schwarber sat against lefty Alex Wood, who took a 20.1-inning scoreless streak into this National League Championship Series rematch. “I’m going to do that until I feel good about him, because I don’t want to lay too many at-bats on him in a negative situation.

“If he’s not swinging the bat well against righties, it’s a bad assumption that I’m going to think he’s going to swing it well against lefties. Then I’m just putting him in a deeper hole by throwing him out there, just based on really bad logic.

“I’m just trying to pick his spots right now to get him going. Once he goes, he can play against anybody.”

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Schwarber – who’s hitting .181 with a .656 OPS and 55 strikeouts in less than 200 plate appearances this season – will start Saturday against Dodger right-hander Brandon McCarthy. But even with Clayton Kershaw looming on Sunday, Maddon didn’t want to give Schwarber the entire weekend off, the way Jason Heyward mentally reset last August at Coors Field.

“I don’t think it’s there yet,” Maddon said. “I’ve had good conversations with him. I think it’s a different set of circumstances.”

For the Cubs, this doesn’t really change their overall evaluation of Schwarber as a core player and potentially one of the most dangerous left-handed sluggers in the game. But Maddon has been backing away from the idea of Schwarber as a leadoff hitter, trying to reboot the player who had been such an intimidating postseason presence.

“My concern when the guy is struggling a little bit is you don’t want him to get him too many at-bats,” Maddon said. “It’s really hard to get yourself out of that mental, physical and numerical hole. By not getting him as many at-bats, it will be easy to get back to a number he’s more comfortable with.

“I don’t care about that – I really don’t. I’m looking at his past, process, what he’s doing for the team in regards to on-base, everything else. But for the guy himself, he looks up at the scoreboard and he sees numbers everywhere and they evaluate themselves based on numbers.

“I don’t want him to do that. I just want him to get back into the process of having good at-bats.”