MESA, Ariz. – The curiosity factor is pretty much gone now. Reporters aren’t lined up three-deep around his locker. The cameras aren’t in his face. There’s no wondering when he’ll get to Wrigley Field or if he’ll be a bust.
It has been a very quiet spring, and that’s exactly the way Anthony Rizzo likes it.
Rizzo, whose great-grandfather is from Sicily, will join Team Italy and hitting coach Mike Piazza on Monday in Arizona for the World Baseball Classic. When he returns to camp, the Cubs will be getting back their middle-of-the-order force and Gold Glove-caliber first baseman for the rest of this decade.
At this time last year, Cubs executives could only hope that would be the case. Sure, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod knew Rizzo’s makeup and how he beat Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a prospect in the Boston Red Sox system.
But they couldn’t know for certain if he’d take to a new swing or how he’d respond to the “Rizzo Watch” pressure. This was a guy who looked lost with the San Diego Padres in 2011, hitting one home run and striking out 46 times in 153 plate appearances.
Now manager Dale Sveum is penciling Rizzo in for 30 homers and 100 RBI. Javier Baez and Jorge Soler are the hot stories, but it’s pretty much a given that the 23-year-old first baseman is going to be the face of the franchise.
Rizzo acknowledged that the veterans could have resented all the attention he received last summer, but you never got that sense of jealousy while talking to other players in the clubhouse.
“When you get called up and you’re young, you just have to go about your business and work hard,” Rizzo said. “That’s what everyone sees. Say when Baez or Soler get called up, they’re gonna have all the hype because they’re gonna probably have big numbers. The biggest thing is just come up and continue to work hard. And that’s how you gain respect.”
Rizzo wasn’t ducking the responsibility, but he pushed back a little on the idea that he’ll be policing the clubhouse and making the Baez/Soler generation feel welcome in Chicago. Always talking about the future has to get old if you’re the one who has to perform 162 games a year.
“I’m excited for that, but at the same time, we've got to focus on the team we’re going to have now,” Rizzo said. “We all have to work together. Last year, I was ‘The Rookie’ and this and that. This year, I’m still young. I’m not going to really be vocal, but it’s the things on the field that you do that maybe Starlin [Castro] sees, [Darwin] Barney sees. [And then] it’s contagious.”
Rizzo was finally able to exhale last season on a West Coast trip in early August, roughly five weeks after making his debut in a Cubs uniform. It was the guys who got traded – Ryan Dempster, Reed Johnson, Jeff Baker – who made him feel comfortable.
“Everyone welcomed me in,” Rizzo said. “I produced right away, which always helps, but I think that they really embraced me as one of the guys and not [some outsider].”
Putting up numbers is the fastest way to gain acceptance. Rizzo accounted for 15 homers and 48 RBI in 87 games and that’s where the Cubs begin their projections.
“I got all the confidence in the world to have him double what he did last year,” Sveum said. “Will there be some bumps along the road? Of course there will be. But you give Rizzo 600 plate appearances, there’s going to be some damage done.”
As a “Super Two” player, Rizzo should be eligible for arbitration after the 2014 season. The Cubs showed part of their playbook last summer by giving Castro a seven-year, $60 million extension.
“It’s something that’s not even in my [mind],” Rizzo said. “It’s on the back burner, way back there. It would be nice. But it’s something where I think the more I play – and hopefully the more I develop – the more everything will take care of itself.”
On an off-day last September, while the media counted down toward 100 losses, Rizzo went out to dinner on the North Side and noticed everyone going crazy watching the Bears-Packers Thursday night game on TV.
It was another reminder of how passionate Chicago fans are, how hungry the city is for a winner. No doubt, they will be expecting big things from Rizzo in Year 2 and beyond.