Rizzo Watch: Renteria honing in on development of Cubs' 1B

Rizzo Watch: Renteria honing in on development of Cubs' 1B
November 26, 2013, 9:15 pm
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Tony Andracki

Anthony Rizzo isn't Steve Francis, but his nickname might as well be "The Franchise," just like the former NBA player.

The Cubs front office thinks very highly of Rizzo, as evidenced by the three different organizations they have carried him to and from.

Theo Epstein and Co. have a lot riding on the kid who overcame Hodgkin's lymphoma and with the Cubs losing 197 games the last two seasons, Rizzo is under the microscope in Chicago more so than any other player not named Starlin Castro.

That's why Rizzo's production is at the top of the list for new manager Rick Renteria and hitting coach Bill Mueller.

Renteria got to know Rizzo in San Diego, after the Padres acquired the young first baseman as one of the centerpieces of the Adrian Gonzalez deal with the Boston Red Sox.

[RELATED -- State of the Cubs: The Rizzo/Renteria connection]

Heralded as one of the top young players in the game, Rizzo struggled through a tough 2013 season in which he hit just .233 with a .742 OPS, down from the .285 average and .805 OPS he posted in his first year in Chicago in 2012.

Despite the regression, Renteria thinks he can help get Rizzo back on track. He was there for Rizzo Watch Part I in San Diego and saw the youngster struggle through a forgettable rookie campaign in 2011.

"He's a very gifted athlete," Renteria said. "I know parts of last season, he might have had some struggles with maybe pitch selection and strike zone recognition, but I think it's more to do with approach.

"Anything we do on the field has to do with confidence. The confidence aspect that a player takes to any part of the game is really important."

[MORE: Renteria believes he's ready to tackle Cubs' youth movement]

Renteria chalks it all up as a learning experience for Rizzo, believing the young slugger can benefit from rising above adversity.

"Anthony just has to come back to what he's been and his progression," Renteria said. "He was starting to make strides. To a certain extent, it might seem like he was taking a step back, but it's something he can learn from.

"Players can learn from down moments. It's just a matter of all of us articulating what might have occurred. I think he's got a tremendous future ahead of him and I look forward to being a part of it and watching it come to fruition."

While Rizzo hit only .191 with runners in scoring position in 2013 -- certainly not what a team wants from its No. 3 hitter -- the 24-year-old was also the victim of a lot of bad luck with a .258 batting average on balls in play.

Rizzo didn't hit 30 homers with 100 RBI, as some expected, but he still drove in 80 runs, collected 65 extra-base hits (including 23 homers) and drew 76 walks while playing excellent defense at first base.

[RELATED: With power in short supply, Cubs searching for competitive advantage]

The Cubs fanbase is growing impatient as they wait for elite prospects like Javier Baez and Kris Bryant to roll through Wrigley Field on the next wave of young talent. The diehards want to see Rizzo take that next step.

Can Renteria get through to him? Will the self-proclaimed optimist be able to help Rizzo turn into one of the most feared sluggers in the game?

Renteria said his approach to players is to "engage the human being" first and foremost, working to build a player's confidence without allowing them to get too down during moments of adversity.

It's that kind of positivity the Cubs are hoping can help get the message across to the young talent.

[MORE: Cubs hope hitting coach Bill Mueller can be a difference-maker]

Dave Roberts was the first base coach in San Diego when Renteria was with the Padres, and took over as bench coach when Renteria left.

"One thing you can expect from him is he's going to be consistent with his positive energy," Roberts said on a video shown to Cubs season ticket holders in early November. "He's going to back his players and every single guy is going to play hard. It doesn't matter how much money you make or where you come from.

"Young players gravitate to him. Guys want to play hard for him...He's just so good with young players and with veterans. He has this way about him that people should come to respect him.
"There's not a player that has come across Rick Renteria that hasn't gotten better."

The Cubs are counting on it.