1/1/2014 10:00 A.M. ET
Rizzo determined to build on lessons of 2013
First baseman ready to take next step in development after first full big league season
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
PARKLAND, Fla. -- The batting cage at Anthony Rizzo's home was completed just in time for Christmas. His neighbors don't need to worry about late-night noise, though. The Cubs first baseman didn't install lights because he didn't want to be tempted to take swings at 2 a.m.
Rizzo is eager to start baseball activities. He's been working out seven days a week -- often twice a day -- with his trainer, Tom Flynn, supervising. Some days, he will add a two-mile run, sometimes yoga, sometimes agility drills on a field.
Though he led the Cubs with 23 home runs, 40 doubles and 80 RBIs last season, Rizzo batted .233 overall and hit .191 with runners in scoring position. That last number surprised him.
"The only thing that baffled me was [the average with] runners in scoring position," Rizzo said. "I didn't even realize how bad it was until maybe the All-Star break."
When he did see the stats, Rizzo admitted he tried to overcompensate.
"When I was not getting the RBIs that I should be getting, I started hearing that I was hitting bad with runners in scoring position -- and maybe it got in my head a little bit," Rizzo said. "Sometimes, I go up there and try to hit the five-run home run when there are only two guys on base. You can't do that. Maybe [I did that] because I'm young -- it's experience.
"The great thing is that no matter how bad I was doing, or [if] I didn't get a hit for a week, I could always [refer] to so many different players who gradually got better. [Former manager] Dale [Sveum] always preached that, too. He said, 'You're naturally going to get better when you get more at-bats.'
"Not everyone comes into the league and is Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera. Obviously, that's who I want to be ... the best of the best and in the discussion for [Most Valuable Player] every year. That would put [me] and the team in a better position, but that takes time."
Rizzo has the potential to be one of the best. The 2013 season was a personal milestone because it was the first time in his career that he played at one level for an entire campaign, including the Minor Leagues.
"I never knew what it was like hitting with 400 at-bats [at one level] before because I never had 400 at-bats at any level," Rizzo said. "Now that I think of it, I think some of the pressure I put on myself in April and May to get my average to this and that, it doesn't really matter -- because once you're in July and August, it will all equal out. That's pressure I didn't need to put on myself, personally."
He predicts 2014 will be different. First, Sveum is no longer the Cubs' manager. Rick Renteria, who was on the Padres' coaching staff when Rizzo was there, is now in charge of the Cubs.
"[Renteria] was great when I was there in San Diego -- especially when I got sent down," Rizzo said. "He told me he had no doubt in his mind that I'd be a great player and not to let it shake me or anything. That was nice and encouraging. He did that on the side. My time there was kind of a blur. I just know he's a great person."
Renteria called Rizzo after he was hired to say hello and wish him happy Thanksgiving. Rizzo got a text message from Renteria to check in. New hitting coach Bill Mueller has also called to introduce himself. Rizzo has done his homework, talking to Padres players. All give Renteria glowing reviews.
"Everyone speaks so highly of him," Rizzo said. "As long as [the media] doesn't drive him crazy, [he'll be OK]."
Rizzo didn't have a problem with Sveum.
"Dale was great, and I really enjoyed playing for him," Rizzo said. "He's a great person, a great guy -- a great guy to talk baseball with. He really loves the game of baseball. I did learn a lot from him. It was tough to see him go, because he is such a good guy and he is a great baseball mind."
Told that Royals manager Ned Yost waited one hour after Sveum was dismissed by the Cubs to call and offer a job on Kansas City's staff, Rizzo laughed.
"I'm surprised [Yost] waited that long," Rizzo said. "Dale's going to have a big league job for a lot of years. Maybe some [players] got caught up in some pressure and anticipation. Dale was awesome."
Did Rizzo press?
"I put that on [myself]," he said. "I have the expectation every year to hit my peak, whether it's in the big leagues or in Little League. Once it gets down to where maybe the numbers aren't where I want them to be, I try a little harder. Throughout the year, with the exception of a few bad ruts, I hit the ball pretty decent."
It didn't take him long to forget about the 2013 season. The Cubs lost 96 games and finished last in the National League Central.
"This [past season], besides my average, there are just a couple other things I would like to have been better at," Rizzo said. "The last couple weeks I've been thinking a lot about it, starting to look at my swings. I'm just going to keep getting better.
"It was that kind of year where I mentally go through it and now I feel like I'm more prepared [for] next year. So if I don't get a hit in my first three at-bats, I won't put pressure [on myself]. I think even Theo [Epstein, president of baseball operations] understands it. When you're in that day-to-day grind, it's very hard to process things -- because it's so much."
Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have both said they're not worried about Rizzo.
"We spoke [at end of the year]," Rizzo said. "No one was disappointed in me with anything. The people who were there saw a lot of balls I hit hard that didn't go my way, and that spiraled down into a little slump or rut. I think I went two or three times last year not getting a hit for a week. I think having that happen has made me more prepared for when it happens again, not to search for my swing, really. The swing's there."
He's kept an eye on the Cubs' transactions. So far, the team hasn't added anyone who seems an obvious choice to bat fourth behind Rizzo in the lineup.
"I think it'll be time to step up," Rizzo said. "Whoever we have in the four-, five-spot, we're going to have to step up. The first two hitters will have to get on base. We'll have to move them over, and sometimes we'll have to play small ball.
"I think [Starlin] Castro will be hungry -- I know that, for sure. I know the type of person he is and the type of player he is. He was a big help for me last year. He'd see me in the tunnel being real mad, and he'd say, 'Don't worry about it, you're better than this.' We need that every day, every play, every pitch."
Castro is 23; Rizzo is 24. They are the core the Cubs are building around. Without Alfonso Soriano or David DeJesus, the Cubs don't have many veterans for Castro and Rizzo to lean on.
"It's time for Castro, me, [Jeff] Samardzija and Travis Wood -- it's time for us to come together," Rizzo said. "It's pretty much our team. ... It's time for us -- we're that core. [Darwin] Barney, too. We're that core. We have to come together as one. We're a good group of friends."
And they're all invited to hit at Rizzo's new batting cage.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.