- Associated Press - Friday, February 21, 2014

MESA, Ariz. (AP) - The Chicago Cubs need a breakout season from Anthony Rizzo.

Whatever that might be is a good topic for discussion when it comes to Rizzo, the first baseman who has been in the limelight far more and far longer than your average 24-year-old baseball player. Is he a budding star or the .238 career hitter he’s been so far?

Rizzo is coming off a much-scrutinized, so-so 2013 season in which he hit .233 with 23 homers and 80 RBIs. More was expected in light of his 2012 numbers: a .285 batting average with 15 home runs and 48 RBIs in more than a half-season’s work.

In some respects, perhaps Rizzo was criticized a bit much. After all, he put up 65 extra base hits (sixth in the National League) and drew 76 walks (fifth).

Yet, there’s little question the Cubs need more from the player who is supposed to be a Cubs’ cornerstone for the next few years. His seven-year, $41 million contract says as much.

“I think a break-out year for anyone is doing what they’re capable of doing,” Rizzo said. “It’s about putting all the pieces of the game together, offense, defense, base-running, being a good teammate. That’s what defines a break-out year. Everyone this time of year is optimistic and excited. It’s just about being consistent. If I keep my head down one game at a time, after 162-plus, everything will be good.”

Manager Rick Renteria judged Rizzo’s 2013 as “pretty consistent with previous years” in terms of power numbers, that his run production was “not bad for a club that really didn’t score a whole lot of runs.”

“The biggest thing is to continue to improve his approach at the plate, stay within himself, hit pitches he can handle more consistently over an extended period of time,” Renteria said. “When he does that, I think he has a chance to hit for a higher average and more productivity.”

Rizzo was diagnosed with cancer at age 18, shortly after he was drafted out of high school in Florida by the Boston Red Sox. He beat the disease and remains healthy today.

He was a celebrated call-up to the San Diego Padres in 2011 after a great start in Class AAA Tucson. But Rizzo struggled and, after a month, was sent back down. Both moves were orchestrated by Jed Hoyer, then the Padres’ general manager and now the Cubs’ GM.

Hoyer later said he rushed Rizzo, who disagreed. Renteria was there to see all this as the bench coach for the Padres.

“At that moment and time, that wasn’t indicative of who he ultimately was going to be,” said Renteria, who urged Rizzo to stay positive.

With all this as background, it’s not surprising that Rizzo can keep a level head. He is not going to judge himself by short-term numbers.

If he’s learned any lesson at all, he says, “You just enjoy it, enjoy every second of it .Whether it’s a 4-for-4 game with a couple of homers or it’s an 0-for-4 game with people breathing down your back, just enjoy it.

“I’ve heard so many older guys say it,” he said. “(Derek) Jeter said it at his press conference the other day, that he wished he’d enjoyed it more. A lot of older guys say, ‘Enjoy it because it’s going to go fast.’ I remember signing when I was 18. I’m already six years older.”

He doesn’t seem to have any particular theory on why his batting average dropped in 2013, other than good pitching.

“It’s just a matter of me staying with my approach,” he said. “They’re going to make mistakes. You need to capitalize.”

And perhaps even to break out.

NOTES: Jeff Samardzija is likely to be the starting pitcher in Thursday’s Cactus League opener at the new stadium at Riverview, Renteria said…Nate Schierholtz got banged up in an outfield collision Saturday but he should be OK, the manager said.

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