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5 for '15: Is Rizzo an MVP candidate?

MESA, Ariz. -- There's only one way Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo can elevate his game and reputation to MVP-type status: His team has to win.

The days of a most valuable player coming from a last place squad are long gone. Andre Dawson did it for the Cubs in 1987 but there have been few players to win the award while their teams languished in the cellar. Rizzo shouldn't have that problem as the Cubs are poised for a jump in the standings. But can they climb high enough and can Rizzo produce even more than a .286/.386/.527/.913 slash line from a year ago?

You may not remember this but Rizzo actually finished 10th in MVP voting just last season playing for a 73-89 team. All nine players that finished ahead of Rizzo -- save Giancarlo Stanton -- played for a winning team. And the Miami Marlins had a good chance at being above .500 if not for a season ending injury to their star. On a better team, with a better offense, Rizzo can make that jump.

"I believe in protection in the lineup," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said during camp.

Rizzo had little danger around him last year which makes his season even more special. Protection or not, the simple fact is the more dangerous hitters that inhabit a lineup the more stress is put on the opposing pitcher. A starter doesn't last as long, mop up pitchers are used more often and more runners are simply on base when a team has danger throughout its lineup.

The Cubs might finally have that once Kris Bryant finds his way to the majors. Can you imagine the juicy pitches Rizzo might see sandwiched between Bryant and Jorge Soler or if he's simply hitting in front of them? Add some on-base in front of all that -- in the form of Dexter Fowler (career .366) or even Chris Coghaln (career .340) and Rizzo will be in prime hitting and RBI position.

"I really like by at-bats over the last week or so," Rizzo said Tuesday. "I'm feeling much better."

The key to Rizzo's 2014 season was simply his ability to hit left-handed pitching and that started in spring training. He stood closer to the plate, waiting on pitches longer and sent them to all parts of the ballpark, especially left-center. He hit exactly .300 last year against lefties. His entire slash line, minus a few points off his slugging percentage, was higher against left-handed pitching than it was against righties. That's no small feat.

But his biggest improvement from 2013 to 2014 -- and a key for an MVP candidate -- was his hitting with men on base. He improved 50 points on his batting average with men in scoring position and there's still room to improve. That's when his RBI total will jump past 100 for the first time in his young career.

We haven't even talked about his power yet. Rizzo's four different seasons in the league have produced the following home run totals: 1, 15, 23, 32. The most impressive thing about last year was his ability to hit the ball out of the park but not sacrifice anything off his batting average. That's what special seasons are made of. Rizzo was just one of three players to reach 30 home runs in the National League. Is 40 possible? The progression he's shown say it might be but no one in the NL hit 40 last year so we're talking about a very special season if it happens.

No one is saying Rizzo is going to win an MVP in 2015 -- not with Stanton healthy and raking. But now it should get fun for him. He can put up video game numbers simply by staying within himself and taking what the pitcher gives him. There won't be a need to press with what's coming behind him. Bryant might be a future MVP candidate but right now Rizzo is their best hitter and has the best chance at taking home an award of that stature.

And it means the Cubs are winning.