Anthony Rizzo a self-made superstar

Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo has learned that the ascent from prospect to complete player is largely a function of turning weaknesses into strengths, one shortcoming at a time.

Rizzo's 32 home runs in 2014 are ample testament to his power, but they tell only a fraction of the story. His .386 on-base percentage was best among MLB first basemen last season, and his prowess with a glove is reflected by his annual appearance near the top of the Baseball Info Solutions' defensive runs saved leaders at his position.

As the folks who have followed Rizzo's career track can attest, his progression to All-Star status stems from his willingness to acknowledge weaknesses and relentlessly attack them until they disappear. Before each offseason, Rizzo will seek out the Cubs' advance scouts and pepper them with questions: What flaws do opposing pitchers see when they approach him, and what does he need to do to close his holes? Then he makes it his personal mission to follow through.

"Anthony's attitude is, 'I have to get better at this, and what am I going to do to make myself better?'" said Jason McLeod, the Cubs' senior vice president of player development. "And he's not afraid to go out there and do it through real-life experience -- with the third deck on the roof and 40,000 people in the stands. He's wired right and the makeup is right that he's going to get the most out of his ability."

Jed Hoyer, Chicago's general manager, recalls a watershed moment in Rizzo's career at the end of the 2011 season. Rizzo had just hit .141 in 128 at-bats with the San Diego Padres, and some baseball talent evaluators questioned his ability to hit good fastballs. One rival talent evaluator told ESPN's Buster Olney that Rizzo might be the next Hee-Seop Choi because he had trouble catching up with any pitch that started with a "9."

So Hoyer (then San Diego's GM) and Padres manager Bud Black sat Rizzo down in late 2011 and hit him with some plain talk: If he didn't find a way to shorten his stroke and speed up his bat, his career might stall out before it had a chance to begin.

Rather than get mad, Rizzo got even. He took the message to heart and went home to Florida and spent the offseason overhauling his setup and his swing. After an offseason trade from San Diego to Chicago, he returned to hit .285 with an .805 OPS in 87 games and show he was no longer a soft touch against the hard stuff.

The scenario repeated itself two years later, when Rizzo addressed the conventional wisdom that he couldn't hit left-handed pitching. After posting a .189/.289/.342 slash line vs. lefties in 2013, he went home to Florida, hunkered down in the batting cage and raised it to .300/.421/.507 last season. Another problem solved.

Hoyer has traded for Rizzo twice -- first as general manager in San Diego, and then with the Cubs -- so he understands the character attributes that have allowed Rizzo to craft such an uplifting narrative.

"We talk all the time about how failure is a very important learning tool in baseball in the minor leagues," Hoyer said. "When a guy fails and gets knocked down, he can go one of two ways: He'll show he has the confidence and the toughness necessary to make the adjustments, or you're going to realize that mentally he's very weak and he's never going to recover.

"I think Anthony always felt like he was going to be a really good big leaguer, but he realized he needed to make some adjustments. With some guys there's the false bravado where they say, 'No, I'm not changing. Teams have to change to adjust to me.' That doesn't work unless you're Albert Pujols."

As the Cubs are constantly discovering, Rizzo has proved he's well-equipped to handle failure -- and a whole lot more.

Mature beyond his years

As the Cubs kick off the 2015 season Sunday night against St. Louis in Wrigley Field, Rizzo is quietly rolling along as perhaps the team's fifth or sixth most prominent storyline. While he was hitting .185 in the Cactus League this spring, agent Scott Boras and Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein were engaging in a high-profile smackdown over the team's decision to send mega-prospect Kris Bryant to Triple-A Iowa to begin the season. Outfielder Jorge Soler and shortstop Addison Russell also wowed the scouts in Arizona, while the media spent a lot of time focusing on Jon Lester's transition to Chicago as the Cubs' new $155 million man and manager Joe Maddon's impact as the team's new rock star manager.

Beyond the headlines du jour, Rizzo is the quiet, understated cornerstone in the team dynamic. He's signed to a seven-year, $41 million contract that will keep him in Chicago through at least the 2019 season, and he appears ready to take a more active leadership role on and off the field. If Chicago's upper management team takes a special sense of pride in his growth, it's because these guys have been with him every step of the way.

Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod were all with Boston in 2007 when the Red Sox selected Rizzo as the 204th overall selection in the first-year player draft out of Stoneman-Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. When Rizzo hit .373 in 21 games with Greenville in the South Atlantic League in his second professional stop, Boston's player personnel people quickly realized that his $325,000 signing bonus was money well-invested.

That's when reality intervened and Rizzo confronted his biggest challenge. In the spring of 2008, he was diagnosed with a form of cancer known as limited stage classical Hodgkin's lymphoma. Within days, Rizzo flew home to Miami and began a chemotherapy regimen that would last six months before tests revealed that he was cancer-free.

McLeod gained an appreciation for the impact of the news on Rizzo's family in the lobby of a Marriott Courtyard in Brookline, Massachusetts, when John and Laurie Rizzo tried to grasp the magnitude of their son's illness.

"His mom is such a wonderful woman, and she's in the hotel lobby welling up with tears," McLeod said. "And here's Anthony telling her, 'Hey Mom, don't worry. I'm OK.' It wasn't just this false stoicism. I remember thinking, 'If I was an 18-year-old kid and this had happened to me, I would have felt like my life had just been pulled out from under me.' And here's Anthony cheering everybody else up and saying, 'We're going to get through this.'"

Rizzo recalls the encounter a bit differently -- in a light that makes him seem less heroic.

"After the doctors explained it, I was never really too worried," he said. "I was feeling more for my parents, because I knew they were hurting. I was like, 'Give me the medicine and let's go do it.' That's the way I try to be all the time. You just have to be the same person every day."

During a recent interview at the Cubs' spring training complex in Arizona, McLeod sifted through his memory bank for other seminal moments in Rizzo's career. He recalls how the Red Sox sent Rizzo to the Dominican Republic after drafting him, and Rizzo was so touched by the dire circumstances faced by his young Dominican teammates that he called home and asked his family if the Rizzos might be able to send water, clothing or other necessities to ease his teammates' burden. A year later, when Rizzo returned from his cancer to play in the instructional league, he doubled in his first at-bat and received a standing ovation from his teammates.

McLeod has seen Rizzo surmount so many obstacles, they've formed a bond that transcends generations. McLeod's son Cameron, age 8, is a little too rambunctious to sit down for an entire MLB game, but he's always at rapt attention in front of the TV or at the park when Rizzo steps to the plate.

"They have this running collage of pictures where Cam is getting older and Anthony is getting older," McLeod said. "Cameron tries to mimic his swing. And every time Anthony sees him he says, 'Hey Cam, are you hitting bombs?'

"I fall into this trap where Anthony is 25 years old and I think he's 28. It's crazy to think he's still three years from his 'prime years.' Every time I see him, he shakes my hand and gives me a big hug and says, 'Hey Jay,' and I see the same 17-year-old that we drafted [in Boston]. I'm glad he hasn't lost that."

High-impact player

As Rizzo's game has evolved, so, too, have the scouting reports. No one is comparing him to Hee-Seop Choi anymore.

"He's made vast improvements in his approach and become a more consistent threat," said an AL scout. "He's really settled in, and the approach in the batter's box has quieted down. He's not a superstar, but they can definitely win with this guy in the middle of the order."

Rizzo has gone through multiple iterations of a big league stance, changing his hand positioning and swing path in a way that gets him to the hitting zone with greater alacrity. He is also practical enough to stow the false bravado and do whatever it takes to do the job. Amid warning signs and statistical evidence that defensive shifts were becoming a problem for him, Rizzo laid down a pair of bunt singles against St. Louis last May just to keep opposing defenses honest.

Each new challenge is an invitation for him to keep grinding. Rizzo might be 3-for-18 against Francisco Liriano and 0-for-11 vs. Gio Gonzalez, but if he takes a seat against a tough left-hander, it will be because Maddon decrees it. He'll never lobby for a day off.

"Hitting lefties is really just a mental block," Rizzo said. "A lot of people don't get the opportunity to face them on a regular basis, and I'm fortunate they stuck with me here and let me face them all the time. It's an accomplishment to go out there every day against the marquee names. These guys are the best for a reason, and it'll be nice to look back 15-20 years from now and say, 'I've faced the best.'"

If Rizzo's career arc plays out the way he hopes, he will make a difference in a way that transcends baseball. Dozens of players do good work for charity through personal foundations, but Rizzo's time spent with the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation is especially heartfelt given his personal brush with cancer. Cubs officials say he makes regular weekly appearances at hospitals and visits with young cancer patients without a notebook or camera in sight. In Rizzo's estimation, it's the least he can do.

"Even if the kids don't know who I am or know that I was sick, they see someone in a major league jersey and you can see the light in their eyes," Rizzo said. "We have such a great platform as players to go out and help. It's kind of refreshing. You can easily get caught up in the big league lifestyle and going to the field every day, and it becomes 'Groundhog Day.' It kind of breaks it up to see their reaction."

This season, Rizzo and his fellow Cubs will try to end a different sort of monotony by producing the franchise's first winning record since 2009. Between Opening Day and the season finale, Rizzo will make sure to take things one at-bat, one game and one upgrade at a time.