MESA, Ariz. — As much as Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro are looking for big bounce-back seasons this year for the Cubs, the team has even more at stake.
Mostly time and money — and not the $101 million tied up in 14 contract years between the young building-block players.
If they produce and become as established and successful as at least Castro seemed to be before last year, then the Cubs are back in business with the progress of their baseball plan.
‘‘It’s hugely important,’’ team president Theo Epstein said. ‘‘If those two guys can be thriving, very successful major-league players who have already gone through their adversity and made adjustments, and they’re comfortable enough with their own success and their own place in the game to lead even at young ages, that will be really important for our young players making their debuts in the next couple years.
‘‘It provides some cover in the lineup. It provides some strong veteran examples of how to act and how to behave themselves. It just takes some of the pressure off.
‘‘If you can help it, you don’t want your young players coming up and having to carry too big of a burden for the team.’’
With Alfonso Soriano, Ryan Dempster, Kerry Wood and Derrek Lee long gone, good luck finding an established, All-Star-caliber role model in the Cubs’ clubhouse — much less one who’s going to be a Cub for more than a few months.
The Cubs banked on two of those players in this process being Castro, a two-time All-Star who struggled with too many hitting coaches in his ear last year, and Rizzo, the slugging first baseman they gave up a premier pitching prospect (Andrew Cashner) to acquire.
‘‘That’s what I’m looking for,’’ Castro said. ‘‘And for me and Rizzo to be the guys that you say, ‘Oh, Rizzo, you can tell something to that guy.’ . . . There has to be [at least] one Latin here that can say something, one American guy that can say something to the guys.’’
Castro saw that when he came up in 2010, with Soriano taking him under his wing.
‘‘It’s really important,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s what I try to be.’’
He sounds confident he’ll return to past performance levels this year, feeling strong and ready after weeks of rehabbing a hamstring injury.
Rizzo’s not sure exactly what the definition of a bounce-back year is after hitting 23 homers with 80 RBI in his first full season in the majors. But he doesn’t deny that his near-worst-in-the-majors hitting with men in scoring position and overall inconsistencies were issues.
‘‘Absolutely,’’ said Rizzo, who has raked most of the spring. ‘‘Obviously, you want to get off to a good start . . . and having us kind of get the big years, the so-to-say monster years, and set the tone. We want to set the tone early, especially for this organization and being the quote-unquote core of it, you want to be the guy that everyone looks to every day and every night.
‘‘It’s setting the foundation. We want to win, too. So it’s about winning. It’s about being professional. It’s really not about just me and Castro, though.”
No, for now at least, it is.
The kids could be coming fast. And if the big-league support system isn’t there, the competitive timeline could start to lose ground.
‘‘The ideal way to break guys in is what we did with Dustin Pedroia [in Boston],’’ Epstein said, ‘‘where he was hitting down in the order and we told him, ‘It’s your job, and if you’re hitting a buck-fifty at the end of May, it’s still your job.’ And he took us up on it.’’
By the end of 2007, Pedroia was a rookie of the year, hitting .317 with a .380 on-base percentage for a World Series champion.
‘‘It’s not always possible,’’ Epstein said, ‘‘but in an ideal world, we’d have some of those guys in-house and can bring in some from the outside, too.’’