It was a solid day for the Cubs minor league sides, as they went a combined 5-1 Tuesday. Boise was the only squad unable to add a win to the victory column. Here are some highlights from yesterday’s minor league action:
Iowa Cubs (40-36)
T-2nd Place (-1.0)
Kris Bryant hit a go-ahead homer for the third-straight game, as Iowa beat visiting Albuquerque, 6-2.
- Bryant (.238) is 5-for-21 with five home runs in six games since joining Iowa, including four homers in the last three games. He finished 1-for-3 with a walk, a run and three RBI (9). Between his time in Tennessee and now Iowa, Bryant has homered once every 9.96 at-bats this season (27 HR, 269 AB)
- Bryant and SS Javier Baez (1-for-2, 2 BB, RBI) were named to the All-Star Futures Game at Minnesota’s Target Field on July 13.
- 2B Arismendy Alcantara (.290, 19 2B, 33 RBI) and LF Josh Vitters (.238, 9 2B, 25 RBI) had two hits apiece, including a double and an RBI each. Alcantara has five multihit efforts in his last six games, going 10-for-24 (.417) with five runs, three doubles, a triple and four stolen bases over the stretch.
- LHP Tsuyoshi Wada fanned 10 for the second time this season, earning the win with his 10th quality start of the campaign.
Tennessee Smokies (4-2)
1st Place (+0.5)
Tennessee moved into sole possession of first place with a rain-shortened, 6-2, win at Jackson.
- RHP Dae-Eun Rhee gave up one earned run over 5.2 innings, striking out three for the win.
- 3B Christian Villanueva (.333) went 3-for-4 with a run, three doubles (4) and two RBI (6). It was his first game this season with three extra-base hits.
- DH Stephen Bruno (.298) went 2-for-3 with three runs scored and his 23rd RBI. Each of the Smokies outfielders—CF Jae-Hoon Ha (.202, 17 RBI), RF Rubi Silva (.252, 36 RBI) and LF Anthony Giansanti (.246, 8 RBI)—went 1-for-4 with an RBI.
- RHP Lendy Castillo (3.10) earned the save (1), striking out the only batter he faced to end the game.
Daytona Cubs (4-2)
T-1st Place (–)
After Dunedin tied the game at 5-5 in the top of the eighth, CF Albert Almora gave Daytona the lead in the bottom of the frame with a solo homer. The Cubs won, 6-5.
- Almora (.254) finished 3-for-5 with two singles and the solo shot, his third of the season.
- RF Pin-Chieh Chen (.277), LF Bijan Rademacher (.287) and 1B Rock Shoulders (.214) had two hits each as part of a 13-hit Cubs attack. Eight out of nine D-Cubs hitters had at least one hit.
- LHP Andrew McKirahan (2-1, 1.11) earned his second relief victory of the season.
Kane County Cougars (4-1)
T-1st Place (–)
The Cougars scored six runs in the first three innings, topping the visiting Timber Rattlers, 9-3.
- CF Jacob Hannemann (.250) finished 3-for-4 with two runs, a walk, his team-leading fifth triple, two RBI (31) and two stolen bases (21).
- SS Carlos Penalver (.244), 1B Jacob Rogers (.258) and RF Trey Martin (.235) added two singles apiece.
- DH Yasiel Balaguert (.238, 13 2B), 3B Jeimer Candelario (.125, 2 2B) and LF Kyle Schwarber (.400, 2 2B) each tallied a double.
- Martin set a Cougars record with five stolen bases, surpassing Michael Richard who stole four bags in a game in 2008.
- RHP Michael Wagner (3.33) earned his third hold with three scoreless frames.
Boise Hawks (4-8)
4th Place (-3.0)
Boise lost its seventh-straight game on the road, falling 7-3 at Spokane. The Hawks have been outscored 50-27 over the seven-game skid, after outscoring their opponents 40-23 in their first five games (4-1).
- 3B Jesse Hodges (.143) went 2-for-4 with a run and two RBI on his first homer, a two-run shot in the seventh inning.
- SS Varonex Cuevas (.115) finished 1-for-3 with a run and his first double of the season.
- RF Jeffrey Baez (.174) tallied one hit in four tries, recorded his sixth RBI and swiped his seventh base, good for third in the league.
Mesa Cubs (3-1)
1st Place (+1.0)
Mesa earned their third win over the visiting Angels with a 4-2 victory at home.
- RHP Luis Hernandez pitched five scoreless innings, striking out two to get the win.
- SS Gleyber Torres (.333) and C Tyler Alamo (.385) ripped two singles each, while CF Charcer Burks (.556) and RF Shamil Ubiera (.222) both doubled once in three at-bats.
- After five scoreless frames from Hernandez, RHPs Brad Markey (9.00) and Jose Arias (0.00) each tossed a scoreless inning for their first holds.
- RHP Pedro Araujo (4.50) followed with one earned run in two frames to earn his first save.
- The Cubs have scored 37 runs in their first four games (9, 15, 9, 4).
Only Iowa and Mesa picked up victories Monday, with Tennessee, Daytona and Boise all on the losing end of the scoreboard. Meanwhile, Kane County had a scheduled off-day and will pick up the action Tuesday night. Here are some highlights from yesterday’s minor league action:
Iowa Cubs (39-36)
3rd Place (-2.0)
3B Kris Bryant hit his third homer in two nights as the I-Cubs topped the visiting Isotopes, 4-3, for their second consecutive one-run win. Iowa is 11-8 in one-run games on the season.
- RHP Dallas Beeler earned the win, pitching six innings, giving up three earned runs and striking out two.
- Bryant (.222) is 4-for-18 with four home runs in five games since joining Iowa. He finished 1-for-2 with two walks, a run, the solo shot and one RBI (6). Between his time in Tennessee and now Iowa, Bryant has homered once every 10.23 at-bats this season (26 HR, 266 AB).
- 1B Chris Valaika (.304) went 1-for-3 with a walk and a double. In his last six games, he is 11-for-24 (.458) with four runs, four doubles, two homers and four RBI.
- 2B Arismendy Alcantara (.286), SS Javier Baez (.226) and LF Matt Szczur (.244) all tallied two singles apiece. Baez also swiped his 14th bag, tied for 11th in the league.
- After Beeler’s seventh quality start in 10 tries, RHP Arodys Vizcaino (13.50, 1 H) and LHP Zac Rosscup (2.76, 6 H) each threw a scoreless frame to earn holds. RHP Blake Parker followed with a scoreless ninth to convert his league-leading 16th save.
Tennessee Smokies (3-2)
T-1st Place (–)
Tennessee fell to 3-2 in their five-game home series with Chattanooga to begin the second half of the season. The Lookouts jumped ahead with a three-run first and never looked back, winning 7-3.
- Tennessee tallied just four singles on the day, including a pinch-hit, two-out single from Taylor Davis (.286, 13 RBI) to knock in two in the seventh inning.
- After Gardner lasted just 3.2 innings, LHP Jeffry Antigua (1.80), RHP Lendy Castillo (3.15), LHP Jeff Lorick (5.45) and RHP Tony Zych (3.93) combined to allow just one earned run over 5.1 innings, fanning six and walking just one.
Daytona Cubs (3-2)
T-1st Place (–)
Daytona did not produce a run on seven hits and two walks, falling 8-0 to host Tampa.
- 3B Jordan Hankins (.286) notched Daytona’s lone extra-base hit with a third-inning double (1).
- RF Pin-Chieh Chen (.273) and CF Albert Almora (.247) each swatted two singles.
- RHP Stephen Perakslis (5.25) provided 3.1 scoreless innings of relief. Five of his last seven relief appearances have been for more than three outs. He has kept opponents scoreless in six of his last eight games.
Boise Hawks (4-7)
4th Place (-3.0)
After beginning the season 4-1, the Hawks have dropped their last six, all on the road, including yesterday’s 12-6 defeat at the hands of first-place Spokane.
- 1B Daniel Canela (.278) launched his second homer of the season to lead off the fourth. He ranks third on the team with 17 total bases.
- LF Kevin Brown (.317) went 2-for-4 with a run, a double (6), a triple (1) and two RBI (8).
- Eight of the nine Hawks hitters recorded at least one hit.
Mesa Cubs (2-1)
T-1st Place (–)
Down 6-3, Mesa took over with a five-run sixth inning to beat the host Angels, 9-6.
- CF Charcer Burks (.600) continued his tear, going 3-for-4 with two runs, two doubles (3), two RBI (6) and a stolen base (2). After three games, Burks leads the Arizona League in average, slugging percentage (.933) and OPS (1.533). He sits tied for the league lead in OBP (.600, tied with teammate Alberto Mineo), runs (7), hits (9) and doubles (3).
- Four Mesa hitters—1B Alberto Mineo (.556), DH Tyler Alamo (.333), LF Ricardo Marcano (.267) and 3B Adonis Paula (.250)—finished with two hits in five tries at the plate.
- C Tyler Pearson (.200) recorded his first hit of the season, a fourth-inning triple. He scored two runs.
- RHP Jeferson Mejia (1-0, 0.00) struck out nine over five innings of relief, allowing two unearned runs and earning his first win.
- The Cubs have scored 33 runs in their first three games (9, 15, 9).
(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
The Reds were bitten by the injury bug early in 2014, with Mat Latos and Aroldis Chapman missing significant time. Somehow the team has managed to tread water while awaiting their return and currently finds itself at .500. Cincinnati has one of the best pitchers and one of the best hitters in the game in Johnny Cueto and Joey Votto, respectively. They also have speedster Billy Hamilton, who has the potential to be a very exciting player if he can continue to get on base. Still, the Reds have their work cut out for them if they hope to catch the streaking Brewers and the always-excellent Cardinals in a tough NL Central division.
(7th in NL, 3.8 RA/G)*
The Reds staff has been led by an absolutely dominant Johnny Cueto, and now Cincy will have its co-ace Latos back, as he recently returned from the DL after dealing with minor offseason elbow surgery. Former reliever Alfredo Simon has stepped in admirably and is currently tied for the NL lead in wins, and Mike Leake has been solid. The biggest surprise so far may be the struggles of Homer Bailey, who received a huge contract prior to the season. Closer Chapman began the year on the shelf, but Jonathan Broxton was strong in his stead. Chapman’s return has helped solidify things as the relievers return to more appropriate roles.
(10TH IN NL, 3.9 RS/G)*
Joey Votto continues to be one of the toughest outs in baseball, having posted a .410 on-base percentage, and Devin Mesoraco has been a revelation when he’s stayed healthy and on the field. Though Jay Bruce has struggled with batting average, his ability to hit for power while taking walks has helped make him a valuable player. On the other side of the ledger, the middle infield has been an offensive black hole, with Brandon Phillips and Zack Cozart both delivering sub-.700 OPSs. At the top of the order is Hamilton, who has game-changing speed, struggled to get on base early this season, but has upped his average to .273 and swiped 31 bases.
Iowa battled back behind an excellent night from Kris Bryant, Tennessee’s pitching was good enough to secure a win, Daytona rallied late, and Mesa picked up its first victory of the year. Kane County managed to split a doubleheader, while Boise continued to sputter. Here are some highlights from yesterday’s minor league action:
Iowa Cubs (38-36)
3rd Place (-3.0)
Thanks to a two-homer night from 3B Kris Bryant, Iowa erased a 5-2 deficit to beat Albuquerque at home, 7-6.
- Following two consecutive hitless games with six strikeouts, 3B Kris Bryant (.188) launched his second and third home runs since joining Iowa. He finished with two runs and three RBI (5).
- 1B Chris Valaika (.303) went 3-for-4 with a two-run shot in the third to put Iowa on the board. In his last six games, he is 10-for-21 (.476) with four runs, three doubles, two homers and four RBI.
- 2B Arismendy Alcantara (.283) and C Rafael Lopez (.300) added two hits apiece, including Alcantara’s league-leading 10th triple.
- RHP Armando Rivero (1-0, 0.00) pitched a perfect eighth to get the win.
- RHP Blake Parker (1.37) recorded his league-best 15th save, allowing one unearned run in the ninth.
Tennessee Smokies (3-1)
1st Place (+1.0)
Tennessee recorded its fifth shutout of 2014, blanking the visiting Lookouts, 4-0, to clinch the series win.
- RHP Eduardo Figueroa pitched five scoreless innings, striking out three.
- 3B Christian Villanueva (.313) hit a two-run shot, his first with the Smokies after tallying six with Iowa.
- With the departure of Kris Bryant to Iowa, 1B Dustin Geiger (.224) now leads the team with 10 homers. He finished 1-for-2 with a two-run round-tripper of his own.
- RHP P.J. Francescon (8-4, 3.26) earned the win in relief, spinning two scoreless innings.
- RF Rubi Silva (.256) went 1-for-3 with a run scored. He was honored as the Southern League Hitter of the Week for June 16-22, after batting .467 in four games with seven hits, one triple, two home runs and four RBI.
Daytona Cubs (3-1)
T-1st Place (–)
Daytona’s wild four-run eighth inning carried the Cubs to a 4-2 victory over host Tampa.
- LHP Rob Zastryzny gave up no earned runs over five innings, striking out four.
- 1B Dan Vogelbach (.267) broke up a no-hit bid for Tampa LHP Miguel Sulbaran in the sixth with a one-out double. His 17 two-baggers are tied for seventh in the league.
- Daytona was limited to just one hit until the eighth, when CF Zeke Devoss (.187), 2B Wes Darvill (.265) and RF Bijan Rademacher (.283) loaded the bases on two singles and a walk, respectively. Thanks to a throwing error by Tampa 1B Matt Snyder, C Willson Contreras (.270) came all the way around on a bases-loaded single, and Iowa took a 4-1 lead.
- RHP Michael Jensen (4-2, 2.67) earned his fourth win, going 2.2 innings and giving up one run.
- LHP Andrew McKirahan (1.17) followed with one earned run over 1.1 frames for his seventh save.
Kane County Cougars (3-1)
2nd Place (-1.0)
Game 1: Kane County tallied only three hits at home off Cedar Rapids pitching. The Kernels won, 5-0.
- With no run support, RHP Pierce Johnson suffered the loss in his first appearance with the Cougars. He gave up one run over four innings, striking out two.
- 2B David Bote (.221) notched the Cougars’ lone extra-base hit, his 10th double of the season.
Game 2: Kane County came back in the nightcap with a seven-inning, walk-off, 3-2 win. After 1B Jacob Rogers homered to tie it, DH Jacob Hannemann continued the heroics with a bases-loaded single.
- Rogers (.255) finished 2-for-3, including his seventh homer and 19th double of the season. Both figures lead the team.
- Hannemann’s walk-off single was the third time he reached base, having walked twice in the contest.
- RHP James Pugliese (3-0, 1.27) earned the win in relief, allowing the go-ahead run in the top of the seventh before the Cougars offense picked him up with the two runs in the bottom half of the inning.
Boise Hawks (4-6)
T-3rd Place (-2.0)
Boise lost its fifth-straight contest, falling to host Spokane, 6-2.
- CF Rashad Crawford (.231) hit an RBI triple in the top of the second, becoming the second Northwest Leaguer with two triples.
- RHP Ryan McNeil (0-1, 6.75) surrendered two runs in 2.2 frames and was saddled with his first loss of the season.
Mesa Cubs (1-1)
3rd Place (-1.0)
- SS Gleyber Torres (.273) went 3-for-6 with two runs, a walk, a triple, a two-run homer (in the 11th inning), four RBI (4) and two stolen bases (2).
- DH Shamil Ubiera (.300) went 2-for-5 with a run, a walk, a double (1), a three-run homer, three RBI (4) and a stolen base (1).
- CF Charcer Burks (.545) went 4-for-6 with three runs, a double (1) and four RBI (4).
- RHP Yomar Morel (1-0, 0.00) allowed an inherited runner to score in the ninth and suffered his first blown save. He ended up earning the win with no earned runs and four strikeouts over 2.2 innings.
It’s been a long time coming, but the Smokie is back at the Friendly Confines.
The Chicago Cubs and Vienna Beef have partnered to introduce Wrigley Field Smokies, a menu item that will spark memories for fans who remember the aroma of smoked sausages being grilled at the ballpark decades ago.
Levy Restaurants will serve Wrigley Field Smokies at the newly re-branded grill cart near Aisle 108 in Wrigley Field’s main concourse beginning this homestand and continuing throughout the season. Wrigley Field Smokies will also be available in retail locations throughout the Chicago area within the next several weeks.
“We are very excited to team up with the Chicago Cubs to bring back the Smokies to Wrigley Field this year,” said Vienna Beef Chairman Jim Bodman. “For decades, fans enjoyed great-tasting smoked sausages while they took in a game at the ballpark. They’ll be able to savor that smoky flavor once again both at Wrigley Field and at home from their local supermarket.”
Actor Bill Murray once told Vine Line the sausages were a favorite of his when he would visit the stadium as a child, and he couldn’t wait for the Cubs to bring them back.
“Our fans have been asking if we’d bring smoked sausages back to Wrigley Field for years,” added Chicago Cubs Vice President of Sales and Partnerships Colin Faulkner. “We’re thrilled to collaborate with Vienna Beef to bring back a piece of our history in a new and delicious way.”
Vienna Beef, the Official Hot Dog of Wrigley Field, will celebrate Hot Dog Month in July through promotions and giveaways at the ballpark.
In addition to the Wrigley Field Smokies, the Cubs and their culinary team have put a historical twist on the fan favorite with the Decade Dogs, 10 specially designed hot dogs piled high with toppings linked to the particular decade being recognized at the park.
“It’s fun. People react to it in a positive way,” Bodman said. “Vienna has been around for 130 years, baseball has been around for over 160 years, so if somebody can come up with something that’s different, that combines these two things, it obviously [gets] you thinking they’re attempting to do something outside the norm.”
Many of the upcoming decades’ hot dogs have actually been available throughout the season, including the 1960s Buffalo Wing Dog and the 1970s Pulled Pork Dog. Meanwhile, the 1980s Nacho Dog and the 1990s Bagel Dog will only be around during the ’80s- and ’90s-themed homestands. Fans searching for these unique concessions can find them next to Gate F near Section 123.
“I think when you start getting into some of the decades that represent the lives of the current fans, it’s going to be more thrilling than even the stuff of the 1930s and the 1940s,” Bodman said.
Outfielders Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco have made an impact for Pitssburgh. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
After ending 20 years of below-.500 futility and making a playoff appearance in 2013, it appeared the Pirates were a team on the rise. A poor April put the Bucs in a bit of a hole, one they’ve slowly tried to dig out of. This year, pitching has been subpar while the bats have only recently started to wake up. It’s too early to draw conclusions as there’s plenty of baseball still to be played, but the loss of A.J. Burnett from the rotation and some rough starts from key offensive contributors have led to serious struggles. Still, don’t count Pittsburgh out yet, as it does have some talented youngsters and an exciting roster.
(12TH IN NL, 4.3 RA/G)
The Pirates’ top two starters, Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole, started off relatively strong, but oblique and shoulder fatigue issues, respectively, currently leave both on the DL. Cole has a below-average strikeout rate, but the former top draft pick is just scratching the surface of his immense talent. Their absence puts the burden squarely on the shoulders of veteran and Friday’s starter Charlie Morton as well as young right-handers Vance Worley and Brandon Cumpton. In 14 starts this season, Morton’s had a fine season, posting a 3.09 ERA in 87.1 innings. Saturday’s starter Worley has only pitched seven major league innings this year, but has a 1.20 ERA in two career starts against the Cubs, though Sunday’s starter Cumpton has struggled in 2014. The bullpen continues to be a strength, even with closer Jason Grilli experiencing some bumps.
(6TH IN NL, 4.1 RS/G)
Early on, defending NL MVP Andrew McCutchen has continued to look every bit the franchise-making superstar—but he was the only one providing any offense. Starling Marte regressed from his great 2013 season, and while Pedro Alvarez is again hitting for power, his low batting average and OBP drive down his value. Neil Walker was having a fine season until he had to undergo an appendectomy. There’s no timetable on his return. The Pirates have already made some significant moves to help kick-start the struggling bats, acquiring first baseman Ike Davis from the Mets and bringing up top prospect Gregory Polanco, who’s had success at the dish in a very small sample size. The hope is that Marte turns things around, Alvarez starts making more contact, and Polanco can make a big impact on the major league front.
The top four levels all won their respective games, including Tennessee’s win in walk-off fashion Thursday. Boise wasn’t able to secure a victory, losing in 11 innings. Here are some highlights from yesterday’s minor league action:
Iowa Cubs (36-35)
3rd Place (-3.5)
3B Kris Bryant hit a two-run homer in his Triple-A debut as Iowa beat visiting El Paso, 6-2.
- LHP Tsuyoshi Wada picked up the win, giving up two earned runs over 6.2 innings, striking out seven.
- Bryant (.250) launched a two-run shot in the final at-bat of his debut, finishing 1-for-4.
- CF Arismendy Alcantara (.280, 31 RBI), 2B Chris Valaika (.295, 34 RBI), and 1B Josh Vitters (.232, 24 RBI) tallied two singles and one RBI each.
- In relief of Wada’s ninth quality start, RHP Yoanner Negrin (4.74) earned his first save with four strikeouts over 2.1 scoreless frames.
Tennessee Smokies (1-0)
T-1st Place (–)
After Chattanooga knotted the game at 3-3 in the top of the ninth, the Smokies came away with a 4-3 win in their first game of the second half thanks to a walk-off single from 3B Christian Villanueva.
- RHP Dae-Eun Rhee gave up one earned run over six innings, striking out one and walking one.
- RF Rubi Silva (.251) went 3-for-4 with a sixth-inning homer and one stolen base (6).
- Villanueva (.400) finished 2-for-5 with the walk-off RBI base hit in his first game since being transferred from Iowa.
- 2B Stephen Bruno (.297) and C Charlie Cutler (.333) each added two singles.
- LHP Jeff Lorick (5.40, 7 H) and RHPs Zach Cates (0.00, 2 H) and Tony Zych (4.31, 3 H) each earned a hold in a combined two frames of one-run ball before LHP Hunter Cervenka (2.96) blew his second-consecutive save opportunity. In relief of Cervenka, RHP Frank Batista (2.08, 1-0) struck out the final two Lookouts, earning himself his first win.
Daytona Cubs (1-0)
T-1st Place (–)
Daytona began the second half with a 7-4 victory at Brevard County.
- DH Dan Vogelbach (.266) went 3-for-5 with two runs, a double (15), a homer (6) and two RBI (28).
- CF Albert Almora (.244) went 2-for-5 with a run and a double (14).
- C Willson Contreras (.279) and 3B Wes Darvill (.222) each added a double.
- RHP Starling Peralta (4-1, 3.49) earned the win in relief with 4.2 perfect innings. LHP Andrew McKirahan (0.92) spun a scoreless ninth to record his sixth save.
Kane County Cougars (1-0)
T-1st Place (–)
Kane County tallied seven runs on eight-straight hits, including an inside-the-park home run from CF Jacob Hannemann, in the third inning of a rain-shortened 7-0 victory over visiting Cedar Rapids.
- RHP Daury Torrez pitched five scoreless innings, picking up the win.
- CF Jacob Hannemann (.242) went 2-for-3 with a run, the homer and two RBI (27).
- 1B Jacob Rogers (.248) notched his 18th double and his 29th RBI.
- 2B Danny Lockhart went 1-for-2 with two RBI (18).
- In his first game with Kane County, LF Kyle Schwarber went 1-for-3 with a run and an RBI.
Boise Hawks (4-3)
2nd Place (-1.0)
- C Justin Marra (.364) ripped his third homer, a two-run shot in the third, and his fourth double, finishing 2-for-6 with three runs and three RBI (10).
- LF Kevin Brown (.320) went 3-for-5 with three runs, a walk, and two doubles (3).
- 3B David Bote (.350) finished 1-for-4 with two walks, a double (3), an RBI (3), and two of Boise’s four stolen bases (4).
- RHP Josh Davis (3.00) blew his second save in as many games, allowing three unearned runs over one inning.
- LHP Alberto Diaz (0-1, 3.86) suffered his first loss, allowing a bases-loaded single to Eugene 2B Jalen Goree in the bottom of the 11th.
The Cubs have come to terms with second-round selection Jake Stinnett, fourth-round selection Carson Sands, fifth-round selection Justin Steele and seventh-round selection James Norwood from the 2014 First-Year Player Draft. Terms of the deals were not disclosed.
Stinnett, a right-handed pitcher from the University of Maryland, posted an 8-6 record with a 2.67 ERA in 17 games this season. The 22-year-old led the ACC with 132 strikeouts, four complete games and 118.0 innings pitched. He pitched the seventh no-hitter in U of M history on March 1 in a game against UMass.
Sands, 19, was 11-1 with a 0.58 ERA and one complete game in 14 outings, including 12 starts for North Florida Christian High School this past season. In 60.2 innings, he fanned 100 batters, or 14.8 K/9, and walked just 24. The left-hander pitched for Team USA on three occasions, winning a gold medal with the 18U club in 2012.
The 18-year-old Steele went 5-1 with a 0.98 ERA in eight games for George County High School (Miss.) this past season. He struck out 92 in 43.0 innings, good for an average of 19.3 K/9. He also walked just 12 and threw two no-hitters. His efforts earned him the 5A Player of the Year award in Mississippi.
Norwood, 20, went 8-2 with a 2.68 ERA (28 ER/94.0 IP) in 15 starts this season to cap off a three-year college career at Saint Louis University.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
For anyone doubting whether Starlin Castro could still hit, for anyone fearing an “inevitable” career regression, for anyone thinking he didn’t have the talent or drive to justify his seven-year, $60 million contract, the last day of April served notice that those fears might be a bit premature.
On a cloudy, 70-degree night at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, the Cubs shortstop went 3-for-4 with two doubles, a walk, a run and an RBI, raising his season slash line to .308/.339/.471 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with four home runs and a then-team-leading 14 RBI.
But perhaps the most important thing about that April 30 game—and possibly the whole first month of the Cubs’ season—was simply that Starlin Castro looked like Starlin Castro again. He was confident, aggressive and ready to swing the bat. When he saw a pitch he thought he could handle, he attacked it.
“I feel great this year,” Castro said. “I feel like I trust myself. I got a lot of positive things I’m doing. Last year, I didn’t have confidence in myself. That’s why I struggled for the whole year. I’m working a lot to just try to get those bad things and bad habits out of my mind and just be ready for this year.”
After two All-Star campaigns in 2011 and 2012, in which Castro compiled 390 hits and became the youngest-ever NL hits leader (207 hits in 2011), the Dominican native’s ascendant career hit a speed bump in 2013. Last year, he slipped to a .245/.284/.347 line, often looking indecisive at the plate, bereft of the trademark see-the-ball-hit-the-ball confidence that marked his first few years. That regression, coupled with some mental lapses in the field and on the basepaths, placed his every move under the microscope. Perhaps no player since Carlos Zambrano has been quite as scrutinized, dissected and parsed as the Cubs’ talented shortstop.
Opinions on Castro’s potential vary wildly, but it’s hard to deny he was one of the better natural hitters in the league for the first few years of his career. And the beginning of the 2014 season has provided significant hope that Castro hasn’t just returned to form, but might actually be better than before. It’s easy to forget that with four seasons under his belt, Castro is still just 24.
“Sometimes we assume that once a player has been in the big leagues for X amount of years, he’s finished completing his development,” said Cubs manager Rick Renteria. “I came up to the big leagues when I was 24 or 25, and I still didn’t know how to play the game. He got here when he was 20, and we assume he knows exactly everything he’s doing. I think he’s still learning.”
Much of the conversation on the North Side this offseason centered around whether “core” players like Castro and Anthony Rizzo could bounce back after struggling in 2013. Though the year is still young, Castro’s early numbers at the plate and in the field, coupled with his improved confidence, are definitely cause for optimism.
“I know he had a really tough year last year, but I have known him from the minor leagues,” said Cubs catcher Welington Castillo. “I’ve been playing with him my whole career. I think it was good in one aspect that it happened to him last year because that will make him stronger. And whenever it happens again, he won’t fall like last year. He’s an All-Star. He’s a really good player. That’s why he’s playing like he is now. He’s playing with confidence. He’s enjoying what he’s doing.”
So what happened in 2013? Despite any shortcomings Castro may have had early in his career, he could always match bat to ball. But comparing his 2013 season to the previous year (which already was not his best), he had 20 fewer hits, 34 fewer RBI, and lost 38 points off his batting average and 39 off his on-base percentage, all while striking out 29 more times.
“It’s hard, it’s unbelievable,” Castro said of his 2013 season. “I don’t even sleep good. It’s really tough. I don’t even [want to] talk about it anymore. I don’t want to put something in my head—a bad habit like that—I just want to be good for this year.”
There are a number of theories to explain the down season—one of the most popular of which is that Castro simply didn’t mesh well with former manager Dale Sveum and his coaching staff, who wanted the player to hit for more power and to focus on seeing more pitches per at-bat.
Though the idea sounded good in theory, it seemed to take Castro out of his game. When he’s going well, he swings—and typically swings hard—at anything he can get to, regardless of pitch type, and has a propensity for making hard contact. By the eye test last year, Castro looked hesitant, and the numbers bear that out. His isolated power (ISO), a measure of a hitter’s raw power, was down 34 points from his career average, his line drive rate was down by a percentage point, and his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was down 33 points. In other words, Castro was consistently making weaker contact.
“There’s definitely got to be an agreement with the player [about being more patient],” said Cubs hitting coach Bill Mueller. “I think that has to be a two-way street. It’s difficult to ask someone if they’re not fully committed into that. I don’t know what happened last year. I don’t know really what was asked or what was going on. I don’t really have any concerns about that. Basically, I’m concerned with right here, right now. And currently he’s a very good student, a great listener, a hard worker, and that’s what we’ve been seeing.
“Will there be times when he’ll make contact out of the strike zone and/or will miss out of the strike zone? Yeah. But he has that ability to put those balls in play at times. When he does that with a man on second in the bottom of the ninth, and he drives in a run, that’s a good feeling.”
It’s definitely an oversimplification to hang all the blame on a coaching staff just trying to do its job, but whatever the cause, it was clear the fun-loving Castro wasn’t having much fun in 2013. According to him, when he’s struggling, the underpinnings are almost always mental, not physical. Enter the unfailingly positive Rick Renteria and the Cubs’ 2014 coaching staff.
Renteria and Mueller’s goal from the beginning of Spring Training has simply been to get the All-Star back to his elite form—and if that means he swings at a few pitches out of the zone, so be it. Mueller has said he never tries to remake a hitter. He instead looks at what works for that player, and tries to maximize it.
“What we’ve tried to do is look at some of the stuff he was doing approach-wise from last year and just upgrade it and/or minimize it and/or ask him questions about it,” Mueller said. “We just tried to say, ‘In 2010 and 2011, you had a lot of success. I think what you were doing approach-wise was a very good approach, and that’s what we want to see. Will you consider or think about that type of way again?’ And he considered it, and I think it’s been working great so far.”
ON THE UPSWING
After experiencing almost nothing but success for the first three years of his career, the 2013 campaign was Castro’s first real career crossroads. And he responded exactly how you’d want a young player to respond—with a fierce determination not to let it happen again.
He spent much of the offseason at the renowned private training facility IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. The goal wasn’t just to get his swing back, but to improve his defense, agility and fitness.
Castro came into Spring Training 2014 looking decidedly more muscular and said he was in the best shape of his life. Unfortunately, an early-spring hamstring injury forced him to miss most of the Cactus League season.
Never one to take a day off—since his first full season in 2011, Castro has missed a grand total of five games—he jumped into the Opening Day lineup with almost no live Spring Training at-bats. Not surprisingly, he came out of the chute struggling, going 2-for-17 with five strikeouts in his first four games.
But from that point on, he picked things up to the tune of .302/.344/.506. The key, Castro said, is that he has his confidence and aggressiveness back and feels he can hit any pitch. So far this season, his line drive rate is up to 22.3 percent, and his strikeout rate is down to 16.3 percent, both better than his career averages. The more times a player makes hard contact, the better the outcomes are likely to be.
“You can tell a guy like me that always swings, ‘Hey, take some pitches,’” Castro said. “It’s not easy for me. … That’s why the guys on top they tell me, ‘Hey, be the player that you always be. Do whatever you know how to do. Be aggressive at the plate like you always be.’ And that’s what I’m doing now.
“I lost some aggressiveness last year. I’m going to feel really aggressive this year. If I strike out, that’s OK. I’ll get another at-bat. That’s the confidence that I didn’t have last year. If I strike out last year, next at-bat, strike out again. This year, I feel more comfortable that I can go to home plate and have a great at-bat.”
PERCEPTION VS. REALITY
In the countless ruminations on Castro and his future, the one point that often gets missed is what a hard worker he is. There’s a common misperception that he is checked out of games because of his occasional mental lapses. But the view of Castro in the clubhouse is much different.
“He’s one of those guys who’s the face of the team,” Castillo said. “I know a lot of people got on him last year, but that’s in the past. We have to move forward. It brings a lot of confidence for the team when he’s playing like this, when you see Starlin on the field. That’s a guy that never wants to be out of the lineup. He wants to play every day, no matter what. So he brings a lot of energy and a lot of positivity to the team.”
In his five big league seasons, Castro has played for four different managers, and each has taken a different approach to try to get the most out of him. But no coach has had issues with his work ethic, passion or coachability.
This year, Castro immediately connected to Renteria, Mueller and assistant hitting coach Mike Brumley. Much has been made of the fact that Renteria speaks Spanish, and thus can better communicate with Latin players, and there’s definitely something to that. But the new regime also believes in positive reinforcement and in helping players maximize their individual strengths, and that seemed to click with Castro. Renteria said the staff spends a lot of time talking to the young shortstop, even during games, to reinforce their messages.
Another seldom-mentioned positive is that Castro has been willing to do whatever the Cubs have asked of him throughout his career. Aside from rarely taking a day off, he’s batted almost everywhere in the lineup. This season, he’s hit second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth, and last year he got some at-bats from nearly every spot in the order.
He said he tries to model himself after players like Derek Jeter and fellow Dominican Miguel Tejada, and learned a lot about how to be a professional from former mentor Alfonso Soriano.
Castro shocked many critics this offseason when he quickly defused concerns about a brewing animosity between him and shortstop prospect Javier Baez, who many expect to make his debut with the Cubs this year. When Castro was asked if he would switch positions to accommodate the power-hitting phenom, he said he would because his primary focus is on winning. He even acted as a mentor to the game’s No. 6 prospect (MLB.com) throughout the spring.
“Me and him, we’re good friends,” Castro said. “We don’t have anything bad because he’s a shortstop and I’m a shortstop. You play baseball, I play baseball. You’re good, I’m good. Whatever spot they put me, whatever spot they put you, if we be together, we’ll be all right. Our job is to win games.”
Of course, despite Castro’s success in 2014, one month does not a season make. In order for him to prove he’s truly a cornerstone player for the organization, he needs to find consistent success—on offense and defense—over 162 games. But at a time when the Cubs desperately need their young veterans to step up, especially as their top prospects get nearer to the major leagues, Castro is looking better in every facet of the game. He’s hitting to expectations, throwing his body around on defense and having fun on the field again.
“The run of the season will give a real indication of how he’s done and how he’s moving forward,” Renteria said. “You can’t really know what a season is in a week. You have to give it a season. But are we moving in the right direction? I think so.”
That’s great news for Cubs fans—and terrible news for opposing pitchers.
Strong pitching carried Iowa, and Daytona wrapped up the first half with a victory Wednesday. Meanwhile, Boise couldn’t get the bats going, and Tennessee and Kane County both enjoyed time off for the All-Star break. Here are some highlights from yesterday’s minor league action:
Iowa Cubs (35-35)
3rd Place (-4.5)
Iowa snapped its two-game skid with a 3-1 victory over visiting El Paso.
- RHP Dallas Beeler picked up the win with six scoreless innings, giving up just three hits and fanning six.
- 1B Josh Vitters (.226) went 3-for-4 with a fifth-inning, solo home run.
- C Rafael Lopez (.278) went 2-for-4 with a run scored and his 10th RBI of the season.
- RHP Marcus Hatley (2.57) and LHP Zac Rosscup (3.21) each recorded holds.
- RHP Blake Parker (1.45) converted his 14th save of the year with a scoreless ninth inning of work.
Daytona Cubs (26-42)
5th Place (-19.5)
Daytona finished its first half of the season with an 11-2 victory over visiting Tampa.
- RHP Tayler Scott gave up two earned runs over six innings and struck out two to pick up the win.
- 1B Rock Shoulders (.201) went 1-for-5 with a first-inning grand slam.
- 2B Gioskar Amaya (.282) went 3-for-4 with his second homer of the season and three RBI (22).
- RF Pin-Chieh Chen (.268) went 3-for-5 with a run, a triple (6) and one RBI (17).
- DH Dan Vogelbach (.259) and LF Bijan Rademacher (.292) each had two hits apiece.
Boise Hawks (4-2)
T-1st Place (–)
- DH David Bote (.375) went 1-for-3 with an eighth-inning, solo home run.
- 3B Jesse Hodges (.150) went 1-for-3 with his second RBI of the season.
- RHP Trey Masek (0.00) struck out four hitters in two scoreless innings of relief.