Results tagged ‘ Starlin Castro ’
(Photo by Stephen Green)
The Cubs may be only a brief stop away from their next destination. Or, perhaps, a shortstop. That is, if they are willing to trade one.
In his postseason address to season ticket holders, President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein said he expects the team to contend for a division title in 2015. And that was before marquee manager Joe Maddon first put on the pinstripes at the Cubby Bear.
With holes still to fill, the Cubs can’t stop short with their hiring of Maddon. In their quest to be the best, middle-infield depth could be the key to acquiring more pieces to the puzzle.
Since arriving in October 2011, Epstein and his front office mates have done a lot of heavy lifting to strengthen the organization—signing international free agents, making astute picks in the June amateur draft and trading for other teams’ top prospects. As a result, the Cubs’ system is rated among the consensus top three in the majors.
At this stage, moving surplus talent, notably at shortstop, could be vital to improving the major league product.
“I believe the Cubs potentially have three All-Stars in [Starlin] Castro, [Javier] Baez and [Addison] Russell,” said a top major league executive. “I watched Russell last year in the Arizona Fall League. This year in the minor leagues, he got a little thicker and stronger. This young man is going to be a fine hitter and could very well be an All-Star shortstop. I love his natural instincts. Nothing about his game is below average.”
The Cubs acquired Oakland’s top draft picks from 2012 and 2013—Russell and outfielder Billy McKinney—along with pitcher Dan Straily in a July 4 deal for starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Athletics General Manager Billy Beane said he didn’t want to trade the 20-year-old Russell, rated the No. 5 prospect in the game by MLB.com, but succumbed to the urge to add pitching depth in hopes of making a deep playoff run last season.
Of the three shortstops in question, Baez has the greatest power potential. His lack of contact at the major league level—95 strikeouts in his first 213 at-bats—hasn’t tempered the club’s confidence in him. Epstein said Baez will start the 2015 campaign on the Cubs’ 25-man roster, “barring anything out of the ordinary.”
A top National League scout raved about the raw skills he sees in Baez, who turns 22 on Dec. 1.
“I love his power, and he really seems comfortable at shortstop,” the scout said. “He’s not a flashy fielder—just gets the ball and throws the runner out. Baez has less moving parts than Castro.
“Will he hit? I really think so. Remember when [Anthony] Rizzo first came up in San Diego? He struck out almost 40 percent of the time. That bat speed and the quick hands cannot be taught. [Baez] is 21 and struck out at every level a lot of times until he figured it out. I like him as a shortstop, second baseman or third baseman. And I see a lot of extra-base hits in his future.”
The Cubs’ third shortstop jewel is the young veteran Castro, already a three-time All-Star at just 24 years old. His recovery from a disappointing 2013 season was a boon for both him and the organization.
After landing a seven-year, $60 million contract in August 2012, Castro seemed to enter 2013 as if he had nothing to prove. He reported to camp 10 pounds heavier and never hit his stride, batting just .245 on the season (39 points below his current lifetime average).
In 2014, a rededicated Castro led the team in hitting with a .292 mark from the middle of the order and regained his All-Star status. Working with infield instructor Gary Jones, he also reduced his errors from 22 to 15—the first season in four he didn’t lead major league shortstops in miscues.
The question of what the Cubs will do with their surplus of middle-infield talent could be answered this winter. If so, Castro might be the likeliest to go. At least three major-market teams will be seeking a top shortstop, and Castro would seem the most marketable commodity as an already-established big league star.
Ultimately, the Cubs could elect to keep all three shortstops—each 24 or younger—and move two of them to different positions. Baez is currently scheduled to be the Opening Day second baseman, with Russell ticketed to play shortstop at either Double-A Tennessee or Triple-A Iowa.
Maddon’s arrival seems to accelerate the team’s timetable for winning. A blockbuster deal for a top young pitcher could be the next step.
In other words, don’t sell Epstein short. Not so long as he has shortstops to sell.
—Bruce Levine and Joel Bierig
Javier Baez got his first taste of major league action this summer. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
When Theo Epstein sat in front of the assembled media last October and announced, “The story [around the league] is that the Cubs are coming fast, and the Cubs are coming strong,” many had trouble stifling laughter. How could Epstein suggest a team fresh off its third-consecutive 90-loss season was on the rise—especially during a press conference announcing the firing of the club’s manager, Dale Sveum?
It seemed preposterous at the time, but Epstein was hardly joking. He knew what he and his staff had built over the previous two seasons, and he believed it wouldn’t be long before that lofty statement was accepted as fact—even by those not paying close attention to what’s been happening in the Cubs system.
Sure enough, while the 2014 season didn’t produce a dramatic increase in wins, the media and fans finally got a chance to see what the Cubs have been building, as the first wave of prospects finally funneled into Wrigley Field.
It all began with Arismendy Alcantara and Kyle Hendricks, two somewhat under-the-radar prospects, but intriguing players nonetheless. Next, one of the best power hitters in the minors, Javier Baez, arrived in the big leagues—along with the corresponding media maelstrom. Finally, the Cubs called up Cuban slugger Jorge Soler toward the end of August.
Not every one of these young players immediately took the National League by storm. There have been ups and downs. But each has provided a spark and shown the potential to be a big contributor to the next Cubs playoff run—which is exactly how the front office drew it up.
“It’s a lot of fun, and there’s definitely a lot of energy,” Hendricks said. “I’m just glad a lot of us have been able to perform well. I think that’s a testament to the coaching we have in the minor leagues. The guys got us ready for this level.”
Epstein understands that this process, which has included many losses, has been tough for both the players and the fans. That’s why finally being able to display the fruits of the front office’s labor has been so rewarding.
“These are players who have been part of our plan, part of our vision, for a while now,” Epstein said. “Now that they’re up here, people can get excited about it. It creates a little bit of momentum, which is nice to have around the organization.”
So what exactly is the Cubs’ vision, and what has the organization been doing to realize it?
When Epstein was first introduced as president of baseball operations in late October 2011, he laid out his plan for how he wanted to rebuild an organization that had gone from being the toast of the National League to 91 losses in just three years.
“Our goal will be to build the best scouting department in the game—one that makes an annual impact in the draft and internationally,” Epstein said at the time. “As far as player development goes, we will define and implement a Cubs Way of playing the game, and we won’t rest until there is a steady stream of talent coming through the minor league system trained in that Cubs Way making an impact out here at Wrigley Field.”
Epstein didn’t waste much time in following through with those promises. A week after his introduction, he sat in front of the media yet again, this time introducing Jed Hoyer as his new executive vice president and general manager and Jason McLeod, a man Epstein referred to as the “rarest commodity in the industry—an impact evaluator of baseball talent,” as his senior vice president of scouting and player development.
The three men spent the next year evaluating what they were working with from the bottom of the organization all the way to the top. After a year, they made a few tweaks to the scouting department, and completely revamped the player development side. Brandon Hyde was brought in as the farm director, but has since moved on to become manager Rick Renteria’s bench coach, while Jaron Madison has transitioned from amateur scouting director to Hyde’s old position.
Under Hyde, the Cubs hired four new minor league coordinators and had one of their better developmental seasons throughout the system in 2013.
Of course, it certainly helped that so much talent had been added to the mix—and continues to be added to this day—through astute trades, the amateur draft and international signings.
“In order to have success in this game, the foundation has to be through scouting and player development,” Hoyer said when he was introduced as general manager. “There’s no shortcut. There’s no magic bullet. All three of us believe in the philosophy wholeheartedly.”
Hoyer acknowledged the ultimate goal is to win a championship, so the baseball operations department first had to build a team that went into Spring Training every season with a realistic shot at making the playoffs. Less than three years later, it appears the Cubs are on the verge of achieving that goal.
And it’s not just the players who have reached the majors this year that have so many people both inside and outside the game optimistic about the Cubs’ immediate future. While the influx of top-notch talent is undeniable, it’s quite likely the best is yet to come.
Last year’s top draft pick, Kris Bryant, dominated every level of the minor leagues, making it all the way to Triple-A Iowa in his first full professional season. His otherworldly stat line of .325/.438/.661 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 43 home runs and 110 RBI has pushed the third baseman to the top of the national prospect rankings. Shortly after the season, he was named both USA Today’s and Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year. Addison Russell, a consensus top 10 prospect in the game, was acquired in early July via trade and has continued to excel, hitting for both power and average while playing strong defense at shortstop.
Kyle Schwarber was the fourth pick in June’s amateur draft and has already shot up two levels in the Cubs system. So far, he has displayed an impressive combination of power and patience at the plate and appears to be on the fast track to the majors.
And that’s not all. The regime’s first draft pick from 2012, Albert Almora, made it to Double-A at the tender age of 20, and the international scouts flexed their muscles in 2013, as the Cubs spent more money than any other organization. Thanks to those efforts, they added big-time prospects like Jen-Ho Tseng, Eloy Jimenez, Gleybar Torres and Jefferson Mejia, all of whom are proving advanced for their age and are ranked as top 20 organizational prospects by MLB.com.
The system is not only loaded with talent, it’s also deep, ensuring that as the Cubs continue to graduate players to the big leagues, the cupboard won’t suddenly be left bare. It looks like Epstein and Hoyer have built the scouting and player development “machine” they promised to work toward when they were first brought into the organization.
CALL TO ARMS
Of course, since the majority of the Cubs’ young players grabbing headlines are bats, there are still questions about where the organization is going to find the right combination of arms to lead the charge. But even on that front, the team is better off than most people realize.
The front office has now divested the organization of the many onerous contracts from the Hendry regime—meaning there is money to spend—and has proven quite adept at identifying and acquiring undervalued pitching talent. Names like Paul Maholm, Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel, who all excelled under the tutelage of pitching coach Chris Bosio, have been used to acquire players who fit into both the short- and long-term plans.
Feldman, in particular, netted a huge piece in pitcher Jake Arrieta. A former top prospect, the 28-year-old underwhelmed during parts of four years in the majors with the Baltimore Orioles. Though Arrieta was perhaps at his lowest value at the time, the Cubs were bullish about the struggling righty. After missing the first month of the 2014 season with shoulder soreness, Arrieta went on to make the move look like a stroke of genius, putting together a season that rivals those of some of the best pitchers in the game.
Hendricks, acquired from the Rangers in the 2012 Ryan Dempster deal, also opened eyes with a strong run of starts to begin his major league career. Though many had the 24-year-old pegged as a fringe major leaguer and back-end starter at best, his poise and control are making some wonder whether he can exceed expectations and become a big part of the rotation’s future.
“He’s doing exactly what he did in the minor leagues,” Epstein said. “He’s as polished and prepared as you’ll see with any rookie. We speculated that he might even take it to another level when he got to the big leagues because he uses all the tools available to him as well as anybody.
“We have video in the minor leagues, but we don’t have this much video. We have scouting reports in the minor leagues, but we don’t have scouting reports this extensive. He just attacks the video and attacks scouting reports. They’re a huge weapon for him. You see the confidence he has. No matter how good a hitter he’s facing, he’s likely to have identified one area he can attack and put [himself] in a good position to have a chance to get him out. I think that’s been big for him. We’re awfully proud of how he’s adjusted.”
Epstein has acknowledged that while he doesn’t think the Cubs’ position player group is a finished product, he certainly feels great about the nucleus the organization has built. Even with Arrieta, Hendricks and the surprisingly impressive Tsuyoshi Wada (who will be 34 next season, but could still find himself competing for a spot in the Cubs rotation), the obvious focus becomes how to build up the front five.
“I like some of the pitchers we have coming along in the minor leagues, and I think our big league staff has done sort of an underrated job this year,” Epstein said. “There are some bright spots. But we’ve been open about the fact that it would be nice to add an impact pitcher or two. When you look over the next 18 months or so, that’s certainly a priority for us. Whether we develop one from an unlikely spot like might be happening with Arrieta or acquire someone who’s already at those heights remains to be seen.”
FINISHING THE JOB
Surprise success stories like Arrieta and Hendricks, coupled with bounce-back years from Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, have certainly boosted the optimism around the team as the prospects are rising to the big leagues.
“It’s good for the fans,” Hendricks said. “They’ve needed some winning the last few years, and unfortunately we haven’t been able to give it to them. I think with a lot of us young guys coming up—a lot of young hitters especially—they’re doing an unbelievable job. And there’s more to come.”
While the narrative may have recently changed as far as the media and average fans are concerned, nobody within the Cubs organization considers the work done.
“Our fans deserve to get excited. I’m happy for them,” Epstein said. “Ultimately, the only thing that matters is winning. That’s what’s on our mind, and we’re working hard to get there. Having young players that are worth following and at-bats you can’t miss, we’re human and that makes us feel good that our fans have something like that in their lives at this point, because certainly there’s been some tough times that they’ve had to endure.”
Epstein and company know they’ve still got work to do. They’re aware that pitching is a need, as is a veteran presence in the clubhouse to lead by example. But they strongly believe they’re on the right path and have felt that way for some time now. Still, the ultimate goal has yet to be accomplished.
“We’ve felt really good about it for a period now, and we also feel like there’s so much more work to do that we don’t deserve any kudos or pats on the back,” Epstein said. “On the other hand, we’re all human, and we feel the optimism of our fans and our players. It only makes us want to work harder and finish it off. We’ll feel like it’s finished when we win the last game in October.”
—Sahadev Sharma, Baseball Prospectus
The Cubs today placed shortstop Starlin Castro on the bereavement list and placed right-handed pitcher Edwin Jackson on the 15-day DL with a right lat strain. Infielder Logan Watkins and left-handed pitcher Zac Rosscup have been recalled from Triple-A Iowa.
Both Rosscup and Watkins, who will wear uniform No. 45, will be available for the Cubs this afternoon when they resume their suspended game with the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field at 4:05 p.m.
Rosscup, 26, joins the Cubs for his fifth stint this season and has no record and a 7.50 ERA (5 ER/6.0 IP) in seven big league relief outings. He began the year with four scoreless appearances but allowed five runs in 2.0 innings covering three appearances during his last big league stay and was optioned to Iowa on July 20. With Iowa, Rosscup is 2-0 with four saves and a 2.10 ERA (7 ER/30.0 IP) in 29 relief appearances.
Watkins, 24, joins the Cubs for the first time this season after batting .256 (81-for-316) with 20 doubles, one triple, four home runs and 38 RBI in 101 games with Iowa this year. The left-handed hitter made his big league debut with the Cubs last season and batted .211 (8-for-38) with one double in 27 games.
Castro is batting .284 (141-for-496) with 31 doubles, one triple, 13 home runs and 64 RBI during his 2014 All-Star season. Bereavement list rules allow for a stay of a minimum of three days and a maximum of seven days.
Jackson is 6-14 with 6.09 ERA (94 ER/139.0 IP) in 26 starts for the Cubs this season.
(Images by Brian Kersey/Getty Images)
Cubs catcher John Baker picked up his first career win, coming in as an emergency reliever in the top of the 16th inning of the Cubs’ 4-3 marathon win over Colorado. Then in the bottom half of the inning, Baker walked and scored the game-winning run on a Starlin Castro sacrifice fly to right field. The six-hour, 27-minute game was the longest in team history.
The heart of the Cubs order will be on hand for Tuesday night’s 2014 MLB All-Star Game in Minneapolis, as Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo will represent the North Siders in the Midsummer Classic.
Despite just being 24 years old, Castro is already participating in his third All-Star Game. After struggling for much of 2013, the shortstop has bounced back this season, hitting .276/.326/.440 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 11 home runs and 52 RBI.
Joining Castro in the NL dugout is first baseman Rizzo, who is making his first All-Star appearance. The National League’s Final Vote winner has hit 20 home runs (third in the NL) to go along with his .275/.381/.499 line and is quickly earning comparisons to some of the game’s top first basemen.
Castro and Rizzo spoke to Vine Line this week about what it means to be selected to the All-Star Game.
Sunday night, it was announced that Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro was elected to the 2014 National League All-Star team. It’s the third All-Star selection of his major league career, and Castro will represent the Cubs at the 85th Major League All-Star Game Tuesday, July 15 at Minnesota’s Target Field.
Like Castro, right-handed pitcher Jeff Samardzija was also elected to the NL squad by way of the player vote. While Samardzija is eligible to attend and participate in All-Star activities and will receive full NL All-Star honors and recognition, he will be ineligible to play for the NL team due to his recent trade to the Oakland Athletics.
First baseman Anthony Rizzo is one of five players nominated for the NL’s 2014 All-Star Game MLB.com Final Vote ballot. Fans can now vote to select the final player for each league’s roster via cubs.com, MLB.com and on their mobile phones (fans can text the choice “N4” to 89269 to vote for Rizzo). Voting concludes at 3 p.m. CT on Thursday, July 10.
The 24-year-old Castro becomes only the third shortstop in franchise history to be selected to at least three All-Star teams, joining Ernie Banks (nine times as a shortstop) and Don Kessinger (six times). He is one of only six shortstops to be named an All-Star in franchise history, joining the aforementioned Banks and Kessinger, Billy Jurges (once), Woody English (once) and Shawon Dunston (twice), who was the most-recent Cubs shortstop to earn All-Star recognition (in 1990) leading up to Castro’s first All-Star season in 2011.
In 2011, Castro became the youngest player in franchise history to be named to an All-Star team at age 22. In 2012, he became the first Cubs shortstop to be named to the All-Star team in consecutive seasons since Don Kessinger’s five-year run from 1968-72. Castro, Dunston and Kessinger are the only three Cubs shortstops to earn All-Star honors in the last 50 years.
Castro entered play on Sunday batting .290 with 26 doubles, one triple, 11 home runs and 50 RBI while starting every game at shortstop for the Cubs. He entered the day leading all major league shortstops with 38 extra-base hits and was one of only four players in baseball with 12 games of three or more hits.
Samardzija, 29, departed the Cubs with a 2-7 record and a 2.83 ERA in 17 starts this season. This is Samardzija’s first career All-Star honor. He is the first right-handed pitcher to earn All-Star honors for the Cubs since Ryan Dempster, Carlos Marmol, Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano were all named to the NL team in 2008.
The 24-year-old Rizzo entered play on Sunday leading all NL first basemen with 17 home runs and was tied for the NL lead with 14 home runs since April 30. He ranked first among league first basemen in walks (50), was tied for first with 16 go-ahead RBI and was fourth with an .873 OPS. Overall, he was batting .274 with 13 doubles, one triple, 17 home runs and 45 RBI in 84 games.
Besides using the web to vote for the final player for each league’s 34-man roster, fans can use their mobile phones to cast votes via the mobile web at MLB.com/vote or via text message. To receive the All-Star Game MLB.com Final Vote Sponsored by Experian mobile ballot, text the word “VOTE” to 89269. To vote specifically for Rizzo, text the choice “N4” to 89269. Standard message and data rates may apply. Text “STOP” to end and “HELP” for information. Mobile voting in Canada also is available and fans should text their choices to 101010.
(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.
Sometimes the gap between perception and reality can be exceedingly wide. What’s visible from the outside is often much different from what is being experienced on the inside.
Case in point, there are essentially two Starlin Castros.
There’s the Starlin Castro the fans see and have a love-hate relationship with. The one who is perceived by some as uncommitted, unfocused and inconsistent.
Much of this characterization is, of course, informed by the 2013 season. After two All-Star campaigns from 2011-12, in which Castro compiled 390 hits and earned a seven-year, $60 million contract, things went off the rails a little last year. Castro slipped to a .245/.284/.347 (AVG/OBP/SLG) line, often looking lost at the plate, bereft of the trademark confidence that defined his early career. That regression, coupled with some defensive lapses, have placed the 24-year-old’s every move under the fan and media microscope.
But there’s another Starlin Castro as well—the player his teammates see. This is the Castro who is putting up remarkable early-career numbers, goes to the post every day, is eager to learn, and brings constant energy and excitement to the clubhouse.
“He’s one of those guys who’s the face of the team,” said Cubs catcher and longtime teammate Welington Castillo. “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.”
Through his age-23 season—which, as we all know, includes one very off year—the Cubs shortstop had compiled 692 hits. To put that into perspective, by age 23, Hank Aaron had 718 hits, Cal Ripken Jr. had 569, Derek Jeter had 385, and all-time hits leader Pete Rose had just 309.
In other words, the guy can rake. It’s difficult to fluke your way into 700 big league hits before you’re old enough to rent a car.
And through the first month-plus of the 2014 season, Castro looked to be back to his early-career form. His aggressiveness is back, and that has Cubs personnel excited about the future. For the June issue of Vine Line, we talk to Castro’s teammates, coaches and the man himself to find out what has triggered the young star’s resurgence.
As part of our ongoing Wrigley 100 series, we also go back to the 1940s at the Friendly Confines, when a group of trailblazing women turned the baseball world upside down. With World War II rationing taking its toll on major league attendance and players being redirected to the war effort, Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley and other executives were desperate for a way to reinvigorate the game. Enter the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, popularized in the 1992 film A League of Their Own. We examine the role Cubs ownership and Wrigley Field played in the formation and life of the league.
Finally, with Father’s Day on the horizon, we get a little sentimental. Baseball is a tradition that has always been passed down from fathers to sons. To celebrate the holiday, we talk to current Cubs players about the impact their fathers have had on their lives and careers. Needless to say, when the Cubs take the field 162 times a year, there are some pretty excited dads out there.
For more in-depth stories about the Cubs organization, pick up the June issue of Vine Line, or subscribe for just $29.95. You can also find us on Twitter at @cubsvineline.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Most of the Cubs offseason was dedicated to speculation about whether young stars Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo could bounce back from disappointing 2013 campaigns. Through the first two weeks of the season, things are looking good, as both have gotten off to fast starts. While the team’s record might not be indicative of their strong play, the Cubs’ two most important offensive names have played to the level that earned them each seven-year extensions before their 24th birthdays.
Rizzo, who has batted in the heart of the order this season, is hitting .319/.389/.489 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with a pair of home runs, two doubles and eight RBI in 54 plate appearances. Power wasn’t an issue last year, as he was fifth in the National League in extra-base hits, but his abysmal .191 batting average with runners in scoring position limited a lot of the Cubs run-scoring opportunities. This season—in, admittedly, a very small sample—he’s hitting .400 in with runners in scoring position and giving life to the offense.
“I think you try to eliminate the stress that comes in that particular situation,” said Cubs manager Rick Renteria. “The reality is the pitcher’s the one on the ropes at that time. It’s tough to hit in the big leagues. It’s not the easiest thing to do. You’ve got a guy out there on the hill who’s trying to get you out and has a mix of pitches. Then you have yourself, trying to stay within yourself, trying to do what you can do and allow the situation to dictate the type of approach you should be taking. It’s just through trial and error and experience and continuing to talk about it [that we get better].”
Castro, who is two full seasons removed from a 2011 campaign in which he led the NL in hits, looks to be regaining his old form. The 24-year-old’s .300/.327/.460 line is well above where he finished in 2013 (.245/.284/.347), and he looks to be more comfortable at the plate. The shortstop has been batting mainly second or sixth so far and seems to be comfortable in either role.
“When you talk to all the guys, they’re not worried so much about where they’re hitting in the lineup,” Renteria said. “He’s comfortable wherever we put him. The player who ends up putting himself in the position where he believes he should only be hitting in a particular spot, puts himself in trouble.”
Spring is a time for hope, optimism and new beginnings. This season, the Cubs are welcoming a new manager, several new coaches and a host of new players to the fold.
We talked to Cubs personnel, new and old, about the feeling in camp this year and how things are different under skipper Rick Renteria.
We’ll be posting videos and stories from Cubs Park throughout the spring, so watch the blog and our Twitter account, @cubsvineline.
Check out the other videos from our Spring Training series:
Cubscast Mesa, Inside Cubs Park
Cubscast Mesa with Rick Renteria and the 2014 coaching staff
Cubscast Mesa with the top prospects
Cubscast Mesa: Meet the new guys
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part One
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Two
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Three
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Four