Cubs finding pieces to build around Starlin Castro

Cubs finding pieces to build around Starlin Castro
May 8, 2012, 5:37 am
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Two years ago, the Cubs promoted Starlin Castro and framed it as a way to get better defensively, with more range and a stronger arm. Anything on offense was supposed to be a bonus.

The 20-year-old shortstop smashed those expectations on May 7, 2010, launching a three-run bomb in his first at-bat and finishing with six RBI, the most ever for a player making his major-league debut.

Castro hasnt stopped hitting since that night in Cincinnati. In those two calendar years, only Michael Young (402), Ichiro Suzuki (397) and Adrian Gonzalez (391) have more hits than Castro (385).

Come and get it was the message Ryan Theriot delivered to reporters in spring training that year. The Cubs now have their All-Star shortstop to build around for the next decade.

Some of those pieces that could make the Cubs (12-17) relevant again showed up in Mondays 5-1 win over the Atlanta Braves at Wrigley Field.

Bryan LaHair and Ian Stewart hit back-to-back shots into the right-field bleachers off Tommy Hanson in the fourth inning. LaHair now has eight homers and 16 RBI in his last 19 games with an at-bat.

Castro and LaHair are giving the Cubs a 3-4 punch in the middle of the lineup. Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija who limited the Braves (18-12) to one run in seven innings have the stuff to potentially form the top of a playoff rotation.

A new administration saw the raw potential in Samardzija to become a frontline starter. Team president Theo Epstein said the art is in the consistency from one start to the next. Samardzija is now 4-1 with a 3.03 ERA.

Im doing a good job of slowing down, Samardzija said, and really thinking through at-bats and remembering what they did previously. Thats all part of pitching. They get to know you a little more, but you also get to know them a little more, too. You find what works and kind of stick with it. You got to mix it up.

Where Samardzija probably needed fresh voices and new sets of eyes to evaluate him, Castro just keeps hitting, not bothered by the changes in the organization, the media scrutiny, or the price of fame.

Castros hitting .350 and has reached base safely in 66 of his last 69 games. He went 2-for-4 on Monday night and smacked a two-out RBI single up the middle in the seventh inning, giving the Cubs an insurance run.

Castro has already played for three different managers Lou Piniella, Mike Quade and Dale Sveum, an old shortstop who started giving pointers during the first workout in spring training.

Sveum became the Milwaukee Brewers hitting coach and watched their homegrown core develop into a playoff contender. Ready or not, Sveum felt it was best for the future of the franchise to commit to Castro as their No. 3 hitter this year.

Its just a learning curve now (with) situational hitting, Sveum said. (Its) men in scoring position and knowing what the pitchers going to give you. Prepare for that and understand what the pitchers going to do in certain situations.

Thats his biggest learning curve. Hes always going to hit hes just got the mechanics and the hand-eye coordination. Now the important part is (getting) the big hits later in the game when youre facing (better) velocity and stuff.

Of course, three nights after that spectacular debut, Castro made his first appearance at Wrigley Field and got booed after making three errors.

Castro had 56 errors during his first two years in the big leagues, and hes already committed eight this season. Year 3 will be pivotal.

On Opening Day, Epstein was asked a broad question about overall team defense, and his general answer seemed to give some insight into how the organization views Castro as a long-term answer at shortstop.

Theres an emphasis on fundamentals, making the routine play and not just talking about it, Epstein said. (Thats) physically breaking down proper footwork, proper throwing mechanics, proper team fundamental play on bunt plays and the running game. We spent a lot of time working on it.

Defense is one of those areas where you can get better individually and as a team through hard work. Its hard to take someone whos a .230 hitter with no power and no patience and say: Go rake and get on base and hit for power. Thats hard to do.

But you can take someone whos got some defensive issues and work with them through repetition. There can be a lot of improvement. I hope the hard work pays off.

Heres an interesting question for Cubs fans: Where will Castro be two years from now? His smiling face up on billboards? A leader in a clubhouse that includes Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson? The answer will probably say something about where the Cubs are heading.