Starlin, Junior and the Cubs search for talent worldwide

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Starlin, Junior and the Cubs search for talent worldwide

SURPRISE, Ariz. Starlin Castro is a walking billboard at the academy in the Dominican Republic, where the Cubs think they can find the next big thing.

Castro and Alfonso Soriano train there during the offseason, and if they didnt work out hard, a team official once said, the Cubs wouldnt let them into the complex. The teenagers dont need to see big-leaguers coasting.

The little kids look at me like (Im at) the top, Castro said Wednesday. I hang out with everybody. I dont care that somebody says, Oh, why are you here? I (tell them): I passed through here. When I was a little kid, I was here, too.

The Cubs were probably slow to the game internationally that budget item fluctuated under Tribune Co. ownership and a new collective bargaining agreement will limit the amount they can spend in that market.

But going global has been a priority for chairman Tom Ricketts, whose family recently held a board meeting in the Dominican and unveiled plans for a new academy that will be part of a 50-acre development.

In assessing the organization from top to bottom, Theo Epstein found the technology to be lacking and had to bring in some of his own people. But the new president was pleasantly surprised by the pipeline that produced Castro.

We have one clear strength in our system overall our Latin American scouting and player development operation, Epstein said at the Cubs Convention. Its an outstanding operation. The players there are playing better fundamental baseball than any other Dominican academy Ive ever been in. It was really impressive. Its not a coincidence that weve developed a pretty nice game with Latin American prospects.

The next one to watch is opening eyes around Cubs camp.

The Cubs signed Castro and Junior Lake within almost three months of each other. Lakes bonus (110,000) was more than twice the amount Castro signed for. They played together on the same Dominican summer league team in 2007. The next year they were roommates in Arizona for rookie ball.

The first half of one season, Castro recalled, Lake played shortstop while Castro played second base. They switched positions for the second half.

Castro whos three days older and will turn 22 this month smashed all the timelines and rocketed through the system and emerged as an All-Star shortstop last season.

Lake split last season between Class-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee and batted .279 with 80 runs scored, 12 homers, 51 RBI and 38 stolen bases. Lake then hit .296 in the Arizona Fall League and stole 18 bases in 28 games.

The same thing that happened to me, Castro said. Thats happening with him right now. I said, Good luck and keep going. I talk to him a lot. Hes got a chance to be a superstar, too. Hes got a lot of talent. Hes ready.

Lake was signed in part by Jose Serra, the same scout who closed on Castro and became Carlos Marmols godfather. Special assistant Louis Eljaua who once helped the Boston Red Sox build their academy in the Dominican will be overseeing the construction for the Cubs.

There are reasons why Ricketts gave vice president of player personnel Oneri Fleita whos bilingual and has run international operations a new four-year contract after the chairman fired general manager Jim Hendry.

Around last Thanksgiving, Epstein led a group of Cubs officials to the Dominican, where they scouted several players, including Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes, who ultimately took a four-year, 36 million deal with the Oakland As.

The Cubs did a lot of background work on Cespedes, and theyve built up relationships and contacts throughout Latin America, which will matter whenever Jorge Soler, another Cuban defector, is declared a free agent. If Solers signed before July, it wont count against the cap imposed by the new labor deal, so expect the Cubs to be in a bidding war.

Looking toward the future, people around the Cubs say Lake has grown significantly taller in the last year or so. He appears to be around 6-foot-3, if not bigger, looking more like an NBA guard than a typical shortstop.

The guys a specimen with some kind of athletic body, manager Dale Sveum said. Hes got to just keep playing. He needs at-bats in games because thats a pretty good talent coming.

Though raw defensively, Lake is said to have a Shawon Dunston type of arm. Sveum has noticed Lakes offensive instincts, pointing out a delayed steal and a few good two-strike at-bats in the Cactus League. Could Lake play third base?

Sveum: Hes one of those athletes who could probably play anywhere on the field.

Could Lake be getting too big to play shortstop?

I dont think so, as long as youre athletic and you (can) move, Sveum said. Cal Ripken was pretty big. He did OK. (Troy) Tulowitzkis pretty big. He does just fine. So I dont think that has anything to do with it, especially (in this day and age) when you can have a two-way player possibly, somebody that hits home runs, catches the ball, steals bases, the whole package.

Two years ago, Ryan Theriot told Castro to come and get it. Less than three months later, the rookie took Theriots job. Castro considers Lake to be one of the first friends he made in the Cubs organization. In the future, this could be the left side of the infield.

Castros message is simple: I tell him: Be ready. You got a chance to play in the big leagues. Thats what you want, right?

Impressions of Aroldis Chapman as Cubs head to Dodger Stadium

Impressions of Aroldis Chapman as Cubs head to Dodger Stadium

SAN DIEGO – The Los Angeles Dodgers made an honorable no-tolerance statement on domestic violence, or their high-powered front office didn’t do enough homework on Aroldis Chapman, or a Hollywood franchise couldn’t deal with the bad optics.

Maybe all those factors swirled together as a deal with the Cincinnati Reds collapsed during the winter meetings, the police report surfacing weeks after an ugly incident at Chapman’s South Florida home. 

The New York Yankees scavenged and acquired the superstar closer at a steep discount in late December, before the Broward County State Attorney’s Office decided to not file criminal charges, and before Major League Baseball imposed a 30-game suspension to start this season. 

The Cubs handled Chapman’s transition in a clumsy, awkward manner after that blockbuster trade with the Yankees one month ago, looking unprepared for his welcome-to-Chicago press conference with coach Henry Blanco sitting there as the translator, and sounding insensitive when the Wrigley Field sound system played a 1997 Prodigy song called: “Smack My B---- Up.”

The Cubs hired a new translator – and fired a DJ – and now have Chapman’s 100-mph velocity waiting for a potential playoff preview that begins Friday night at Dodger Stadium.

“The talent is even more impressive when you’re actually there watching it on your side,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That life at home plate is purely different. It’s just different what the baseball does.

“It’s obvious to me that you have to get in there and talk to him and develop that relationship. He’s smiling more easily already and the conversation’s actually coming back to me in English a little bit, which is fun to hear, so I’ve been really happy about that.”

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Whether or not Dodger fans stay until the end to watch a first-place team that has weathered Clayton Kershaw’s back injury – and the 26 other players who have spent time on the disabled list this season, tying a major-league record – watching Chapman is a unique experience even for an MVP candidate or a Cy Young Award winner. 

“It’s fun hearing the crowd do their oohs and aahs on every pitch,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said, “how engaged they are, and how excited they are when he comes in to pitch.”

“A lot of the players are almost in the same amount of awe that the fans are,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “When you see a guy like Chapman go out there and compete and perform, there’s a lot of appreciation and respect for what he’s capable of, because, frankly, the game’s never really seen anything like it, especially from the left side. 

“We’ve seen a lot of hard throwers. But when you see a scouting report that’s 100-to-105 (mph), he’s a one-of-one type of guy. You definitely stop and watch when he’s out there.”

Chapman – who can cash in as a free agent after this season – has so far answered the legitimate questions about how he would fit into a laid-back clubhouse and effect best-team-in-baseball chemistry.

“He’s an absolute professional,” Arrieta said. “I’m very attentive to details. (I’m) watching the way he goes about his routine and (how) it starts for a 7 o’clock game. He’s starting right around 2:30, 3 o’clock, getting ready for that ninth inning.

“He’s getting his body ready. He’s getting his mind ready. You can see his focus. A guy like that, he obviously has his routine down extremely well, so it’s really nice to kind of watch him throughout the day. What’s he doing at 3:30? What’s he doing at 4:30? What’s he doing at 6 o’clock? He’s constantly doing things to prepare himself for those three outs.

“That’s why he’s so successful. Obviously, he’s very gifted. His velocity, his presence and his size alone are extremely tough to defeat. But when you see the amount of hours that he puts into those three outs, it makes you realize why he’s able to go out there and be as successful as he is.”

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Chapman hasn’t quite been the add-on to a dominant bullpen the Cubs envisioned, because top setup guy Pedro Strop (knee) and former closer Hector Rondon (triceps) are on the disabled list. Maddon also had to curb his enthusiasm for four-out saves and realize Chapman – who’s allowed four of eight inherited runners to score – prefers to work one inning at a time.  

But Chapman has been as good as advertised, going 9-for-11 in save chances, allowing two earned runs in 15 appearances and striking out 21 of the 48 batters he’s faced while giving up only three walks.   

“It’s probably a demoralizing feeling for the other team to see him warming up,” pitcher Jason Hammel said. “Big-league hitters will hit a fastball after a while if they see it enough. But he makes guys take some pretty silly hacks.”

“You can literally hear the ball out of his hand,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said. “He can make the seams sing a little bit with the power he’s getting.”

Dodger Stadium draws celebrities to an iconic site, creates a sense of energy and gets louder and louder. But after a series of decisions that could echo into October, Wrigley Field is where Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up” blasts from the speakers as Chapman warms up and the fans look up at the video board after each pitch.   

“The guys on the bench are like mimicking what the crowd is doing,” Maddon said. “It’s wonderful. How many pitchers elicit that kind of reaction? There’s a couple, but you’re anticipating that big number and we’ve never seen that here. 

“But most any place you’ve not seen it. (It’s) the reputation, where he’s come from – and his presence and how big he is – he’s so formidable and imposing. And now he’s our toy.”

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras looks ready for prime time

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras looks ready for prime time

SAN DIEGO – Within 24 hours at Petco Park, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras handled the wild movement of Jake Arrieta’s pitches and framed the edges of the strike zone for Kyle Hendricks, showing the dexterity to handle a playoff rotation.

Contreras looked ready for prime time on Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon, helping shut down the San Diego Padres and complete a three-game sweep where two National League Cy Young Award candidates found a rhythm while throwing to a rookie catcher.

“Everything’s a lot easier,” Contreras said after a 6-3 victory. “I’m way more comfortable right now, because my first week everything was speeding up on me. But now I’m able to slow down the game and do my job.” 

The day after Arrieta fell one inning short of a two-hit, complete-game shutout, Hendricks credited Contreras for calling more curveballs and getting him through a stretch where the Padres put the leadoff man on base in each of the first four innings. 

“From the get-go, I wasn’t shaking him off,” Hendricks said. “We’ve been rolling for the last five, six starts, at least. It’s been easy.” 

Contreras has now caught Arrieta twice, and got one-start exposure to Jon Lester, while developing chemistry with Hendricks, John Lackey and Jason Hammel, which means veteran catcher Miguel Montero might not have a spot on the postseason roster if this continues.

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Contreras is a dynamic presence, launching his eighth home run on Wednesday afternoon and keeping the Padres stationary after Tuesday night’s laser throw to pick off a runner at third base. 

“I was waiting for somebody to run,” Contreras said. “But they didn’t run, so I’ll have to save it for another game.”

The Cubs are nearing the point where a 24-year-old player who didn’t make his big-league debut until June 17 could be behind the plate for the biggest games in franchise history.

“In this clubhouse, we are like a family,” Contreras said. “Once you get here, you start feeling comfortable the first day. You don’t even know that you are a rookie who just came up.”

Kyle Hendricks keeps rolling as Cubs sweep away Padres

Kyle Hendricks keeps rolling as Cubs sweep away Padres

SAN DIEGO – Kyle Hendricks reported to spring training as a fifth starter, leads the majors in ERA in late August and could pitch Game 1 in a playoff series. That gradual evolution from possible question mark at the back of the rotation into a National League Cy Young Award candidate highlights how the Cubs have transformed from a team that won the offseason to one that owns the summer and maybe this fall. 

In his own understated way, Hendricks smashed any perceptions of that ceiling, performing at a level and with a consistency that matches the franchise’s young hitting stars, mirroring their baseball IQ and grounded nature, without the billboards and flair for social media. 

Hendricks kept rolling on a beautiful Wednesday afternoon at Petco Park, knocking the San Diego Padres off-balance and finishing the three-game sweep with a 6-3 victory. That pushed the Cubs to 36 games over .500 for the first time since finishing their 1945 pennant-winning season at 98-56. The best team in baseball could play a little over .500 (19-17) down the stretch and still reach 100 wins.

A Dartmouth College graduate with an Ivy League degree in economics helped create all this momentum – and certainly knows what he wants to do on the mound – but Hendricks as an ace still seems beyond the wildest internal preseason projection.

“I thought he ended really well last year and that there was a lot to look forward to,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s just taken it to another level right now. He’s in that 26-27-year-old range where a young pitcher who’s had some major-league experience can really find his next level. And I think that’s what’s going on. He’s such a wonderful student. The difference between last year and this year is the confidence thing: ‘I belong here. I can do this. I’m one of the best.’ 

“A lot of our guys are going through that moment right now. And I think that’s what you’re seeing out of Kyle. I’ve talked about the couple tweaks he’s made regarding the four-seam fastball and curveball usage. That makes him a little bit different. But more than anything, I think he believes he’s among the best right now.”

The Padres (53-74) looked a little checked out and didn’t really put much pressure on a Cubs team that should get an adrenaline boost this weekend at Dodger Stadium. Dexter Fowler and Kris Bryant opened the game with back-to-back doubles before Ben Zobrist lined a two-run triple into the right-center field gap. Within six minutes of Paul Clemens’ first pitch, Jorge Soler’s sacrifice fly made it 3-0.

Hendricks hasn’t allowed more than three earned runs in a start since May 17, a run of 17 straight outings that has sliced his ERA from 3.51 to 2.19 while pushing his record to 12-7.

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Hendricks hides his emotions and didn’t get flustered when the Padres put the leadoff man on base in each of the first four innings, working around the traffic to limit San Diego to two runs and finish with eight strikeouts. 

Hendricks made it through six innings – he’s now gone at least five in each of his 24 starts this year – after beginning the day with a FanGraphs soft-hit rate (26 percent of batted balls) that led the majors and would be the highest mark in the last five seasons.

Hendricks has to pitch a different game than Jake Arrieta, but with an 8-1 record and a 1.38 ERA in his last 13 starts, he might be this year’s breakthrough performer who helps carry the Cubs into October.

“I’m just trying to stay where I’m at and keep the consistency,” Hendricks said. “Keep my pitches feeling good, keep my command. It’s just staying in my routine and really not doing too much – not doing less – just kind of riding it out until I feel something change.”