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?

Cubs win wild 15-inning thriller over Reds

Cubs win wild 15-inning thriller over Reds

CINCINNATI (AP) — Kris Bryant singled home the tiebreaking run in the 15th inning and the Chicago Cubs used three pitchers in left field while beating the Cincinnati Reds 7-2 on Tuesday night in the longest game of the season for both teams.

With the Cubs out of position players, relievers Travis Wood and Spencer Patton (1-0) alternated between left field and the mound in the 14th inning, which ended with Patton getting the final out. Wood then finished it off with reliever Pedro Stropin left.

Bryant's only hit on Tuesday - a single off J.J. Hoover (1-2) - snapped the tie. Javier Baez added a grand slam in the 15th, the sixth career allowed by Hoover, which is a Reds record.

The National League's top team went 1-6 last week but has pulled out of the downturn by winning the first two games of a series against the Reds. The Cubs hit five homers - three by Bryant - while taking the opener 11-8.

Eugenio Suarez singled home the tying run with two outs in the ninth off Hector Rondon, his third blown save in 16 chances, setting the game on its meandering course.

Ben Zobrist led off the game with a homer off left-hander John Lamb. Left-hander Jon Lester singled home another run and allowed only one hit until the eighth inning, when Billy Hamilton homered. The Cubs' closer couldn't hold on.

A lot of the focus Tuesday was on Bryant, who was coming off a historic performance.

Bryant became the first major league player to hit three homers and two doubles in a game on Monday night. He set a Cubs record with 16 total bases and became the youngest Cubs player to hit three homers in a game since Ernie Banks did it in 1955, also at the age of 24.

Bryant broke his three-homer bat the first time up on Tuesday, cracking it on a groundout. The bat boy retrieved it and took it to the Major League Baseball authenticator, who labeled the bat and safely stored it. Bryant flied out, walked twice, fouled out with two runners aboard for the final out in the 10th, and struck out in the 13th before driving in the go-ahead run.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Reds: RHP Homer Bailey felt fine a day after throwing an inning in his first rehab start. Bailey, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery 13 months ago, is expected to pitch again on Saturday ... 2B Brandon Phillips fouled a ball off the inside of his left foot in the first inning. He fouled another pitch off the same foot in his next at-bat and got hit in the left side by a pitch from Rondon in the ninth.

UP NEXT

Cubs: Kyle Hendricks (5-6, 2.76) is 1-5 with a 3.79 ERA in seven road starts this season. He's 4-1 with a 1.93 ERA in seven home games.

Reds: Cody Reed (0-1, 6.75) makes his third career start. In his first appearance at Great American Ball Park last Friday, he gave up five runs in five innings of a 13-4 loss to the Padres.

Cubs: How Kris Bryant became a superstar in the making

Cubs: How Kris Bryant became a superstar in the making

What initially looked like a garbage-time home run for Kris Bryant – and day-after spin from Theo Epstein – actually summed up why the Cubs have a homegrown superstar and a franchise ready for another close-up in October.

It also helps explain how Bryant – at the age of 24 – became the first player in history to hit three homers and two doubles in a Major League Baseball game. Bryant set a franchise record with 16 total bases during Monday night’s 11-8 victory over the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park, becoming the youngest Cub to ever have a three-homer game (or 10 days younger than Ernie Banks in 1955).

After the New York Mets swept the Cubs out of last year’s National League Championship Series, Epstein sat in a dingy Wrigley Field storage room converted into a media workspace for the playoffs. During that end-of-season news conference, the president of baseball operations highlighted Bryant’s final at-bat, how New York’s right-handers kept attacking him with changeups.

Cubs officials felt like they were beaten at their own game, impressed how the Mets did such a great job with advance scouting, breaking down numbers and executing that night’s plan. If Bryant appeared to be vulnerable to that weakness – and a little worn down at the end of an All-Star/Rookie of the Year campaign – he still had the presence of mind to make an adjustment in Game 4.

With his team down seven runs in the eighth inning, Bryant drove a changeup from a two-time All-Star reliever (Tyler Clippard) 410 feet into the left-center field bleachers for a two-run homer.

Bryant can grow up as the son of an old Boston Red Sox prospect who learned the science of hitting from Ted Williams – and have his own batting cage at his family’s Las Vegas home – and still not feel burned out from the game or create the wrong Sin City headlines.

Bryant can get drafted No. 2 overall out of the University of San Diego in 2013, shoot a Red Bull commercial with a goat before his first at-bat in The Show and have his own billboards in Wrigleyville – and still not alienate himself from teammates or come across as having the wrong priorities.

Bryant is athletic enough to play third base, right field and left field during that 5-for-5, six-RBI, three-homer game. He can also get analytical and self-diagnose – without feeling paralyzed at the plate.

Bryant didn’t remember the NLCS as an eye-opening experience or give the Mets too much credit: “They all throw 96 (mph), which is kind of just where baseball is nowadays, too – a ton of people are throwing gas.”

For Bryant, it’s a constant process of self-evaluation, from his 0-for-4, three-strikeout debut last April, through the 21 games it took before hitting his first big-league homer, beyond hitting the rookie wall last summer (.639 OPS in July).   

“It’s the peaks and valleys of baseball,” Bryant said. “From August and September last year, I had two really good months (.900-plus OPS). I didn’t really have the postseason I wanted to. But up until that point, I was swinging the bat really good. I was feeling really good about myself.

“I kind of just went back to what I did in college, a drill that kept me more flat to the ball. That’s what helped me. And then going into the offseason, I really wanted to expand on it. Just continue with it and see where it took me.”

After finishing second in the majors with 199 strikeouts last season, Bryant struck out 12 more times in 37 playoff plate appearances. He’s now on pace for around 160 strikeouts – with 21 homers and 57 RBI a week out from the Fourth of July.  

“What he had been doing before was not going to work (long-term),” manager Joe Maddon said. “I’m not one of those guys (who says): ‘Hey, you can’t hit like that in the big leagues.’ I always used to hate hearing that from coaches. (But) the fact was that he had such an abrupt uppercut or chicken wing – whatever you want to call it – easily exposed by good pitching. Easily. And it had to go away.

“(He) worked through it. He knew how he was getting beat up at the plate. He knew what he couldn’t get to that he was able to get to before. He’s only 20-something years old, (but) he’s quick (and thinking): ‘I’m seeing the ball good. I just can’t get to it. What do I have to do to get to those pitches?’ Now he is.”

The Mets won the pennant, but their foundation might already be crumbling, with Steven Matz and Noah Syndergaard reportedly dealing with bone spurs in their pitching elbows and Matt Harvey (4-9, 4.64 ERA) struggling to live up to his Dark Knight of Gotham persona after throwing 216 innings during last year’s return from Tommy John surgery.

The Epstein regime built a franchise around young power hitters like Bryant – believing that young power pitchers are inherently too fragile – and the Cubs could be 25 games over .500 when they get another shot at the Mets in an NLCS rematch that begins Thursday night at Citi Field.  

“Obviously, the front office has done a really good job of getting good players,” Bryant said. “You look at the young talent around the room, it’s pretty cool to see that.

“They’re just good people. They drafted good people, signed good people, and I think that just makes it easier to go out there and play our game and be yourself.”

How Far Will You Take It? - The Wrigley Field Scoreboard

How Far Will You Take It? - The Wrigley Field Scoreboard

Despite the recent renovations to Wrigley Field, one iconic feature of the century-old ballpark remains the same. The scoreboard.

Still manually operated as it has always been since its installation in 1937, the iconic scorebard is part of the rich tradition of Wrigley Field. With the construction of two large video boards in left and right fields, the center-field scoreboard stands tall to link changing Wrigley with its historic past. 

Kelly Crull takes a ride around Wrigleyville in the all-new Toyota RAV4 Hybrid to bring you the history and evolution of the iconic Wrigley Field scoreboard.