Believe the hype: Castros as good as advertised

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Believe the hype: Castros as good as advertised

Sunday, April 17, 2011Posted: 4:10 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

DENVER Starlin Castro didnt understand anything. Hed sit down at a restaurant in Daytona, Fla. If the menu didnt have any pictures, then, well, he wasnt going to eat.

The game came naturally. Castros father wanted a baseball player and called his son Starlin because it was a real ballplayers name in the Dominican Republic.

When Castro returned home to Monte Cristy this winter, he could feel that he was being looked at differently, like a big-league man.

Its the same in the Cubs clubhouse, where Castros no longer a rookie but the teams most dynamic player. He gets it walking the downtown streets in Chicago, and its all so new that he still enjoys being recognized.

Those close to Castro could see this coming. Vice president of player personnel Oneri Fleita, who oversees Latin America for the Cubs, stressed the importance of learning the language and told him that he didnt need an interpreter at his side.

Castro rubbed his fingers together while recalling what his agent, Paul Kinzer, told him: If you dont speak English, you dont make money.

By now, its clear that everyone will want a piece of Castro. At 21 years and 24 days old, the shortstop is the youngest player in the majors, but he carries himself at a level far beyond that. He woke up Sunday morning batting .397 and leading the majors in hits (25).

I dont think anything surprises me anymore, catcher Koyie Hill said. After his first at-bat in Cincinnati, it should have all been downhill from there. But hes proved us wrong every day.

Now its time to believe the hype. Castro homered in his first at-bat and set a major-league record with six RBI in his debut last year. But hes proven that he values his craft and can do it once the adrenaline wears off.

Castros batting .336 since the All-Star break last season no one else in the National League has more hits during that time. More than that, its his approach, the way he knows the strike zone and works 13-pitch at-bats.

Cubs pitcher Casey Coleman, who once played with Castro at Double-A Tennessee, pointed to the three-run bomb he hit Saturday night off Rockies reliever Felipe Paulino into the left-field seats.

His ability is amazing, but his baseball smarts are even better, Coleman said. He knows what pitchers are trying to do with him and his hands are so quick. The home-run (pitch) was down and in off the plate, 95 mph. You dont see that, especially from a young guy.

Castro does not get fooled at the plate. The analytics on the website FanGraphs show that hes made contact almost 92 percent of the time when he swings. He has an advanced understanding of what he wants to do, but is still only scratching the surface.

Im so happy with him, manager Mike Quade said. It would be really fun to see him gain a little bit more discipline and maybe lay off some of those pitches that are off the plate and really put him in good situations pitch-count wise. (But) right now, hes doing things just fine. I got nothing to say except: Keep going, kid.

The other night, Alfonso Soriano walked into the clubhouse and smiled when he saw Castro surrounded by reporters doing a postgame interview. Soriano takes great pride in Castros development and yelled out: Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!

Soriano had told Castro that you have to talk to the media when you play like this.

He goes 0-for-4 and the next day hes got four hits. Its incredible, Soriano said. He does not get down.

Castro stayed with Soriano last year but has his own place now. His family lived with him during spring training and will come to Chicago in May for the rest of the season.

Castros face doesnt hide what hes thinking. He smiles easily and his eyes widen when he gets excited, then narrow when hes trying to make a point. He lounges at his locker while talking on the phone. His body language says: I was born to do this.

Its easy to envision Castro on more billboards and in more commercials. But all that is secondary for someone who takes this very seriously. He attacked the language studies because hes looking to improve. He learned more English watching ESPN and the MLB Network. This is a singular focus.

Baseball is my work, Castro said.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Now what? Jon Lester driven to deliver more World Series titles to Chicago

Now what? Jon Lester driven to deliver more World Series titles to Chicago

MESA, Ariz. — Now what? Ryan Dempster believes these Cubs are young enough, hungry enough and talented enough to become the first group to win back-to-back World Series since the three-peat New York Yankees built a dynasty with titles in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000.

But Dempster already understands the expectations at Wrigley Field this season, especially after pitching on disappointing Cubs teams that got swept out of the playoffs and working as a special assistant in Theo Epstein's front office.

"Nothing can top it," Dempster said. "You can win 162 games and sweep everybody in the playoffs and it won't be as exciting for people, other than maybe the guys playing it."

That's why Jon Lester isn't putting up the "Mission Accomplished" banner at his locker, even though the Cubs had the parade down Michigan Avenue in mind when they gave him the biggest contract in franchise history at the time. Dempster — who also earned a World Series ring with the 2013 Boston Red Sox — had given Lester a scouting report as the Cubs went all-out in their pursuit of the big-game lefty.

There are still four years left on Lester's $155 million megadeal. It has been less than five months since the Cubs finally won the World Series and unleashed an epic celebration.

"Now the hard part is you don't get complacent," Lester said Wednesday after throwing six innings against an Oakland A's minor-league squad at the Sloan Park complex. "I talk about these young guys — that's where that helps. Even though you've accomplished things personally, you still want these guys to accomplish things.

"That's where that drive still gets you. You don't want to let your teammates down. You still want to be accountable for what you do. And that means showing up and doing your work in between starts and in the offseason."

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Lester believed so much in Epstein's vision, the pipeline of talent about to burst and the lure of Chicago that he signed with a last-place team. The Cubs needed a symbol to show they were serious about winning, a clubhouse tone-setter and an anchor for their rotation.

A new comfort level in Year 2 of that contract helped explain how Lester performed as an All Star, a Cy Young Award finalist and the National League Championship Series co-MVP. But Lester wants to make sure that the Cubs don't get too comfortable — or feel like they're playing with house money.

"You enjoy that, you learn from it," Lester said. "The biggest thing is not getting complacent with yourself and with your teammates. That's what drives me, making sure I'm prepared to pitch.

"I'm called upon every five days, and I have to be there. That's where that goal of 30 starts and 200 innings comes into play. I feel like if I do that, then I've done my job, for my teammates and this organization.

"The championships and the World Series — that's stuff you can't predict. It's stuff you strive to do every single year. So that's all we're going to focus on again. Our team goal again is to win a World Series."

Cubs remember Dallas Green's impact on Wrigley Field

Cubs remember Dallas Green's impact on Wrigley Field

MESA, Ariz. — Dallas Green pictured what the Cubs have now become, striking gold in the draft, swinging big deals and pushing to modernize Wrigley Field. The Plan, The Foundation for Sustained Success, all those buzzwords had parallels to the 1980s franchise built in Green's image.

Green — a larger-than-life presence in some of baseball's most intense markets — died Wednesday at the age of 82 after a colorful career and a battle with kidney disease.

Green spent 46 years with the Philadelphia Phillies, guiding them to the 1980 World Series title and working at virtually every level of the organization. Green also pitched eight seasons in the big leagues and managed both the New York Mets and Yankees. But Green clearly raised expectations in Chicago, where he drew up the rough blueprint the Theo Epstein regime would follow 30 years later.

"Absolutely, there's no question," bench coach Dave Martinez said. "He had a vision. He was trying to build an organization from within."

Green took over baseball operations on the North Side and made a franchise-altering trade in 1982, using his Philadelphia connections to steal future Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg and Larry Bowa for Ivan de Jesus.

Green's scouting department would draft Greg Maddux, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark Grace and Shawon Dunston. Trading for Rick Sutcliffe in the middle of the 1984 season led to the club's first playoff appearance since the 1945 World Series. Signing Andre Dawson to the blank-check contract helped fuel a 93-win season in 1989.

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Green had already been fired after repeated clashes with Tribune Co. bosses and a last-place finish in 1987. The force of Green's personality also helped the Cubs finally install lights at Wrigley Field in 1988.

"What a good baseball man," said Martinez, who got drafted by the Cubs in 1983 and lasted 16 seasons in the big leagues. "He could be hard, at times, but you respected that from him. He gave me and a bunch of other players I came up with the chance to play. And I can honestly say he really loved all of us kids. He thought at one point that we were going to be something special — if we would have stayed together.

"We thought we would be there together for a long time. It didn't work out that way, but he knew talent."

Even before this generation of Cubs executives traded for Jake Arrieta and Addison Russell — and drafted Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber — general manager Jed Hoyer understood the challenge Green undertook.

"When we first got to Chicago," Hoyer said, "you look back and think about what other times in the history of the Cubs did people try to do something similar to what we were doing. Really, him taking over in the 80s and building the '84 team is probably the most similar when you look at it. Some of those great trades that he made — those gutsy trades that he made — are pretty similar in a lot of ways.

"Were it not for a couple big breaks, they might have been able to end the curse a lot earlier."