Cubs betting Castro won't believe the hype

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Cubs betting Castro won't believe the hype

Sunday, Feb. 20, 2011
Posted: 8:00 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. The Cubs believe in Starlin Castro so much that they paired him opposite Derek Jeter in their marketing campaign. He is their homegrown shortstop, in a city filled with temptations and great expectations.

All this is happening before Castros 21st birthday, which he will celebrate next month. The Cubs are confident that he can handle the attention, and all that comes with playing in a big market.

Better him to be on those billboards than me, manager Mike Quade said.

Castro hasnt seen those yet, but hes aware of the advertisements. Castro is proud of and humbled by the comparison to Jeter and what he stands for.

The runaway hopes for Castro accelerated when he homered in his first big-league at-bat. He had six RBI that night in Cincinnati, a major-league record for a debut. He finished the season hitting right at .300.

When asked Sunday what hes working on, Castro cut off third-base coach Ivan DeJesus before he could translate the question.

Defense, Castro said.

That is the point of emphasis as Castro tries to build off a rookie season in which he impressed with his offensive potential, but also committed more errors (27) than every other major-league player except for one.

By any metric, the Cubs need to improve defensively. They finished last season tied for last in the National League in fielding percentage (.979). Only two teams committed more errors (126). Their Ultimate Zone Rating (-7.3) was below average. They need to be stronger up the middle with Castro.

(Its) the ability to relax and do things second nature when its bases loaded and one out in the eighth of a tie game, Quade said. Everybodys got a little different learning curve, (but) hes talented enough that I expect him to improve quickly. (Hell) work and weve got good people pushing him.

Quade benched Castro last September and though others described it as a turning point in his six-week audition for the job, the manager does not view it that way.

That didnt happen because he thought he had it licked, Quade said. Sometimes you think its a little too much right now and maybe (it) gets taken as discipline or whatever. But it really wasnt (I) really thought it was a teaching moment for the kid to step back.

Is he not hustling? Are the mistakes lazy mistakes? Are they indecisive mistakes?

A mental lapse that he would have from time to time (is) a whole lot different than physical. You pop up a ball in the infield and stand at home plate while its caught? ... Thats not what were talking about here.

Several members of the organization visited Castro this offseason in the Dominican Republic, where he played winter ball and the Cubs are trying to mine talent and build a state-of-the-art academy.

The Cubs have a lot riding on the idea of Castro. They are not alone banking on a young star in a city where Derrick Rose an MVP candidate at age 22 packs the United Center nightly. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are 22 and already have a Stanley Cup banner hanging there. Jeter isnt the only model for Castro.

(Castros) grown up, said catcher Welington Castillo, another well-regarded player the Cubs signed out of the Dominican Republic. Hes got a good mentality. Hes a really good person, a good teammate. Hes always happy over here. (He) will be better, too.

Castro said he knows about the sophomore jinx, but doesnt pay much attention to it. He said he understands that you can learn by watching. He has a locker near two guys he dreamed of one day playing with Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez. He values their friendship.

Soriano took Castro under his wing last year, the same way great Yankees like Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams once did for him in New York. Castro wont be living at Sorianos place in Chicago this season, but he doesnt have to be completely independent.

Castro brought his family out to Arizona for spring training. On Sunday Quade met Castros father for the first time. A support system is in place.

Yes, the Cubs are using Castro to sell tickets now, and in June the Yankees are coming to Wrigley Field. But Castro says hes just trying to make the team.

Theres enough veteran presence around here, Quade said. Hell remember who he is and how much work he has to do. I dont see him getting all wrapped up in that kind of celebrity or fame. If he does, he wont accomplish all the things were so excited about him possibly (doing).

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

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 a three-game sweep with a 6-3 victory in front of 30,033. The Dartmouth College graduate with an Ivy League degree in economics understands what he’s up against and knows what he’s doing.

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The Padres (53-74) looked a little checked out and didn’t really put any 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 and pushed his record to 12-7.

Hendricks hides his emotions on the mound 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 soft-hit rate (26 percent of batted balls) that led the majors on FanGraphs and would be the highest mark in the last five seasons.

Add all this up and the Cubs will be putting Hendricks front and center in October.

How soon before Cubs make Javier Baez an everyday player?

How soon before Cubs make Javier Baez an everyday player?

SAN DIEGO — The airtight defensive alignment for October would have to include Javier Baez, a game-changing force moving in all directions. The Cubs have seen Baez make barehanded plays and laser throws, take charge on bunts and frustrate hitters with an uncanny ability to improvise and make split-second decisions.

Baez and Addison Russell are two of the best athletes in the entire game, Jake Arrieta said after Tuesday night’s win over the San Diego Padres, so put the ball in play and let those two middle infielders take over.

There could be playoff lineups where Baez starts at second base and bumps Ben Zobrist to the outfield. But manager Joe Maddon isn’t about to hand Baez an everyday job, sticking with the super-utility formula and versatile philosophy that’s helped the Cubs become the best team in baseball.

“It depends on how we morph as a group over the next couple years,” Maddon said Wednesday at Petco Park. “Right now, I like the way it’s working out. I like the fact that (Javy’s) getting rested (and) not playing every day. Look at his at-bats — they have gotten better, too. He is making adjustments or adaptations during the at-bat. He’s not just out of control every swing.”

Baez has channeled his aggressiveness, hitting .276 with 13 homers, 47 RBIs and 83 strikeouts through 343 plate appearances, becoming a more mature and well-rounded player at the age of 23.

“You’re seeing a lot of progress,” Maddon said. “Who knows if by playing sporadically this is becoming more part of who he is? As opposed to playing every day, maybe getting caught in the trap of not hitting well, whatever, and all of a sudden he takes it on defense. It’s natural progression. He’s an everyday player, there’s no question, in maybe a couple years.”

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The Geek Department and scouting reports will ultimately influence where Baez plays, because Maddon wants him wherever the ball will most likely be hit most often. When Jon Lester pitches, that can mean Baez starting at third base and Kris Bryant moving to the outfield.

The Cubs promised Zobrist the second-base job when he signed a four-year, $56 million contract, agreeing the focus on one position would help reduce the wear and tear on his body at the age of 35. The Cubs still need Zobrist’s switch-hitting skills and World Series experience in the lineup.

Maddon also wants to keep Jorge Soler involved — because he’s a presence other teams have to account for — and maybe that will mean sacrificing Jason Heyward’s Gold Glove defense in right field at times.

But Baez is the type of defender the Cubs will want to see out there in one-run, low-scoring playoff games.

“He’s unbelievable,” Bryant said. “Any ball hit his way — whether it’s in the air, on the ground, on line — you kind of just expect him to make the play and make it look good. That’s what he’s been doing all year. I certainly think he’s Gold Glove worthy, but he plays all over. I feel like there should be a utility man Gold Glove, because he definitely (deserves it).”

Cubs conserving Jake Arrieta for October and see another Cy Young push coming

Cubs conserving Jake Arrieta for October and see another Cy Young push coming

SAN DIEGO – West Coast atmosphere, late August, almost no-hitter stuff for a Cubs team riding a wave of momentum. Jake Arrieta might be reentering the zone that made him the hottest pitcher on the planet last year. Get your onesies ready.

It felt that way on Tuesday night at Petco Park, where Arrieta shut down the San Diego Padres, allowing only two hits across eight scoreless innings in a 5-3 victory, making another statement in his Cy Young Award defense.

For all the questions about Arrieta’s fastball control and mechanical tweaks – and times where he’s admitted he’s felt a click off – this is still a top-of-the-rotation guy who leads the league with 16 wins and has a 2.62 ERA.

“He should be” in the Cy Young discussion, manager Joe Maddon said. “The only thing that’s been amiss is a little bit of command issues on occasion. Otherwise, stuff is the same. Numbers are fabulous. It’s hard to replicate what he had done last year, because he just nailed it.

“If he gets hot over these last couple weeks…”

It will be up to Arrieta to complete that thought in a World Series-or-bust season for baseball’s first team to 80 wins this year, one that’s now 35 games over .500.  

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This didn’t feel like a perfect game or create any no-hitter drama. The Padres are already 20 games under .500 and years away from being a serious contender. And Arrieta had to bounce back from last week’s ugly win over the Milwaukee Brewers – when he walked a career-high seven batters – and work around a first-inning walk to San Diego leadoff guy Travis Jankowski.

But the Cubs played spectacular defense behind Arrieta, with catcher Willson Contreras making a lightning-quick throw to pick off Jankowski at third base. The Cubs turned three double plays while a thunderous lineup led by Kris Bryant (33rd home run) and Addison Russell (fifth home run in his last five games) lowered the stress level. After Alex Dickerson’s single leading off the second inning, the Padres didn’t get another hit until Christian Bethancourt’s double with two outs in the eighth.

“I really wanted to let my defense work,” said Arrieta, who finished with six strikeouts against three walks. “When you have Addison and (Javier) Baez in the middle of the infield – two of the best athletes in all of baseball – you want the ball to go to those guys.”

At a time when Clayton Kershaw (back) and Stephen Strasburg (elbow) are on the disabled list, leaving potential playoff opponents like the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals in scramble mode, the Cubs can see Arrieta building toward October.

The way Arrieta did with that Aug. 30 no-hitter last year at Dodger Stadium on national TV, walking into the press conference in a moustache-covered onesie, Maddon going with the pajama theme again for the flight home after this weekend’s series in Los Angeles.

But the Cubs ultimately paid the price for all that effort poured into the wild-card chase, which explains why Maddon pulled Arrieta after 99 pitches with a five-run lead (leaving Aroldis Chapman to clean up Felix Pena’s mess in the ninth inning and get the final two outs, giving him eight saves in a Cubs uniform).

“Yeah, I was mad at Joe taking me out,” Arrieta said. “But at the same time, he came over to me and he said: ‘Hey, just remember last year and let’s conserve some things for October.’

“That’s our game plan. We want to be as strong and as dominant as we can be, but still in the back of our mind understanding that late September, early October, mid-October is really the most important time for us.

“Could I have finished the game? Yes. Does it play in our favor to maybe conserve that for later? Yeah. Joe’s a really smart guy. He knows what he’s doing. I feel like he makes the right moves in the right situations. And that’s why we’ve been playing as well as we have.”