Cubs challenging Castro to step up his game

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Cubs challenging Castro to step up his game

MESA, Ariz. Starlin Castro says hes ready to focus on baseball.

Castro didnt hide behind an interpreter when he reported to camp and addressed the sexual assault allegations that surfaced during the offseason (though he also didnt offer much substance either).

Cubs executives are glad their 21-year-old All-Star shortstop is here, and have directed everything toward Castros representatives, whove vehemently denied the claims.

So underneath the Arizona sunshine, the Cubs will push Castro to get better, and realize his almost unlimited potential.

Manager Dale Sveum has watched Castro closely during the teams first three workouts at Fitch Park. An old shortstop, Sveum has stressed gaining ground when the ball is hit, so your feet create momentum and you have a shorter throw.

Sveum has also noticed that Castro picks up the target late and tends to move his shoulders out of line, forcing too many throws that are too high or in the dirt.

I can relate to Castro, Sveum said Sunday. When I was young, I made a lot of errors. Some of the things Im telling him are some of the same things I (heard). They happen to a lot of people. My best friend Robin Yount made 80 errors his first two years in the big leagues. He turned out to be a pretty good defensive player. The will has to be there to do it. Thats the key.

Yount actually had 75 errors combined in his age-19 and age-20 seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers, but whos counting? He has a Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Castro has similar ambitions, but for now the Cubs are focused on overall team defense. Last season Castro committed 29 of the teams 134 errors, which led the majors by a wide margin. But they were defensively poor by almost any metric or eye test.

Its not just errors that come into play either, Sveum said. Its the awareness of whats going on, whos on the mound, where to play, the score of the game, the depth when theres two outs. These are all the things were talking about and getting ironed out to where we can nullify a lot of hits (opponents) got last year. Defense is everything.

Already, Castro is an offensive force. He led the National League with 207 hits last year. Since 1900, only four players have had more hits in a season at age 21 or younger. Two were Alex Rodriguez and Ty Cobb.

Theo Epsteins front office wants players that grind out at-bats. The Boston Red Sox would play games that lasted four hours and play deep into October. Last season Castro hit .307 with a .341 on-base percentage (the major-league average was .320) and walked only 35 times in more than 700 plate appearances.

The important thing to remember with Starlin is age, Epstein said. If he were 27 years old and had that kind of on-base percentage with the type of incredible offensive ability that he has, I would say thats a problem. If he hadnt learned to fully develop as a hitter: He wasnt a smart hitter. He wasnt disciplined. He wasnt taking advantage of the natural gifts that he has

(But) doing what he did at 21 years old in the big leagues projects extraordinarily well in the future, because its hard to teach (his) natural ability. Its almost impossible.

(Someone) tries to throw a good breaking ball, he sees it right out of the hand and hes on it. The ability (to) barrel up pitches in every part of the strike zone and drive them to the outfield: You cant teach that.

What hitters do learn as they mature is to be smarter, to figure out how pitchers are trying to get them out (and) recognize that they dont need to do the pitchers any favors and expand the strike zone. They end up not only with walks, but pitches they can drive out of the ballpark.

The education of Castro will continue, and the Cubs may still have their face of the franchise.

Cubs will have Ian Happ one phone call away at Triple-A Iowa

Cubs will have Ian Happ one phone call away at Triple-A Iowa

MESA, Ariz. – After an impressive camp where he looked like the next homegrown Cubs hitter to roll off the assembly line, Ian Happ will go to Triple-A Iowa and get ready to make his big-league debut, or perhaps build his value for a trade-deadline deal.

Along with Happ, the Cubs assigned outfielder John Andreoli and catcher Taylor Davis to minor-league camp on Monday while optioning pitchers Eddie Butler and Rob Zastryzny to Iowa, cutting their roster to 31 as the Opening Night picture comes into focus.

Happ – the ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft out of the University of Cincinnati – batted .417 with five homers, four doubles and 17 RBI in 24 Cactus League games.

"Offensively, what was there not to like?" general manager Jed Hoyer said. "I feel like he hit the ball hard every at-bat for six weeks. It's always fun to see a young guy like that come in and open a lot of eyes."

Happ, 22, is a switch-hitter who can play second base and the outfield, skills that could help him escape from Des Moines once the need arises on the major-league level.

[MORE CUBS: How Cubs came to fully believe in the legend of Kyle Schwarber]

Though there are questions about Happ's defense, Theo Epstein's front office and Joe Maddon's coaching staff clearly value versatility and trust young talent, moving Addison Russell to shortstop in 2015 and elevating rookie catcher Willson Contreras last season.

Stay tuned to see when/if the Cubs will have a spot at Wrigley Field, but Happ looks like he will be on a fast track.

"Whenever you're in Triple-A, you're always a call away," Hoyer said. "Sometimes it happens quicker than you think. We never expected Addie would be up in April of that year, and he was. I feel like with Willson last year, if you had asked me in spring training – would he be up in June? – I probably would have thought it would be more like a September call-up or something like that.

"You never know. Things happen. When you have good players in the minor leagues, sometimes it speeds up on you a little bit."

How Cubs came to fully believe in the legend of Kyle Schwarber

How Cubs came to fully believe in the legend of Kyle Schwarber

MESA, Ariz. – An internal scouting report compared Kyle Schwarber to Babe Ruth before the 2014 draft. Schwarber debuted in The Show almost within a calendar year. The Cubs watched in awe as the rookie with the vicious left-handed swing became the franchise’s all-time leader in playoff home runs.

Schwarber did it with cartoonish power, flicking his bat after smashing a Gerrit Cole pitch that landed in the Allegheny River, sinking the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League wild-card showdown. Schwarber turned the next round into Topgolf, driving one onto a Wrigley Field video board and changing the rivalry with the St. Louis Cardinals forever.

Before his 24th birthday, Schwarber had also: pulled off a medical miracle to rake in the World Series; spoken in front of what might have been one of the largest gatherings in human history; and got name-checked during President Barack Obama’s final official White House event.

“I feel like I do have something to prove,” Schwarber said.

Because the only Cub starring in a Gatorade ad campaign set to launch around Opening Day – a face of the New Era hat company with a weekly radio gig on WMVP-AM 1000 this season and an I-honestly-don’t-know, ask-my-agent attitude when asked how many endorsements have piled up – still hasn’t come close to playing a full season in the big leagues yet.

But where jealousy and off-the-field distractions helped tear apart the ’85 Bears, the Cubs have an absolute organizational man crush on “Schwarbs,” fully believing the legend will continue.

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Tim Cossins’s wife, Lori, burst into tears after seeing Schwarber’s full-speed collision with Dexter Fowler on TV last year.

Cossins, the organization’s minor-league field coordinator and catching guru, is usually in zombie mode by early April after the grind of spring training. But as a young prospect, Schwarber had made such a huge impression when he visited their home in Windsor, California, coaching up their teenage son, Aiden, on how to talk to girls in between taking batting practice and getting another crash course in catching. 

“My wife was bawling,” Cossins said. “I was just devastated. I was just shattered, like everybody was. In development, you get attached to these guys. To see one of them crawling around on a warning track is a horrifying feeling.”

Schwarber exited Chase Field in an ambulance cart after crashing into Fowler, trying to chase down the ball Arizona Diamondbacks leadoff guy Jean Segura had blasted into the left-center gap. The next day, shaken team president Theo Epstein told beat writers on a conference call that Schwarber being ready when pitchers and catchers report in 2017 would be reasonable speculation.

By April 19, Dr. Daniel Cooper – the head team physician for the Dallas Cowboys – had reconstructed Schwarber’s ACL and repaired his LCL in what was supposed to be season-ending surgery on his left knee.

In an eerie coincidence, Cossins watched the final out of the World Series in the same spot where he saw Schwarber facedown in the dirt, writhing in pain. Like any superstitious Cub fan, Game 7 put Cossins on edge to the point where he started watching offensive innings downstairs in his house and moving upstairs to the master bedroom for defensive innings.      

“It almost felt scripted,” Cossins said. “He just has that innate ability to rise up and do those kind of things. I think that’s just in him. He’s one of those players where he’s large when it counts.”

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Of course, a young player wants to rehab in Chicago instead of dealing with the 100-degree heat and the isolated feeling in the desert. Who wants to give up the life? Would you rather hang out on the Gold Coast or in Arizona strip malls?

The Cubs made an exception for Schwarber, who showed up to Wrigley Field early and often, staying out of the way of players who needed to get ready for first pitch that night, feeding off the energy from the best team in baseball. 

“I knew that we could do something special and it was going to be hard for me,” Schwarber said. “Just dealing with those first six weeks, it was miserable. You can’t walk. You have to crutch everywhere. You have to have someone help you go to the bathroom.

“You’re pretty much confined to a chair, unless you’re going to rehab or you’re getting up to go to the bathroom. They want you to keep your leg elevated, so that the swelling kind of works its way down.

“(It’s) just trying to fight that mental battle…it was a weird spot for me.”

To keep Schwarber engaged – beyond the video he would break down and scouting reports he would help put together – the Cubs invited the gym rat into their draft room. When Cubs officials broke for lunch during one pre-draft meeting, Jason McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development, decided to prank Schwarber. 

McLeod set it up with Tim Adkins, a regional crosschecker, telling the room, “We’re going to go back to the college catching,” knowing that would pique Schwarber’s interest. “But let’s just hurry up and get through the crap, the bottom half, the non-prospect-type-guys.”

Adkins had the video clip cued up in the dining room of Wrigley Field’s state-of-the-art underground clubhouse, saying the defense is a question mark and the guy always got his numbers against weaker competition, beating up on schools like Morehead State, but doing nothing on weekends against Michigan and Michigan State.

“And then we had him roll the film,” McLeod recalled. “And it was Schwarber from Indiana. You could tell he was locked in and all of a sudden he’s like: ‘Ah, man, f--- that!’”

After sitting out Day 1 of the draft last June – and having to wait until No. 104 to make their first pick – McLeod and Epstein looked at each other and decided that someone had to fire up the group.

“Schwarber just walks in the room and yells: ‘Let’s f------ go! Get some f------ players!’” McLeod recalled. “And then he walks out and goes: ‘Let’s do this s---!’ and then he walks out the door.

“How comfortable and confident is he to come in and just do that?”

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The shocking news leaked out before the Cubs played an almost perfect Game 6 in the NLCS, beating Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the franchise’s first pennant since the year World War II ended.

Cooper, a medical expert within NFL circles, had given Schwarber the green light to ramp up his baseball activities, opening the possibility to be the designated hitter in an American League stadium. Schwarber flew from Dallas to Los Angeles and secretly hit in the cage at Dodger Stadium before traveling to Arizona, where the Cubs set up a pitching machine on Field 1 at the Sloan Park complex. 

Strength coaches fed at least 1,000 balls to Schwarber, who did his pre-pitch routine and natural stride toward the mound without actually swinging the bat, trying to sharpen his vision for Corey Kluber, Andrew Miller and the Cleveland Indians. Schwarber played in two Arizona Fall League games with the Mesa Solar Sox before taking a private jet to Cleveland.

Did part of you wonder about being the weak link for a 103-win team, that maybe this wouldn’t be a Hollywood ending? 

“Those were definitely thoughts that crossed through my mind,” Schwarber said. “But when it came to the day of Game 1, I had all the confidence in the world in myself. I wanted to be the most confident person out there. And I felt like I was.”

Manager Joe Maddon estimated that “1 to 5 percent of major-league players – MAYBE – could do what he did.”

“It’s freak-of-nature stuff,” McLeod said. “You can’t be away for six months and step into the World Series against Cy Young-caliber pitching and do what he did. As much as we talk about it, it might even be years from now until we can fully even appreciate it.

“You can set the machine at like 95 or 88 with sliders. He’s there just tracking, tracking, tracking with his eyes locked in on that. And even still, that is different than standing there with 50 million people watching you and Corey Kluber on the mound throwing a 92-mph cutter on the outside corner.”

Schwarber saw six pitches and struck out swinging in his first at-bat against Kluber. The next time up, Schwarber slammed Kluber’s first-pitch fastball off the right-center field wall for a two-out double in the fourth inning. The Cubs lost Game 1, but won the next three at Progressive Field with Schwarber in the lineup and hitting .412 during the World Series.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Kris Bryant, the reigning NL MVP. “You can look at as many balls off the machine (as you want). It will be close in terms of speed, but you can’t really replicate how much movement (Kluber) has on his ball.

“He just saw pitches that had the right velocity, but nowhere near the movement or release point or timing or any of that. Especially coming off a knee injury, too, I’m sure he was kind of hesitant to do certain things. And then swinging – with all the torque he creates – it’s just all that stuff in your mind.

“For him to go out there and just perform like he did – I don’t know how he did it.” 

Listed at 6 feet, 235 pounds – with a crew cut and a goatee that makes him look like a guy you would watch a Bears game with in Wrigleyville – Schwarber has outstanding hand-eye coordination and the type of athleticism that once made him a second-team all-Ohio linebacker in high school.

David Ross – the grandpa figure now on “Dancing with the Stars” – sort of joked that Schwarber seemed more comfortable in the batter’s box with six months off than he ever did during a 15-year big-league career.

“He’s born to hit,” Ross said. “He can roll out of bed and hit 95.”

After Jason Heyward’s fiery speech in the weight room and the 17-minute rain delay in Game 7, Schwarber hammered Bryan Shaw’s 93-mph fastball past the defensive shift and into right field, sparking the 10th-inning rally with a leadoff single.

How do you top the biggest moment of your life? Schwarber doesn’t spend much time on those existential questions, looking out from the stage at the never-ending sea of people celebrating during the Grant Park rally, raising his arms and saying: “Let’s do it again next year!”