Cubs expect bigger and better season from Castro

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Cubs expect bigger and better season from Castro

Monday, March 14, 2011
Posted: 9:07 p.m.
By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

PEORIA, Ariz. The marketing department at 1060 W. Addison St. wants to promote Starlin Castro as the next Derek Jeter.

They paired the two homegrown shortstops on billboards modeled after heavyweight prize fights: Cubs vs. Yankees, June 17-19 at Wrigley Field.

Jeter, a Madison Avenue icon, has his own brand. Hes built a gigantic new mansion in Tampa, Fla., that The New York Times said was about as big as a typical Best Buy store, his own St. Jetersburg.

Castro, who turns 21 next week, had his parents fly in from the Dominican Republic to live with him during spring training.

Cubs baseball staffers use the Jeter analogy in a much different context. They tell you to look up how many errors Jeter committed in the minors. That tension between patience and expectations can be felt through the entire organization.

Whats overlooked sometimes is the sense that teammates genuinely like the kid. Heres what you heard Saturday in the HoHoKam Park clubhouse after Castro hit his second home run in Las Vegas:

Do it, Starlin!

Thats whats Im talking about, Cassie!

They were hooting and hollering while watching the split-squad game on TV. By the end of the weekend, Castro was hitting .485 with a .500 on-base percentage and an .848 slugging percentage, numbers that put him among the Cactus League leaders.

Hes not missing (and) hes using the whole field, manager Mike Quade said. Youd like to think hes maturing. (Hes) a talented young hitter thats getting better.

Castro also left Las Vegas with a bruised right knee that isnt considered serious. At this point, the Cubs are more concerned with his mental adjustments.

Almost two weeks ago, Quade met with Castro about demanding a more intense approach in his practice sessions. That meant doing infield work at game speed and running the bases with a purpose. It just got buried because it happened on the same day Carlos Silva and Aramis Ramirez nearly fought in the dugout.

Is it inexperience? Is it concentration or focus? Quade told reporters that day. Im not interested in panicking, but (lets) be sure you understand (whats important).

These mistakes happen to everyone. Castros are just magnified because of the team he plays for and the market he works in now.

Jeter was about a month away from his 21st birthday when he made his big-league debut, and he finished his first full season in the majors at age 22. He was allowed to commit 133 errors in the minors.

Long before he became famous for dating Hollywood starlets, Jeter made 56 errors in 126 games for the 1993 Class-A Greensboro Hornets.

At age 20, Castro was involved in so much, so soon that it was hard to tell where his ceiling might be. The Cubs downplayed his offensive potential and assured everyone that he would be a huge defensive upgrade over Ryan Theriot.

Castros 27 errors last season second-most among all major-league players should be the quickest fix to his game. He hit only nine home runs in 995 career minor-league at-bats, but flashed signs of power in 125 games with the Cubs: 31 doubles; five triples; and three homers.

Hes a young kid with a lot of talent, said Augie Ojeda, the 36-year-old infielder who was brought into camp to help mentor Castro. (Hes) so gifted and the futures so bright for him. Hes got to keep working at it and the skys the limit.

Castros already responded to being benched last September. He made enough adjustments at the plate to finish last season hitting .300. His month-to-month splits reveal someone trying to figure things out: .310; .227; .361; .336; .215.

On an aging roster filled with veterans over 30, and in a lineup that at times struggled to score runs last season, Castro is one player who can get better in a hurry. Castros teammates dont believe in the hype to sell tickets. They know he will help them win games.

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

After locking up homefield advantage, Cubs flummoxed by Cardinals in blowout loss

After locking up homefield advantage, Cubs flummoxed by Cardinals in blowout loss

At the end of the day, a loss means essentially nothing for the Cubs right now.

But the Cubs also certainly don't want to hand games to their division rival as the St. Louis Cardinals make a run at the National League wild card spots.

After the Cubs clinched homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs with the Washington Nationals' loss Friday night, they had no answer for the Cardinals in a 10-4 loss in front of 40,785 fans at Wrigley Field Saturday afternoon on national TV.

A few disturbing trends popped their heads above ground for the Cubs again Saturday, including the offense's struggles at manufacturing runs, Jason Hammel getting shelled and some bullpen woes.

The Cubs had no trouble putting runners on base against Cardinals phenom Alex Reyes, but they had a tough time plating those guys, cashing in only once with a runner on third base in six tries over the first four innings.

In two of those spots, a Cubs hitter came up with only one out, but failed to bring the run home as Addison Russell struck out in the first inning and Kris Bryant popped out to shallow left in the second.

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Hammel recorded only seven outs and was tagged for six runs on six hits and a walk, watching his season ERA rise nearly 30 points to 3.83. The veteran right-hander fell to 15-10 as he attempts to make a push for one of the Cubs' final postseason roster spots.

"Honestly, I would love to be a part of [the playoff roster], as the rest of the guys on the team would love to," Hammel said. "I know there's only a certain amount of spots, so if I'm handed the ball, I'll be ready. That's the way I'm gonna view it.

"Obviously you wanna be a part of something special like that, but I think everybody here has already been a part of something special to get to this point. We're all very proud. We still got eight regular season ballgames left to build some momentum. Whether I'm on the roster or not, I'm still gonna enjoy it."

Hammel was also clearly on the wrong end of some bad luck Saturday, as the four runs he allowed in the first came via a check swing and a couple hits just out of the reach of his fielders. 

Joe Maddon won't put too much stock into one rough start in late September.

"I'm not too worried about a good or bad outing right now. I'm not," he said. "Pretty much, you know who the guy is. You know if the guy's go this stuff going on or if he doesn't. ... The greater body of work matters."

Setup man Hector Rondon struggled in his appearance, needing 26 pitches to notch just one out, giving up three runs on three hits and a walk before handing the ball off to Felix Pena.

Of course, it's also just one game and one loss for a team with 98 victories and hopes of the World Series.

Rondon had been nearly unhittable since returning from the disabled list two weeks ago and the Cubs offense had been efficient and relentless in the past four games after Maddon's meeting with the hitters earlier in the week.

Maddon also used the blowout to get regulars like Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Russell out of the lineup to help keep them fresh for October.

After the game, Maddon chose to look on the bright side.

"Our starter had a tough day today; that's it. Otherwise we did some nice things," he said, referencing the solid offensive days from Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist. "We had chances to score runs - runners on third, less than two outs - and we didn't fulfill that.

"We made their starter throw 115 pitches in five innings; I think that's a positive."

The Cubs will close out their season series with the Cardinals on another nationally-televised showdown Sunday night between Jon Lester and St. Louis ace Carlos Martinez.

Cubs: Miguel Montero plays 'psychologist' to get the most out of Jake Arrieta

Cubs: Miguel Montero plays 'psychologist' to get the most out of Jake Arrieta

Lost amid the craziness of Friday's game and David Ross' emotional sendoff was Miguel Montero locking up a spot on the Cubs' postseason roster.

It's not official, of course. 

The Cubs don't have to get their National League Division Series 25-man roster until the morning of Oct. 7, Game 1.

But Montero proved his value to the Cubs, even in an 0-for-3 effort offensively.

The veteran catcher has struggled to find consistency at the plate this season, but his work behind the plate has proven invaluable, especially with reigning NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta.

Montero helped get Arrieta in rhythm Friday for a dominant performance - 10 strikeouts across seven shutout innings.

It was the first time the two had worked together in a battery since Aug. 12, with Willson Contreras catching Arrieta five times and Ross behind the dish once in that span.

"Quite frankly, I'm not gonna lie - I wanted to see that," Cubs manager Joe Maddon admitted after Friday's game. "Miggy did a great job with him. They were outstanding together."

The proof is in the numbers, too.

With Contreras over those five starts, Arrieta has posted a 4.50 ERA and 1.16 WHIP, averaging 6.4 innings per outing.

In the last six starts with Montero behind the plate, Arrieta has a 1.99 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and is averaging 6.78 innings per outing.

Of course, Montero was also Arrieta's primary catcher for the pitcher's other-worldly run to close out last season.

Maddon believes there's a comfort level there between the two and with the Cubs essentially just biding time until the postseason, now was the time to make a change and see how they worked together again instead of worrying about getting Contreras more experience.

If Arrieta can find consistency pitching at that level, it absolutely gives the Cubs a new look alongside 2016 Cy Young contenders Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks.

"We work well together," Arrieta said. "I work well with Willson and with Rossy, but Miggy and I have worked together for quite a bit of time now throughout the last couple years. He knows the way my stuff works. 

"He has little nuances, little mannerisms that he makes behind the plate that can help me get back on track from time to time and it's nice to have a guy like that who can really pick things out visually and relay a message to me by something small that helps me get back in line."

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Montero admitted he wasn't even focusing on his at-bats throughout Friday's game, instead putting his full attention on getting Arrieta back on track.

It may only be one outing, but it worked, and Montero deserves credit for getting Arrieta to settle down, stop trying to be too perfect and just unleash his ace stuff.

"We have to be a psychologist. That's our job as a catcher," Montero said. "People don't realize that. People think the catcher needs to throw and hit. No, we need to be a psychologist.

"We need to know who we got out on the mound, how to talk to him, how to go about the business, how to explain to him how to do things. I like psychology a lot and he's one of the guys who you need to push him a little bit harder, and that's me.

"I'm gonna push a guy to the limits, 'cause I know I can get a lot more from him. I know who I can get a lot more from."

Maddon didn't tip his hand about who will pair up with Arrieta next start, but the Cubs don't have to make that decision right now. 

However, with a veteran catcher like Montero around who knows how to call a game and has been heralded as one of the best pitch-framers in baseball during his prime, it'd be hard to leave him off the postseason roster.

In October, the Cubs will place a premium on guys who have been there before and can work in rhythm with a veteran-laden pitching staff and in those areas, Montero has a leg up on rookie Contreras.

Montero handled his reduction in playing time gracefully when Contreras was promoted to the big leagues over the summer, but now, the 33-year-old looks to be reemerging for the Cubs as the "big boy" games loom.

"I don't know if I'm gonna catch [Arrieta] again, but I hope he keeps that momentum going, which I think is a good confidence-builder right there," Montero said. "... My main goal [Friday] was just Jake and just to get him out there and get him to throw a good game and build his confidence again.

"I went 0-for-3, but I don't care. I accomplished my goal - which was to get him to throw a good game and he did."