Leading off, Castro only scratching the surface

434330.jpg

Leading off, Castro only scratching the surface

Sunday, April 3, 2011Posted: 3:00 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

Starlin Castro glided to his left and leaned down to grab the bouncing ball. The shortstop spun and had one foot planted on the edge of the outfield, his momentum carrying him past second base.

Castro had trouble gripping the ball in the 41-degree cool of Wrigley Field. But he saw first base and made an accurate throw. Carlos Pena swiped it out of the air after one hop, just before the runner stepped on the bag.

The Cubs still have to account for more than 4,000 outs this season. But the first play on Opening Day a chopper up the middle reinforced everything the Cubs think about their 21-year-old shortstop.

For Castro, there will be many ups and downs across these 162 games. Sundays 5-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates was a microcosm, filled with moments that can be electrifying and easy to second-guess.

Initially, Mike Quade didnt want to overload Castro with leadoff responsibilities. It took two games before the manager changed his mind. From the top of Sundays lineup, Castro went 3-for-4 with two triples. He crushed one 400 feet off the top of the brick wall in center, and smashed the other up the third-base line.

Anywhere you put him, he looks good, Alfonso Soriano said, because hes got so much talent.

That makes it hard to rip Castro for the split-second decision he made with one out in Sundays ninth inning. The Cubs were clinging to a one-run lead and the Pirates had runners on second and third when Castro charged a soft groundball hit by Pedro Alvarez.

Castro didnt go home and he didnt hang onto it. His throw to first pulled Pena off the bag, allowing two runs to score. Quade reserved judgment on that play, saying that hed have to take another look.

The manager also admitted that he doesnt see leadoff as a regular thing for Castro, who will likely hit second on Monday. But its a clear sign of how much the shortstop has grown.

He acts like hes been here for years and I mean that in a good way, Pena said. Im talking about the way he goes about his at-bat, (how) he is so calm, regardless of the situation. (He) takes his pitches and when he gets a good (one) he takes an aggressive swing with an incredible confidence.

Yet Im also impressed with the fact that he doesnt seem to know how good he is. (I) like that humility in him, (how) hes working out there every day. Hes here early. He respects everyone (and) he respects the game, (yet) we all know the potential this kid has.

The Cubs are trying to find the balance in Castros rookie season a .300 average weighed against 27 errors. They want him to slow the game down, to know how fast the runner is and realize how much time he has on each play.

Quade benched Castro for a few games last September. The manager also met with the shortstop about his practice habits in early March. Castro hasnt tuned out his coaches, or backed down from the challenge.

Once again, were talking about a 21-year-old kid, Quade said. I cant lose sight of that fact. Instead of me getting irritated all the time, I probably ought to recognize that hes still a very young player.

Castros birth certificate shouldnt be an excuse for mental lapses, but it is good for an occasional reminder. While his game matures, his English has improved to the point where hes doing some interviews without an interpreter at his side.

You also noticed Castro sitting in a laundry cart on Sunday morning in the clubhouse, chatting with Soriano and Marcos Mateo. He didnt exactly feel out of place last year, but now he knows he belongs.

I feel really comfortable because they look at me as a player, not a rookie, Castro said. (I get) a little more respect.

The Cubs are stuck with players getting paid for past performance and not necessarily future results. That doesnt make them unique. Thats how compensation works in professional sports.

But for the Cubs to contend, they will need players to exceed expectations. A huge year from Castro could change their offensive profile. Maybe this is foreshadowing he went 8-for-13 (.615) and scored four runs in the opening series.

You can wonder whether Castro will hit first or second, but thats probably missing the point. He has the potential to be a No. 3 hitter, an anchor in the lineup, almost everything out of the marketing departments dreams.

The skys the limit, Pena said. We may be seeing one of the best up-and-coming shortstops in the game. Im just happy to have a good seat to watch him play.

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

Brett Anderson’s personality mixing well with Cubs: ‘I don’t hate anybody yet’

Brett Anderson’s personality mixing well with Cubs: ‘I don’t hate anybody yet’

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Joe Maddon's T-shirt slogans can get a little old at times, but the Cubs manager found a new audience in Brett Anderson, who liked the idea of "Be Uncomfortable" after signing a one-year, prove-it deal with the defending champs.

"It's been awesome so far," Anderson said. "That's my running joke – we're a month into it now or whatever it is – and I don't hate anybody yet.

"That's a testament to the group as a whole – and maybe me evolving as a person."

Yes, Anderson's sarcasm, social-media presence and groundball style fits in with a team built around short-term pitching and Gold Glove defense. The if-healthy lefty finished his Cactus League tour on Saturday afternoon by throwing four innings (one unearned run) during a 7-4 loss to the Colorado Rockies in front of 13,565 at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.

Anderson will open the season as the No. 4 starter after a camp that has been remarkably low-key and drama-free.

"I'm kind of cynical by nature, but it's a fun group to be a part of," Anderson said, "(with) young guys that are exciting and happy to be here. And then obviously the mix of veterans, too, that are here with intentions of winning another World Series."

To make that happen, the pitching staff will have to again stay unbelievably healthy. Anderson rolled with a general question about how he physically feels now compared to where he's usually at by this time of year.

"Obviously better than last year, because I was walking with a gimp and all that stuff," said Anderson, who underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair a bulging disk in his lower back last March. "No, my body feels good, my arm feels good and you're getting into the dog days of spring training where you're itching to get to the real thing."

Joe Maddon breaks down the Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella decision for Cubs

Joe Maddon breaks down the Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella decision for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella appears to be the final decision as the Cubs shape their Opening Night roster.

That's assuming good health – manager Joe Maddon sounded unconcerned about Ben Zobrist (stiff neck), Addison Russell (stiff back) and Albert Almora Jr. (stiff neck) – and the Cubs carrying an eight-man bullpen.

Maddon appeared to eliminate one variable, confirming that La Stella has signaled a willingness to go to Triple-A Iowa if necessary, which would normally be an obvious statement, except for last summer's "Where's Tommy?" episode.

"I haven't even thought about it," Maddon said during Saturday's media session at the Sloan Park complex. "It's not an issue. I thought we handled it pretty openly last year and there's been no blowback whatsoever from the players."

Beyond this – La Stella initially refused to report to the minors last July, moved back home to New Jersey and talked briefly about retirement – an American League scout and a National League scout tracking the Cubs in Arizona both agreed that Szczur looks like the superior player.

Plus Szczur – and not La Stella – is out of minor-league options now.

"When you get this kind of a talent, depth-wise, it's a wonderful problem to have," Maddon said. "And then, of course, the rules start creeping in. The rules in this situation would benefit Matt, which is a good thing, because he's a big-league guy that's been riding the shuttle. He's done it in a very stoic manner, and he's been great for us."

La Stella has allies in the clubhouse – Jake Arrieta got a Coastal Carolina tattoo on his right butt cheek after losing a College World Series bet – and goes about his routine in a quiet, diligent manner.

La Stella is not a distraction at all and can hit left-handed and play the infield – two attributes that Szczur can't bring to Maddon's bench.

"Matt Szczur, to me, is a Major League Baseball player," Maddon said. "You're seeing what Tommy can do from the left side of the plate right now. And then it's just a matter of balancing things out. We've already mentioned that some guys on the infield can play the outfield within this group, thus it presents differently regarding what you need."

[MORE CUBS: Javier Baez won’t change his style around Cubs after World Baseball Classic: ‘We’re not showing anybody up’]

Szczur is hitting .361 with a .994 OPS through 14 Cactus League games and can play all over the outfield. But that skill is diminished when the Cubs already have four established outfielders plus Zobrist and Kris Bryant able to shift from the infield.

Then again, defensive wizard Javier Baez should have the Cubs covered all across the infield in case of an emergency. With the defending World Series champs a week out from facing the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, we're about to find out if Maddon made his recommendation or had a possible trade scenario or disabled-list situation in mind.

"I love Matt Szczur," Maddon said. "This guy as a teammate – you're not going to get a better one. Nobody's going to get a better one on any team for any reason.

"We haven't decided everything or anything yet. Stuff happens in a very short period of time. He is a major-league baseball player. So we'll just wait a couple more days, see how it plays out. But he's a benefit to any group that has him."