Once the Cubs deal Matt Garza, the spotlight will shift onto Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro during the final two-plus months of the season.
The Texas Rangers, who have been viewed as a frontrunner in the Garza sweepstakes, don’t like the asking price and are in the advanced stages of a Plan B, a major-league source said Thursday night. Still, the Cubs are going to find a highly motivated buyer and use the best pitcher on the trade market to restock their system.
Cubs fans and the Chicago media have obsessed about Class-A Kane County, international cap space and the Garza return (probably three prospects you’ve never heard of before). The Ricketts ownership group and Theo Epstein’s front office have pushed this narrative.
But watching two young core players struggle at the big-league level reinforces the idea that the organization can’t just flip a switch. It will be like this for Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant, whenever the Cubs (42-51) think they will be ready to win.
Rizzo planned to spend the All-Star break at home in South Florida, hanging out by the pool and spending time with his family before diving into the 69 games left this season. While the front office weighs final offers for Garza, the grind restarts Friday in the mile-high altitude of Coors Field against the Colorado Rockies.
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“(The first half) could have gone a lot different, but I think a lot of guys are progressing and have kind of taken strides in the right way,” Rizzo said. “Guys have struggled a little bit, but they have learned a lot from it, in my opinion.”
Rizzo speaks from experience. A season that began with manager Dale Sveum penciling Rizzo in for 30 home runs and 100 RBI could still end in that range. But eight of his 13 homers were launched in April, and his 54 RBI have come while hitting only .183 with runners in scoring position.
“Anthony can be a little bit of a tinkerer,” Epstein said. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because most great hitters are obsessed with hitting and work on it every day. Anthony’s like that. He’s still getting to know himself and the player he’s going to be.”
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Rizzo, who continues to be a plus defender and steady clubhouse guy, wrote off his streaks as “the ups and downs of this game.”
Nothing summed that idea up better than Rizzo signing a seven-year, $41 million contract – which could potentially be worth some $70 million running through 2021 – in the middle of May, or three weeks after Sveum refused to rule out the possibility his franchise first baseman and All-Star shortstop could be demoted to Triple-A Iowa.
“Hopefully, as I continue to progress,” Rizzo said, “it just (becomes) a straight line and not as high, not as low.”
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Castro knows all about the hype, as well as the backlash, after not making a third consecutive trip to the All-Star Game. His .632 OPS ranks 13th out of the 19 qualified shortstops in the big leagues, and it’s taken a surge to push his batting average back up to .243.
“He’s a kid who basically breezed through the minor leagues,” Epstein said. “He never really struggled, never faced a lot of adversity on the baseball field before. That’s pretty rare that you can get to 23 and not have had to make adjustments and overcome adversity.
“So it’s probably not a surprise that his first slump is a deep and extended slump. He’s never had to make that kind of adjustment before, to look in the mirror and say: ‘I probably have to address a few things.’”
Castro’s consecutive games streak (269) ended on June 25. Since that day off, he’s hitting .303 (23-for-76) with zero errors in 18 games, again showing why the franchise made a $60 million investment last summer.
“He’ll come out of this a much better player for it,” Epstein said. “You can’t just expect to roll out of bed and hit .300 your whole career. There’s going to be times where you go through real struggles. Having the confidence that you know how to face up to those struggles, adjust, fix what’s wrong and then go forward is important. And now he’ll have that.”
Everything still revolves around pitching, and the Cubs will have Jeff Samardzija (5-9, 4.06 ERA), Carlos Villanueva (2-5, 3.59 ERA) and Edwin Jackson (6-10, 5.11 ERA) starting this weekend at Coors Field, in what could be the first looks at a post-Garza rotation.
But the biggest lift the Cubs could get around the trade deadline would be Rizzo and Castro playing above expectations and looking like they should be here for the next decade.
“There are still some guys, including myself, who can play better," Samardzija said. “That’s the exciting thing about it, with Castro coming around, Rizzo starting to swing the bat real well. Edwin’s throwing the heck out of the ball and I can get better, too. There are spots we can improve, which is pretty cool and pretty exciting.
“There’s definitely a lot of resiliency in this clubhouse. We stay together as a team. Guys come, guys go, and we integrate them real well and make sure the 25 guys in here are taking care of each other.”