Castro adapting as Cubs wait on next wave of prospects

Castro adapting as Cubs wait on next wave of prospects

July 12, 2013, 8:00 pm
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Tony Andracki

As Starlin Castro trotted around the bases in the eighth inning Friday, the Cubs caught a glimpse into their future.

2013 first-round pick Kris Bryant was watching in a suite somewhere as Castro homered and showed signs of putting his month-long slump behind him.

Bryant's record-setting deal with the Cubs added another elite prospect to "The Core" and he got to witness firsthand what a Cubs-Cardinals battle is like in front of 37,322 screaming fans at Wrigley Field.

Castro collected two more hits and is now 5-for-7 in the St. Louis series as he adapts to the first major slump of his career.

"[This game is] very tough," Castro said after the Cubs' 3-2 loss to the Cardinals. "Sometimes, you try a bit too hard. Just let your talent do its job and keep working. It's tough and you get frustrated sometimes because you're working hard and the things that are supposed to happen don't happen.

"But I'm keeping my head up...Right now, I feel like if I get out of this, I can get stronger and the next time a slump comes, it's going to be shorter."

Castro collected just 18 hits in June, putting up a .167 batting average across 108 at-bats and 26 games. After Friday's performance, he's hitting .302 with a .362 on-base percentage in 11 July games.

As Castro and Anthony Rizzo (6-for-15, two doubles, a homer and five RBI his last four games) continue to make adjustments, the Cubs sat and watched as Cardinals homegrown product Matt Carpenter delivered a clutch two-out RBI double in the seventh that helped St. Louis improve its league-leading record.

[MORE: Bryant brimming with confidence as Cubs introduce No. 2 pick]

The Cubs will have to wait for the next wave of talent, and can only hope Bryant will jump right in and keep on hitting.

"It's nice to know that we've had a year gone by and we have a lot of guys that have gotten close," manager Dale Sveum said. "A kid like [Bryant] -- the best hitter in college baseball -- is just another piece to the puzzle."

Bryant joins a pool of prospects that includes Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora, three players that were recently included among the Top 20 prospects in the game, according to Baseball America.

"I feel really good about [where we're at]," team president Theo Epstein said. "It's obvious what direction we're going and how important a robust farm system is for us. 

"It's one thing to talk about it. It's another to start to feel like you're making some headway. I like the people we have in player development. I like a lot of the talent we have. Hopefully one thing that will separate us as a farm system are the numerous potential impact guys that we have.

"We've had some depth for a while. Now, there are a handful of guys that we can look at and think 'if we do a nice job of helping their ceiling, they can be potential impact guys in the big leagues.' You need those guys to get where you want to go. It's nice to look at the progress we've made, but we've got an awful long way to go still."

The Cubs are in the midst of another summer selloff and though they've played better baseball of late, they are still on track to approach 90 losses, especially if some key players in the clubhouse are soon cleaning out their lockers.

As Bryant took batting practice at Wrigley Field and talked with the members of the Cubs organization -- from front office executives to players and coaches -- Sveum allowed himself to dream a little bit.

"You're getting into the category of five, six, seven guys that have tremendous bat speed and athletic ability and do a lot of good things with the baseball bats," Sveum said.

[RELATED: While Cubs eye deadline, Cards aren't built to be sellers]

"That time clock is always going off in your head when you have the ability -- the Baezs and the Solers and the Lakes and all these guys -- you're always looking and watching and thinking about when and the what if's and all that. There's no question you think about that."

With Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters injured and ineffective for much of the 2013 campaign, Junior Lake may be the only prospect Cubs fans will catch a glimpse of at the big-league level this season. 

Lake, a 23-year-old with raw tools, has played every infield position in his minor-league career and is now dabbling in the outfield, but has just 155 plate appearances at the Triple-A level, proving the next wave is still more than a year away.

"We have to stay true to our vision and if we start trying to take shortcuts and rush prospects through the system, you end up short-changing your development and you pay for it with struggles at the big-league level," Epstein said. "We wish we could speed this thing up a little bit. 

"There are a lot of good things happening at the big-league level, too, with the way that we're playing now that we've got our bullpen stabilized a little bit. Starting pitching has been consistent all year. It'd be nice to claw our way back to .500.

"But as far as the players in our farm system and when this wave is going to come and help out at the big-league level, that's something that has to happen organically. You can't rush it."

While much is made of the Cubs' positional prospects, the organization is still without a lot of impact arms, though Epstein thinks that has changed over the last year.

[THE FOUNDATION: Cougars provide fans a glimpse into the future]

"There's been some progress," Epstein said. "It's starting to come, but there's so much attrition with pitching that you have to focus not only on the quality, but on the quantity and we just keep needing to add arms."

Most of the Cubs' pitching prospects are at the lower levels of the system, with guys like Pierce Johnson residing in High-A Daytona.

Bryant will start in Arizona and then head to short-season Boise, but some think he can move quickly through the system as an advanced hitter who spent three years playing for a top program at the University of San Diego. It may not be long before he joins Almora in Low-A Kane County or Soler in Daytona (when he returns from a stress fracture in his leg) or Baez in Double-A Tennessee.

Who knows when -- or if -- Bryant will be hitting behind Castro or Rizzo at Wrigley Field, but that didn't stop the No. 2 pick from dreaming big.

"That is very exciting," Bryant said. "I haven't talked to [the other prospects], but I heard a lot about them. I heard about Baez's four-homer game. I haven't done that yet, but hopefully I can.

"All those guys are great players. I would love to get to know them and play alongside them. Hopefully we'll be up here one day, winning the World Series."