By Sahadev Sharma
The expectations for the Chicago Cubs this season weren’t high. Fighting for a .500 record was seen as an optimistic goal and only the most idealistic bleacher bum expected more.
What was counted upon was progress. Progress from Anthony Rizzo. Progress from Jeff Samardzija. And, perhaps most importantly, progress from the Cubs young shortstop, Starlin Castro.
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The Cubs obviously believe Castro is a big part of their future, as evidenced by the seven-year, $60-million contract extension they gave him last August. Unfortunately for them, a little over two months into the 2013 season, it appears that Castro has taken a step back in his development. At the moment, Castro is mired in the worst slump of his career. In his last 78 plate appearances, Castro has delivered a slash line of .153/.218/.194 and at times looks lost at the plate.
On Tuesday, manager Dale Sveum moved Castro out of his traditional two-spot in the lineup all the way down to the seven-hole. Sveum said he’s getting to the point where a day off for Castro may be necessary.
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“These are things that happen over the course of careers,” Sveum said. “The adversity that people go through, how do you deal with the adversity in these times of slumps when you’ve never had to do it before.”
Castro combined to hit .304 in 2010 and 2011, his first two seasons in the big leagues, and led the league with 204 hits in 2011. However, the Cubs believed there was some untapped potential in Castro’s offense. With a low walk rate (5.7 percent and 4.9 percent in his first two seasons, respectively) to go along with limited power, the Cubs attempted to slightly alter Castro’s approach at the plate midway through the 2012 season.
With new hitting coach James Rowson aboard, Castro started to walk more in the second half of 2012 and ended the season with 14 home runs, one more than he hit in the previous two seasons combined. Unfortunately, his batting average dropped to a career low .283, but it was seen as merely a speed bump along the way to becoming a more complete offensive force.
Sveum believes that Castro is listening to the advice that he, Rowson and the rest of the staff are providing, but sometimes it’s just a little difficult to apply the knowledge.
Sveum added that he’s not sure if there are any mental issues that Castro is dealing with, but he was adamant that there are some mechanical tweaks that could bring Castro back to the success he encountered in his first couple seasons in the big leagues.
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“It’s an everyday battle right now,” Sveum said. “Whether it’s his mechanics are bad or it’s in the head. I’d like to see him back to where he was back in 2010 and 2011 when there was a lot less movement going on. He thinks they’re the same mechanics, but they’re not the same mechanics from when he came up to the big leagues or even 2011. It might look the same, but there’s way more movement when the pitch is being delivered.”
Sveum emphasized that there is a lot to like about Castro’s mechanics, saying that if he can eliminate the excessive movement, his hand-eye coordination allows him to hit any pitch. Sveum focused in on Castro’s leg kick, more open stance and movement with his hands as things that have changed mechanically for Castro since he first entered the league. Sveum said slight mechanical changes are often something that happens with players throughout their careers. They slowly develop bad habits, over time they get more pronounced and it may take a while before the player even realizes it’s happened and eventually adjusts.
“He hasn’t lost bat speed, that’s one thing he hasn’t lost,” Sveum said. “It’s just timing. When there’s so much going on and the ball’s delivered sixty feet six inches away, once it leaves (the pitcher’s) hands, within a hundredth of a second, it’s half way there. If you have movement going on as that ball’s half way there, the ball’s going to get deeper than you really think. Everything is OK in your mind, but there’s a timing mechanism that’s not working.”
The fact that Castro’s issues appear to be fixable has to be good news for the Cubs. If he can come out of this funk with an improved approach and some added power, it will all be worth it. However, as the games go by and Castro continues to search for that comfort at the plate, the questions about his future success only mount.
The Cubs drafted left-handed hitting outfielder Jacob Hannemann from Brigham Young University in the third round of the draft on Friday. Hannemanm is a 22-year-old freshman, having spent the past two years away from the game while on a Mormon mission. The two-sport athlete –- Hannemann also plays football at BYU –- had Sveum excited.
“Sounds like one of those football mentality guys that comes to kick your butt every day,” Sveum said. “Has the whole package, can drive a ball, can obviously catch it and run it down. The comparisons have been made to (Jacoby) Ellsbury and (Grady) Sizemore. A guy that’s just come back from the mission and as his season went just got better and better. Just guys, nice bats and position players and athletes -– tough athletes -– you like to have in the organization.”
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Hannemann put up a .344/.415/.553 line with 16 doubles, seven triples and five home runs in his first season with the Cougars.
The Cubs announced that reliever Kyuji Fujikawa would see Dr. James Andrews on Monday and is expected to undergo Tommy John surgery on Tuesday.