MESA, Ariz. — Classic Dale Sveum reaction when a reporter mentioned the Chicago media focused on Starlin Castro: “Really?”
Sveum did the chuckle that punctuated many of his sessions with reporters during his two seasons as Cubs manager. Now the Kansas City Royals third-base coach, Sveum doesn’t have to defend the All-Star shortstop or find the right amount of “tough love,” the buzzword team president Theo Epstein used after firing his handpicked manager.
Castro wound up being the center of attention at Cubs Park, leaving Sunday’s 5-3 loss to the Royals with what was called a “mild” right hamstring strain. Sveum’s not the type to have regrets or wonder what could have been — once this organization finally gets healthy.
“People are going to bring those names up,” Sveum said. “Your superstar players, or gonna-be superstar players, whatever you want to call ‘em, they’re going to be the focal point. That’s the way it is. And when they have an off year, it’s going to be magnified.”
Castro hit .245 last year, or 52 points below his career average heading into last season. He looked lost at the plate at a time when he should have been accelerating into his prime instead of stalling.
Sveum didn’t need to call Castro a “hit collector” after he led the National League with 207 in 2011. But Epstein’s front office is also responsible for the mixed messages that created questions about the organization’s development strategies, communication skills and management style.
Sveum said he’s exchanged text messages with Epstein and spoken on the phone with his old boss a little bit. The two might have dinner in Arizona before the end of spring training.
Sveum — who developed a solid reputation working with young core players as the Milwaukee Brewers hitting coach — wouldn’t be surprised if Castro bounces back with a big year.
“Who knows the reasons why?” Sveum said. “He was asked to take a lot of pitches and do all those kind of things. What if you had asked Vladimir Guerrero to walk and take pitches?
“If he’s just Starlin Castro and that’s all, is he going to get 200 hits all the time? Who knows that? But I think he’s a .280-to-.310 hitter. He’s just got that kind of hand-eye coordination.”
Sveum also got burned when he threatened to send Castro and Anthony Rizzo to Triple-A Iowa last April. But elite prospects Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Albert Almora will inevitably experience the same ups and downs if and when they make it to the big leagues.
“In this game, there’s only a select few people that have been consistent over a 15-, 18-year career,” Sveum said. “Otherwise, people have off years. They’re 30-home-run guys and they hit 18 and then it’s a big story: ‘Where did the power go?’ The next year he hits 32. That’s just the way the game is.”
The Cubs have quietly acknowledged they could have made Sveum’s staff more culturally diverse with additional Spanish-speaking coaches. While a clubhouse source felt the bilingual angle has been overplayed, it certainly helped new manager Rick Renteria get the job.
“All our Latin players spoke perfectly good English and understand,” Sveum said. “But I think it’s part of the game now. There’s no question that it doesn’t hurt.”
Helmet in hand, Sveum chatted with a few Cubs staffers before Sunday’s game. Oakley sunglasses rested on the top of his bald head. A stopwatch tied to his belt loop rested in his back pocket. He’s a coach now, but he left no doubt that he would like another chance to manage in the big leagues.
Sveum was supposed to be part of The Plan. He had even been asked for input on the designs for this new Mesa complex. If he gets another shot, he’s going to do it his way.
“People have asked me: ‘Would you do things differently?’” Sveum said. “No. If I could come up with something — I don’t have that big of an ego. Yeah, I mean, you learn from a lot of things. But there’s nothing I’d do differently. Communication was what it was — people knew what their jobs were and their roles were. I demanded you to play hard and prepare. We did do that.”