State of the Cubs: Looking ahead to Starlin Castro and Javier Baez

State of the Cubs: Looking ahead to Starlin Castro and Javier Baez
October 20, 2013, 9:00 pm
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Patrick Mooney and Tony Andracki

After Game 162, Starlin Castro stood by his locker inside Busch Stadium’s visiting clubhouse and listened to a question about the potential changes coming to the Cubs coaching staff.

“I don’t know, man, I don’t really (think) about that,” Castro said. “Let’s see what happens. I don’t have any (say over) those decisions. Those people know what they’re doing.”

That night in Chicago, team president Theo Epstein had beers with Dale Sveum and fired the manager, setting the stage for a press conference the next day. Inside the Wrigley Field interview room/dungeon, Epstein talked about how “there has to be love before there’s tough love.”

Three weeks later, the Cubs are still looking for their next manager while the St. Louis Cardinals are preparing for what should be an epic World Series against the Boston Red Sox. This search has focused on bilingual teachers who can connect with Latin players, bench coaches like Rick Renteria (San Diego Padres) and Dave Martinez (Tampa Bay Rays).

[KAPLAN: Cubs should go bold and hire Ausmus]

During the season’s final weekend at Busch Stadium, Epstein sounded annoyed when a reporter wondered how much the decision could come down to Castro. 

“It has nothing to do with one player,” Epstein said. “I’ve never said that. I would never say that. It doesn’t have anything to do with one player or one small group of players.”

But when the Cubs report to their new Arizona facility in February 2014, the spotlight will shine brightly on the new manager, a two-time All-Star shortstop and uber-prospect Javier Baez.

Throughout October, will take state-of-the-organization snapshots, rewinding the 2013 season and looking ahead to the future, trying to figure out what’s next for the Cubs.

Hit collector: That’s what Sveum dismissively called Castro, who led the National League with 207 hits in 2011, and the wires got crossed somewhere along the way. It didn’t help that a hamstring injury sidelined Castro in spring training, and a slow start didn’t generate much confidence in a new approach.

[STATE OF THE CUBS: Kris Bryant and the talent awaiting the next manager]

It sounded like there was a disconnect between Sveum (an old hitting coach), the staff’s two hitting coaches, Epstein’s front office and the franchise shortstop. Castro saw a career-high 3.85 pitches per plate appearance, but regressed in almost every offensive category. His .631 OPS ranked 15th out of the 17 qualified shortstops in the majors.

Mental game: Yes, Castro still had a few moments where he drifted. You would, too, if you played 161 games for a 66-96 team. But he cut the errors down to 22, committing only eight in his final 85 games, which translated to a .979 fielding percentage that ranked fourth among shortstops in the league. He’s coachable. He works hard. He cares. He should get better defensively.    

Baez Time: Does the kid have what it takes to play shortstop in the majors? Jason McLeod – the club’s senior vice president of scouting and player development – sees that kind of potential. 

Even after Baez committed 44 errors during his age-20 season. Even with the understanding he could be moved to second base or third base if that’s what the big-league club needs when he’s ready (perhaps as soon as summer 2014).

“There’s still some of the mental mistakes (where) you wouldn’t want to necessarily just put him right into the environment here,” McLeod said. “I do think Javy is a kid who steps up to the environment that he’s going to be in. Some (errors) might be lack of concentration. Some of them might be because he does get to balls that other guys don’t get to – he’s trying to make the great play and ends up throwing it away. 

“Do I think he can come up here and you’d want him to be the shortstop catching groundballs (at Wrigley Field right now)? I can’t sit here and (pound) the table today. (But) I think he will be that guy, (or) could be that guy, for sure.”

Puig-mania: As a dynamic young offensive force with some attitude, Baez drew surface-level comparisons to Los Angeles Dodgers lightning rod Yasiel Puig. 

Baez had a special season, generating 37 homers and 111 RBI in 130 games split between advanced Class-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee. He had a slow start with Tennessee, getting two hits in his first 23 at-bats. But he figured it out and exploded from July 12 on, hitting .318 with 19 homers and 53 RBI in 48 games.

“He’s making the pitcher earn the strikeout or the out," Tennessee manager Buddy Bailey told the Smokies Radio Network. “He’s been a lot more disciplined and his strike zone knowledge is getting a lot better. When you have the bat potential that he has and you’re getting better pitches to hit, the numbers are going to go up.

“His potential is there. (But) what it comes down to is so many players are labeled prospects, or they’re really gifted or they’re always the best one. When they meet their match, they realize they have to make adjustments, too, to stay among the best.”

Come and get it: That’s what Ryan Theriot said in spring training 2010, responding to the hype. By early May, the Cubs installed a new starting shortstop. In 2014, Castro will be on his fourth manager in five seasons, hoping the experience will only make him that much stronger.

“I feel like way, way better. I think the old me will come back again,” Castro said. “I will put everything together. It’s going to be a good year next year.”