Cubs

Are Cubs trying to phase out Starlin Castro as everyday shortstop?

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Are Cubs trying to phase out Starlin Castro as everyday shortstop?

PITTSBURGH — Are the Cubs discussing scenarios where Starlin Castro isn’t the everyday shortstop anymore?

Manager Joe Maddon wouldn’t answer that question directly, filibustering during his media session before Wednesday’s 7-5 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.

But that might as well be a “yes” when the Cubs have Addison Russell playing to Castro’s left, Javier Baez tearing it up at Triple-A Iowa and dominoes that will start falling once Miguel Montero becomes part of a three-catcher rotation again.

Maddon pointed to Castro’s two RBI doubles in Tuesday’s 5-0 win over the Pirates, looking for any signs of a hot streak from an All-Star talent with a .578 OPS that ranked 156th out of the 159 big-league players qualified for batting titles.

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“I like what he’s doing,” Maddon said. “That game last night illustrates what he can look like on a nightly basis. Again, we talk about a lot of different things, but that’s the kind of game I believe he’s capable of on a real consistent basis.

“I know I have not been around here long enough and people get frustrated. But I see a 25-year-old shortstop with a lot of ability.”

Phasing out Castro doesn’t have to be anything as dramatic as the trades Theo Epstein’s front office explored leading up to the July 31 deadline. (What used to be seen as a team-friendly contract — which guarantees Castro four years and $38 million after this season — has become problematic.)

Maddon keeps talking about how he wants to maximize matchups, gains edges anywhere he can and keep players fresh throughout the marathon season.

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“Just come in here every day to try to show them something,” Castro said. “I have talent, and I’ve done it before. Just keep positive and keep fighting.”

The Cubs want Kyle Schwarber’s bat in the lineup and have essentially ruled out the idea of the rookie catching Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta. Assuming his sprained left thumb feels good enough, Montero could be cleared to play this weekend at Wrigley Field against the San Francisco Giants, the defending World Series champions.

If Schwarber takes over in left field, that means Chris Coghlan can give Kris Bryant a break from third base — particularly if a flyball pitcher is on the mound — or free up Russell to move from second base to shortstop.

Again, so much of this depends on the opponent and what the numbers say. These variables should impact Jorge Soler, who isn’t hitting for power now and doesn’t look all that smooth in right field. The Cubs will also get a chance to use a designated hitter against the White Sox on the South Side (Aug. 14-16).

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Maddon doesn’t want anyone caught off-guard — or finding out through the media — and will keep running through the options with Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer.

“We’ll sit down and figure it out,” Maddon said. “We’ve already had like back-and-forth suggestions. That will be the final discussion when we get back home. They know what I’m thinking. I don’t really necessarily know what they’re thinking.”

This isn’t personal with Castro, who enjoys playing for Maddon and insists he can turn his entire season around with one great month. It’s just that the Cubs have something to play for now and can’t write everything off as building for the future.

“Everybody’s going to look at his batting average (.238), and I understand that,” Maddon said. “But he’s almost close to 50 RBIs (46) right now, and he’s gotten some really big hits for us.

“The thing I’m most impressed with is I didn’t know he was this good on defense. He’s made some real elementary mistakes, absolutely. But he’s made some really good plays, too. I still look at his birth certificate.

“Everybody talks about his hitting. (But) he’s capable of a lot out there. We just got to pull it out of him.”

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”