Cubs

Bursting with confidence, Starlin Castro strikes back in Cubs-Cardinals rivalry

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Bursting with confidence, Starlin Castro strikes back in Cubs-Cardinals rivalry

Starlin Castro waited so long to see Wrigley Field rocking like this, growing up inside the fishbowl and hoping to be on a Cubs team that finally played meaningful games.

So Castro admired this one on Monday night, watching Michael Wacha’s curveball disappear into the bleacher seats in left-center field, hearing the roar of 42,411 fans and helping shove the St. Louis Cardinals toward the brink of elimination with that fourth-inning home run.

Castro stood at his locker after the Cubs grabbed control of this best-of-five National League division series with an 8-6 win in Game 3. A reporter asked if he felt like a “forgotten man,” no longer the franchise shortstop and surrounded by all these hotshot rookies.

“Nah, nah, I don’t think so,” Castro said. “I don’t think they forgot about me. I’ve been here for a lot of times – bad times – and now we found a way. How to be a good team.”

[RELATED: Cubs out-slug Cardinals to take commanding control of NLDS]

The Cubs are a better team with Addison Russell playing shortstop and Castro showing some swagger again. These last two months have compressed the ups and downs throughout Castro’s career into an all-out sprint into the playoffs: A three-time All-Star loses his job, gets benched, becomes a part-time second baseman, gets hot and puts up a 1.202 OPS in September.

“Keep the head up,” Castro said. “Try to do things for the team.”

The Cubs didn’t get much interest when they shopped Castro before the July 31 trade deadline. His sixth season in the big leagues – and association with five fifth-place teams – negated his age-25 potential. He had been among the least-productive hitters in the majors – hitting .237 with a .574 OPS – and is still guaranteed four years and $38 million after this season.

Joe Maddon – Castro’s fifth manager since getting promoted from Double-A Tennessee in May 2010 – pushed for Russell at shortstop but also didn’t want to bury a guy closing in on 1,000 hits.

“I give Joe a ton of credit,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “All along, even when (Starlin) was struggling, (Joe was saying): ‘This guy’s been awesome. His work is great. He’s great in the clubhouse. He’s great in the dugout.’ Behind closed doors, he didn’t have to always say that.

“And the work was good. That was always (Joe’s) big thing. Even when he was struggling, (Starlin) was always taking extra hitting, he was always working on stuff. A lot of guys would have cashed in the season.”

[MORE CUBS: Jake Arrieta is human against Cardinals, but Cubs are that good]

Castro cleared his head and made a few mechanical adjustments, moving closer to home plate, closing and squaring up his stance and directing all that momentum back toward the pitcher instead of reaching out to hit groundball after groundball.

Maddon played the matchups and tried to be honest with Castro, who hit .353 with 12 doubles, six homers and 23 RBI in his final 47 games after the switch from shortstop.

“The confidence is back,” hitting coach John Mallee. “Remember, he’s one of the best hitters in the game over the last five years. (But) as a human being, he felt so bad because he thought he might be letting the team down. And he tried so hard.

“He wasn’t afraid to make the adjustments he needed to make. Sometimes it’s hard for guys when they’ve had success."

After being on the wrong side of the rivalry for so long, Castro would love to see the Cubs eliminate the Cardinals on Tuesday at Wrigley Field and pop more champagne bottles.

“From the time I started my career here, every time we play St. Louis, they beat us,” Castro said. “(This is a) really good moment. We have a good team like they (do).” 

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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KELLY CRULL

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.