Cubs

Cubs facing another big decision with Starlin Castro this offseason

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Cubs facing another big decision with Starlin Castro this offseason

The Cubs can’t come out and say: We have no idea what we’ll get out of Starlin Castro from one year to the next.

That reality obviously makes Castro a difficult player to build around (or trade this offseason). But the Cubs genuinely admired the way a three-time All-Star shortstop handled losing his job and respected how he made adjustments in the batter’s box and reinvented himself as a second baseman.

Nine years ago this week, the Cubs signed a teenager out of the Dominican Republic who would put up almost 1,000 hits before his 26th birthday. Castro learned English quickly and kept working on the language, which helped him rocket through the farm system, never spending a full season on the Double-A level and playing zero Triple-A games.

After being the lightning rod for five straight fifth-place teams, Castro caught the final out of a wild-card win over the Pittsburgh Pirates and helped the Cubs eliminate the St. Louis Cardinals in the first playoff series ever against their hated rivals.

Theo Epstein says he would be fine with keeping this group of position players intact, but the president of baseball operations also knows the Cubs might have to trade hitters for a frontline pitcher.

Castro is guaranteed $37 million across the next four years — which complicates any potential deal — but that doesn’t look like a sunk cost after his second-half surge.

[MORE CUBS: Will Cubs double down with another Jon Lester-level megadeal?]

With all this uncertainty surrounding Castro’s future, did he show something to the front office?

“For sure,” Castro said. “I really can play second base, too. I like it (there). Whatever happens, happens. Like I said, I don’t handle that decision. Whatever they do, do it.”

The Cubs shopped Castro but couldn’t drum up much interest by the July 31 trade deadline, when he had been batting .237 with a .575 OPS that made him one of the least productive hitters in the majors.

One week later, the Cubs would bench Castro and install Addison Russell as their everyday shortstop.

“I really honestly didn’t know how he would react to the whole thing,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I’d be lying if I said I did. But I can tell you this: When we sat him down, I was very direct and honest with him. There was nothing gray about it. He was not going to play shortstop, except for maybe game-in-progress.

“In that meeting, he looked at me straight up and he did not whimper, cry, complain, make any excuse or say I was wrong. He never said any of that. He just nodded his head and went to work.”

[MORE CUBS: Addison Russell made his presence felt during rookie year with Cubs]

A player criticized for his lack of concentration focused on learning how to play second base, where his natural sidearm motion translated. Castro made mechanical adjustments and evolved as a hitter, moving closer to home plate, closing his stance and directing all that momentum back toward the pitcher instead of leaning over to hit groundball after groundball.

Maddon played Castro in favorable matchups and watched him hit .296 in August. Castro exploded in September, putting up a 1.202 OPS and becoming a key piece to a 97-win team, the fans at Wrigley Field clapping along to his catchy walk-up music: Omega’s “Ando En La Versace.”

“I think you see — by how he dealt with so much adversity this season — how much he loves being part of this organization,” Epstein said. “And how much he embraced the move to second base and how hard he worked to bounce back from this low point in his career to become such an important contributor down the stretch.

“So of all the players that we need to be proud of this year — and there are many — he might be the one most deserving of that pride because of everything that he went through (and) how easy it would have been for him to quit or to put his own interests in front of the interests of the team.

“He really rose above that on a personal level — and on a professional level — and set a wonderful tone that I know his teammates and his front office really appreciated. So kudos to him for, in total, a great year, while not his best year statistically.

“He finished incredibly strong. We expect great things from him for years to come.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right now]

Temperamentally, Castro seems more suited to being a supporting actor rather than a leading man (though that description probably fits for most players). Castro and All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo clearly benefited from not being the focus every day and getting help up and down the lineup.

“It’s hard,” Castro said. “It’s not every day you’re going to have a good game, you know what I mean? Especially with the team that we got right now, if you don’t hit it well that day, you got like eight guys that can do that job for you. I think it’s pretty awesome.”

Castro finished with a .265 average, 11 homers, 69 RBIs, a .671 OPS — and maybe a new image. What’s unclear is whether that means he stays or goes.

“The assumption is that he’d been here for such a long period of time that there was nothing left to learn, and that’s like so crazy to think that way,” Maddon said. “He’s not done getting better. He’s going to keep getting better because now he gets it. He absolutely gets it. He understands what it takes to be on a winning ballclub.”

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

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USA TODAY

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.

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”